Lanzmann Loses His Distance

‘Shoah’ director’s latest, ‘Last of the Unjust,’ is an ethical lapse, says a longtime champion of his work.

02/18/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
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To understand how difficult it is to write this column, you have to consider my history with Claude Lanzmann. Of course, I have seen every one of his films. I have watched “Shoah” — nearly 10 hours long — five times. I have interviewed Lanzmann face to face on four separate occasions. That may not sound like a lot but it’s the longest episodic “relationship” I’ve had with a foreign filmmaker. And I have written about his work enthusiastically more times than I can count, at least a dozen times in 20 years for Jewish Week and that many again elsewhere.

There are other filmmakers whose work has motivated me similarly but, given the intensity of his subject matter, the acerbic tone of his personal discourse and the generally hard-earned moral authority he brings to his work, one cannot feel anything like critical objectivity approaching Lanzmann.

Consequently, when his latest film, “The Last of the Unjust,” which is playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, played the New York Film Festival, I reviewed it in these pages with some trepidation. My problems with the film, as will become apparent momentarily, were not aesthetic but ethical. As a result, I was perhaps slightly more guarded than usual in my response. Since that review appeared, I have noted that several colleagues, not coincidentally also fellow Jews, have expressed their dismay at “The Last of the Unjust” more forcefully.

Although Lanzmann has probably dedicated more on-screen time to the murder of European Jewry by the Nazis than any other filmmaker of note, even he couldn’t hope to cover the horrifically vast scope of these events. And one suspects that, even at 87, the journalist and filmmaker regrets his many necessary omissions. That would, in part, explain the extensive length of the 220-minute “Last of the Unjust,” which focuses on Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein and the Terezin ghetto. As Lanzmann says at the outset, the situation of Terezin was unique, and worth a film of its own, particularly given the availability of Rabbi Murmelstein for an extended interview in the 1970s. The rabbi was the last surviving “Elder of the Jews,” the third and final bearer of that title in Terezin, and a figure of some considerable controversy after it was alleged that he had collaborated with his captors.

Given the entirely one-sided nature of the power relationship between the Nazis and the Jewish councils they installed as their apparent puppets, such accusations were inevitable but difficult to prove. Indeed, given the circumstances they faced, the “elders” never really had any remotely positive alternatives, perhaps other than suicide, for dealing with an enemy whose only real intentions were the humiliation and annihilation of their Jewish captives. Unsurprisingly, Rabbi Murmelstein was finally acquitted of all charges after 18 months of imprisonment.

I, for one, have never felt entirely comfortable judging the motives or actions of these men. Their situation was uniquely untenable, their options all dreadful and the pressures they faced unimaginable. In his previous work, that would seem to have been Lanzmann’s position as well.

But in contrast to “Shoah,” whose immense running time is necessary to accommodate the multiplicity of testimonies and viewpoints expressed, “Unjust” is essentially univocal. The only voices we hear in the film are those of Rabbi Murmelstein, interviewed by Lanzmann in 1975, and Lanzmann himself reading from the rabbi’s autobiography, published in 1977. The shorter films Lanzmann carved out from the iceberg of footage he shot in the 1970s were essentially testimony from witnesses to singular moments in the sorry history of the Shoah, with the filmmaker merely adding facts and figures. On the other hand, “Unjust” is a piece of advocacy in which Lanzmann either echoes or amplifies the voice of a single witness who is given vastly more screen time than any of the other interview subjects in the previous films. It is also, significantly, the only one of Lanzmann’s films on the topic in which he uses, albeit briefly, archival images, including footage from the infamous propaganda film, “Hitler Gives the Jews a City.”

Rabbi Murmelstein is ingratiating, smart and hyper-articulate, as one would expect from a former spiritual leader known for his politesse and his political savvy. He is witty and self-deprecating. What he never seems to be at any point in the film is emotionally engaged. His light, bantering tone seldom changes. In part this is undoubtedly the result of his having told these stories countless times, whether to prosecutors or journalists.

But the cumulative effect is disturbing. Rabbi Murmelstein’s predecessors were murdered by the Nazis. His rise to the unenviable position of Elder came as a direct result, and these were the most unwanted of promotions. But neither those events nor the murder of his fellow ghetto prisoners nor even the persecutions he endured after the war seem to have left much of an emotional mark on Rabbi Murmelstein, and the usually tenacious Lanzmann is dismayingly deferential throughout.

