By Daryl Bär
Using extensive footage from his 1975 interviews with the exiled Benjamin Murmelstein, documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann etches the life and moral dilemmas of a man who endured extraordinary circumstances as the last President of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto. The only surviving elder not to have been killed during the war and with responsibilities that led him to a morally complex working relationship of negotiation with Nazi Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, Murmelstein talks candidly about his conflicted role, keeping Eichmann’s “model ghetto” operational in order to ensure the survival of its residents.
One can appreciate the linguistic minefield traversed by Lanzmann as he interviewed Benjamin Murmelstein thirty years ago, the events recounted having taken place thirty years prior to their discussions in Rome during 1975. There are a great many analogies and mythological references countered by Murmelstein that could be perceived as evasive. It is through his carefully chosen responses that a version of the man and his actions can be surmised, then opinions reached are given magnification through the contemporary sections of film where Lanzmann journeys to Theresienstadt and beyond, recounting the horrors of the final solution through first hand testimonies and artistry.
Marrying the very distinct sections of this mammoth 210-minute documentary isn’t perhaps handled with the restraint one would hope for. There are portions of each segment that could have in fact been trimmed without compromising the tone, resonance or quality on screen. That is not to say The Last of the Unjust loses impact or relevance, more that several protracted scenes could have been shortened with no adverse result. Whatever one’s own opinion or reasoning regarding Benjamin Murmelstein and his place in 20th Century history, Lanzmann’s documentary gives an exhaustive and unbiased account of the man and his actions. A fascinating and truly informative documentary that works remarkably well as a companion piece to Lanzmann’s 1985 masterpiece Shoah.
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