In 1985 French director Clauda Lanzmann released Shoah, an epic 570 minute documentary about the Holocaust. Considered to be the definitive film about one of the lowest moments in human history, Shoah has been critically lauded as a staggering cinematic achievement. Lanzmann’s primary uses interviews and visits Holocaust sites across Poland, presenting testimonies from survivors, witnesses and the German perpetrators themselves. Shoah was an indictment of Poland’s complicity in the Holocaust. Lanzmann returns to the familiar territory of complicity with his new documentary The Last of the Unjust.
Whilst compiling his interviews for Shoah, one upset him so much that he decided not to include it. During World War II, the Nazis required the presence of a Jewish Council in all their European “ghettos”. They were nominally responsible for the running of these ghettos, but in actuality were more token figureheads. In the Theresienstadt concentration camp was a ‘model’ ghetto designed by Adolf Eichmann as a propaganda tool to deceive the world. Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein was chairman of the Judenrat from autumn 1944. It was his examination in 1975 which Lanzmann omitted from Shoah. In The Last of the Unjust he revisits this discourse whilst also travelling to the locations integral to Murmelstein’s story.
The central question of The Last of the Unjust is this: Should Murmelstein be considered a Nazi collaborator with blood on his hands, or as a distinctly pragmatic person who did what he could to survive under dreadful repression? Murmelstein, who previously worked closely with Adolph Eichmann as a representative of the Jewish community in Vienna, is a persuasive and intelligent subject. Hindsight is a wonderful thin, and the Rabbi makes a persuasive argument to justify his actions. Whilst he clearly helped many, his tale is full of moral grey areas. The beauty of The Last of the Unjust is that it’s up to the viewer to make their own judgements, whilst Lanzmann never lets his prey off the hook.
The Last of the Unjust is out in cinemas on Friday.