As I have said, I don’t feel in any way equipped to judge Rabbi Murmelstein. Lanzmann is another story altogether. I have been unstinting in my praise of his earlier work and continue to be in awe of  “Shoah” in particular. But “Last of the Unjust” essentially is a lengthy case of special pleading. It seems that Lanzmann has bought Rabbi Murmelstein’s narrative without reservations, seeing him as a heroic figure. For all the interest engendered by hearing a survivor of Terezin describing the innermost workings of the camp, the result is deeply disturbing in a way that Lanzmann’s other films almost never are. 

editor@jewishweek.org

Comments

I understand and appreciate Dr.Wolf Murmelstein's effort to defend his father and do not want to belittle his honorable attempt. It is somewhat disturbing for me to unavoidably upsetting him..
However, this cannot keep me from correcting numbers cited by him and B.Murmelstein to have saved the lives of 17,000 Jews. At best he kept the 11,000 inmates, left after the other 18,500 were sent to Auschwitz in October 1944, out of chaos and misery by his effective job of running Th. in spite of a severe labor shortage. Of these remaining 11, 000 prisoners, 4,883 were children and very old people and the rest primarily women, undernourished and unable to do heavy work. He overcame this severe labor shortage by introducing both a 70-hour work week and child labor and by an effective organization. For once, his brutal personality was of help in this critical period prior to January 1945. For this he deserves recognition, but for nothing else he did either in Th. or before in Vienna. Against this single accomplishment stand his many defects. To enumerate and describe them here much more space would be required. Yet someone not familiar with this history and does not want to depend on this very one-sided and uninformed Lanzmann documentary should just ponder why this rabbi did not return to Vienna where not one single rabbi had remained and rather became a furniture salesman in Rome without even having command of the language.

Is it possible that your discomfort with Lanzmann's latest film is exactly what he intended to achieve. We cannot pass judgment on Rabbi Murmelstein’s defense. However, even without us having any suggested alternatives,we can be extremely uncomfortable with it. With Lanzmann's deep insights into many of the aspects of the Holocaust, this may be precisely what Lanzmann is conveying.

The writer of above critic faills to apreciate the effort of Lanzmann to make available for history the evidence Benjamin Murmelstein could grant on Eichmann & Co. Benjamin Murmelstein had to meet Eichmann in May 1938 in order to set up Vienna Comunity Emigration Department which handled, with success, from 1938 until 1941 more that 120.000 emigration cases. In Terezin at May 5, 1945 at the take over by the Red Cross there were about 17.500 survivors. A merit or a guilt? At any rate Benjamin Murmelstein had to face a lot of absurd accusations which the Investigate Magistrate at People Court found to be baseless. The Jewish Establishment - persons who never had to face an SS as they stood safe at New York, Jerusalem, London, Geneva - however found it right to go on with the many accusations and even famous historians like Hilberg, etc. never heard Benjamin Murmelstein. Gideon Hausmer never esxplained the reason for not calling Benjamin Murmestein as witness against Eichmann; so some important facts had not been cleared or never submitted to attention of the Court. The interview Lanzmann had with Benjamin Murmelstein lasted a full week and the film can show only a part. The full trascriptions are at the U.S, HOLOCAUST MUSEUM; available for historians. This effort of Lanzmann deserves to be fully evaluated for its historical value. A point many USA criitcs fail to catch; why?

Wolf Murmelstein writes:

"Benjamin Murmelstein had to meet Eichmann in May 1938 in order to set up Vienna Comunity Emigration Department which handled, with success, from 1938 until 1941 more that 120.000 emigration"

Does he know what happened in Vienna in 1938? Was he even born yet?

When Eichmann was sent to Vienna from Berlin in 1938, his orders were to remove the Jews and to get their assets. His brutal methods made the wish of many Jews to leave Nazi Austria even more urgent. Most of them arranged their departure themselves. The minority who could not finance their travel expenses, turned to the Jewish Community Organization (IKG) for help. The department in charge of this help was headed by Murmelstein and was financed by confiscating money from better situated Jews and by Jewish Welfare Organisations in the United States for which Eichmann sent Dr. Loewenherz, the President of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG) to Paris. (Eichmann then exchanged the dollars into Reich marks at the artificial low exchange rate and deposited the money in an account under his and Loewenherz's authority).
By the way, Eichmann's brutal measures were a blessing in disguise. It convinced a good number of fence sitters to leave quickly. This brutality rather than Murmelstein's efforts resulted in the proportionally larger exodus than in Germany in the same time frame, thus saving their lives . I personally know people who had accompanied departing relatives to the railroad stations and heard Murmelstein telling emigrants "What is your rush to leave, this thing will be over soon".

I read this article with great interest. Mr. Lanzmann's documentary is exceptionally unprofessional. No research was done, no one else was asked to give another view, nor was any effort made to present a balanced assessment of Murmelstein.
I had the opportunity to observe him for one year in Vienna when he was in charge of the deportation department of the Jewish Community organization under the direct supervision of Eichmann, and then I saw for two years how he operated and acted in Theresienstadt/Terezin. There he was not called Murmelstein but Murmelschwein (murmelpig).
The two Jewish Elders, first Jakub Edelstein, an exceptionally decent person, then Dr. Paul Epstein, a correct former University teacher, did their best to use whatever their authority allowed to alleviate their fellow prisoners existence.
Both of them were leery of him, like most others in the internal administration. Especially Edelstein, who with Murmelstein was in charge of a transport of Jews from Vienna and Brno (Brünn) to Nisko in Poland in 1939, had become distrustful of him. (part of that transport could escape to Russia, part perished and the rest could return)
I myself watched how he and his assistant Prochnik acted while we were loaded into the train that brought us to Auschwitz; compared to these two, the SS in charge could not and were not worse.
There could a lot more being reported on this case, but here is not enough space.
Ernest Seinfeld
Es893@columbia.edu
2.20.14

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