On March 9, the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies co-sponsored a screening and discussion of Claude Lanzmann's new film The Last of the Unjust with the Art Theater Co-op and the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation. Here is a response to the film and discussion by Prof. Laurie Johnson. Another response to the film by Prof. Brett Kaplan will appear in a few days.
Claude Lanzmann is not known for avoiding filmmaking challenges, but at the beginning of The Last of the Unjust he states that he “backed away from the difficulties” of integrating footage from extensive interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein into the documentary tour de force Shoah (1985). The March 9 screening of Unjust at the Art Theater in Champaign, Illinois prompted the question of just why Lanzmann might have found this particular footage difficult to use as part of Shoah: was Murmelstein, a Viennese rabbi who became the third and final Jewish Elder in Theresienstadt/Terezín, too ambiguous of a figure, positioned between victims and perpetrators in a way the earlier film would have found tough to address? The interviews Lanzmann conducted with Murmelstein in Rome in 1975 (when Murmelstein was 70), lengthy segments of which are reproduced in Unjust, do not make that impression.
While Murmelstein does not portray himself as a victim, he also never blurs the line between himself and Nazi officials such as Adolf Eichmann, who ordered Murmelstein to research “methods of emigration” beginning in Vienna in 1938, and with whom Murmelstein was forced to work for seven years. Murmelstein’s lengthy descriptions of Eichmann provide a more nuanced and chilling picture than is available even in the most recent scholarship on Nazi perpetrators. Murmelstein’s characterization of Eichmann as a “demon” is fleshed out with too much specific detail to seem melodramatic. Lanzmann challenges Murmelstein frequently during their Rome discussions, accusing him at one point of a strange lack of emotion, given the nature of his testimony. But Lanzmann never substantially questions Murmelstein’s depiction of Eichmann, though he does press for details, particularly about Eichmann’s involvement in Kristallnacht. By enabling a clear and sharp distinction between Murmelstein and Eichmann, Lanzmann renders the lines between victim and perpetrator more rather than less distinct.
While Murmelstein indeed does not seem emotionally vulnerable in the interviews, he is passionate and energetic, an affect that matches his vibrant descriptive phrases. His characterization of eastern Europe, and Poland in particular, as a place of “absolute indeterminacy” starkly conveys a sense of why the Nazis could capitalize on Western ignorance about this area in order to do whatever they wanted, without witnesses or investigations. While listening to this description, we see present-day images of spaces in Poland and the Czech Republic where camps were erected, now empty again—their present emptiness again “hides” the fact of what happened there. For instance, Lanzmann visits Nisko (Poland, then part of the German Generalgouvernement), where Eichmann had deported over 3,000 Jews, a significant moment in the trajectory that culminated in the Final Solution, but today empty and largely forgotten. It is not the images of the deserted spaces, but rather Lanzmann’s and Murmelstein’s narration, that reveals the truth—a truth that often has left no physical trace.
In the present-day sequences in Unjust, Lanzmann implicitly supports Murmelstein’s insistence that no one can take the place of a Jewish Elder: when the filmmaker stands in places Murmelstein has been, from Vienna to Theresienstadt, he is representing Murmelstein’s stories in the present and thereby paradoxically reaffirming his own inability to take the last Elder’s place. Lanzmann describes himself as “haunted” by Murmelstein, but when he returns to the Kleine Festung or to Nisko, he haunts these spaces himself—while he is there, they cannot mask the past; while he is filming, Murmelstein’s stories will be told, and the “unjust” will receive a kind of justice.
The screening of Unjust at the Art Theater on March 9 was followed by a panel and general discussion. Michael Rothberg (English, Illinois) remarked that although the film is much shorter than Shoah, its length (approx. 220 minutes) is nevertheless reminiscent of the earlier film; the viewer needs to make a substantial time commitment and really go through an experience with the filmmaker. However, Rothberg noted that Unjust uses filmic time differently than Shoah: Lanzmann narrates for about twenty minutes in the present (in French) before cutting back to the 1975 interviews (in German); although we saw Lanzmann age throughout the twelve-year period in which Shoah was filmed, the discrepancy in his age between 1975 and 2013 is of course considerably greater. While Shoah was “always in the present tense” (Rothberg quoting Lanzmann), emphasizing the speech of the living and eschewing footage and archival images from the past, Unjust makes use not only of the 1975 interviews, but of drawings and film from the 1940s. For instance, there is an extended sequence from the Nazi propaganda film made in Theresienstadt. As a sharp contrast, we see drawings made by inhabitants of the ghetto, most of whom perished.
Brett Kaplan (Comparative and World Literature, Illinois) also considered similarities and differences between The Last of the Unjust and Shoah, remarking on Lanzmann’s use of train and railroad images and sounds in both films. She then wondered what Lanzmann’s reliance on images of landscapes and spaces in the present reveals or conceals about what happened there—spaces where, as mentioned above, events related to the Shoah took place, but which are now largely empty and silent. While the spaces themselves do not signify the specific past events, in the film they become invested with the meaning Lanzmann assigns to them. Kaplan also remarked on the use of names, monuments, and signs in the film (markers in the present), and found these as noteworthy as Lanzmann’s deployment of images from the past. And, she emphasized the differences in how Murmelstein spoke in interview footage filmed on an outdoor balcony in Rome as opposed to his somewhat more intense affect in conversations with Lanzmann in a small interior space. Although Unjust consists in large part of verbal interactions, Kaplan focused on the way visual cues transmit meaning.
Audience members joined in the discussion, observing that the text shown at the beginning of the film is essentially Lanzmann’s way of telling us what to think, as it assures us that Murmelstein does not lie. Perhaps, though, Lanzmann means that Murmelstein himself does not think of what he is saying as a lie. Some wondered if the fact that Murmelstein had been through these memories so many times (albeit never on camera, prior to 1975) meant that he necessarily lost a certain degree of emotional reactivity. Others thought that while Hannah Arendt’s assessment of Adolf Eichmann has been considered outdated for some time, Murmelstein’s pointed, detailed recollections will make it difficult to rely on the phrase “banality of evil” in an unquestioning way in the future.
The past is indeed gone—and, as one audience member pointed out, what use is memory? since, implicitly, memories often cannot be verified definitively, and since remembering does not necessarily prevent atrocities. The word “last” in the title The Last of the Unjust may indicate that the specific history that Benjamin Murmelstein represents is really over. But the documentary, while signaling memory’s end, also preserves its ghostly traces. This film ensures that although the last person who remembers what really happened is gone, the haunting will continue.