By Brett Ashley Kaplan
The title of Lanzmann’s newest film inverts the title of an important 1959 novel by André Schwartz-Bart, Le derniers des justes (The Last of the Just); it is the principal subject of the film, Benjamin Murmelstein (1905-1989), a Rabbi and Elder of the Jewish Community in Vienna (1938-1943) and Theresienstadt (1944-1945) who coins the title by telling us that he is not exactly the last of the unjust but rather the last of the guards. This tension between a self-representation as unjust and as a guardian of the imperiled Jews of Vienna and beyond marks Murmelstein’s testimony. Before seeing the film I had expected that Lanzmann would push Murmelstein more vociferously about the question that always arises in the context of the Jewish community leaders: the continuum between victimization and perpetration that structurally located them. Instead, Lanzmann frames the testimony of Murmelstein, which he filmed in Rome in 1975 but chose not to include in his vast Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985), within a larger narrative about Theresienstadt, about how place and memory work together and against each other, and about the masking practices of Nazi propaganda. Throughout the film, Lanzmann forever presses on the absence of the traces in the gritty landscapes on which his unwavering gaze falls; he “ruingazes” the lost past.[i]
Theresienstadt was an idyllic spot which then became an “apocalyptic vision;” in order to convey this apocalypse, and in stark contrast to Shoah, Lanzmann here uses archival footage: several stills and also long excerpts from the Nazi propaganda film made inside Terezin in order to “fool” the Red Cross and therefore the world into believing that the Jews of Europe were merely being held in lovely, music and art filled conditions and not exterminated. Theresienstadt was indeed a model ghetto; but when using the archival footage from the propaganda film Lanzmann inserts “mise-en-scène Nazie” over the left-hand of each frame thus foregrounding the fakeness of the film and never once letting us be sucked into the propaganda about the ghetto. Lanzmann shows images from some of the many artists incarcerated in Theresienstadt including Bedrich Fritta, who was born in Višnová, Bohemia in 1906 and killed at Auschwitz in 1944. From 17 May until 29 September, 2013, Fritta’s drawings were on display at the Jewish Museum, Berlin. In describing the exhibit, the Museum locates subterfuge as the center of Fritta’s deportation from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. Along with Leo Haas and others, these artists, “secretly used the studio materials to record the misery of everyday ghetto life” and for this they were deported. Haas survived and after the war adopted Fritta’s son Thomáš.[ii] Later in the film when Lanzmann is in Prague at the Pinkas Synagogue he gazes at the memorial there—a memorial designed between 1954 and 1959 but closed for several years due to the poor physical state of the building. The memorial lists the names of the 77, 297 victims from Bohemia and Moravia.[iii] While the camera pans these names Lanzmann tells us that they are so crowded together as to resist legibility; but then the camera settles on the name of Bedrich Fritta thus bringing us back to the images at the beginning and reminding us of the aesthetic revolution that lead to Fritta’s death. He focuses on an image of Fritta’s name to hone in on one person and to combat the sense of the endless, endless wash of the undifferentiated dead.
The first image of Murmelstein is an extremely uncomfortable, odd, prolonged close up of the back of his head; throughout the course of the interviews Lanzmann’s camera man will focus in closely on Murmelstein’s face—especially during the scenes filmed in a small room as opposed to those shot in the open on Murmelstein’s pleasant balcony; in many of these close-ups Lanzmann and/or the camera man are clearly visibly reflected in Murmelstein’s coke-bottle glasses thus always reminding us of the constructed nature even of documentaries. As Lilya Kaganovsky argues, this is Lanzmann’s “way of trying to get ‘in’ to understand Benjamin Murmelstein, and in the end that fails; the glasses work the same way, instead of offering us a 'window to the soul' (as eyes are supposed to do), his glasses just reflect back ourselves.”[iv] Murmelstein tells us his field is mythology and indeed throughout the film he compares himself to a number of literary and mythological figures—beginning with Orpheus—and tells us that like his mythological forbear he did not want to look back into the past but felt compelled to do so; he also compares himself to Scheherazade from A Thousand and One Nights in that they are both compelled to ceaselessly tell stories. He had been silent for thirty years and when Lanzmann asks him why that was the case he replies, “other people talked too much.” In 1961 Murmelstein published Terezin; il ghetto-modello di Eichmann (Bologna: Capelli) but had not spoken about Theresienstadt publicly until his 1975 interview with Lanzmann. Murmelstein is the only Jewish Elder of Theresienstadt to have survived the war. When he first gave testimony—and he volunteered to do so as he stresses that he had been issued a diplomatic Red Cross passport and thus could, at the end of the war, have escaped but instead he decided to stay in Czechoslovakia and face trial—when he first testified he was asked, abruptly, “how did you survive?”
One of the important historical contributions to the film is that Murmelstein discounts Arendt’s famous theory of the “banality of evil” by finding from his first-hand experience that, rather than an automaton-bureaucrat pushing papers that murdered hundreds of thousands of people, Eichmann was there on Kristallnacht (10 November 1938), with a crowbar, smashing synagogues. Lanzmann, a little incredulous, presses Murmelstein to clarify that Eichmann himself had a crowbar and Murmelstein emphatically confirms. Murmelstein insists that “demon” would be a much more appropriate word for Eichmann than “banal.”
The international scope of the genocide and those who are left to remember is underscored by the landscape switching between Bohušovice, Rome, Jerusalem, Vienna, Prague, Theresienstadt, Nisko, Zarzcezce. Quite abruptly and without any explanation the scenes often shift while the testimony of Murmelstein continues; for example, just after explaining that the Nazis saw the Jewish leaders as marionettes, Lanzmann moves to contemporary Jerusalem and features a long series of shots from a car driving down a picturesque road with iconic Israeli landscapes unfurling behind. Then, again abruptly, there is way too much lush, green to be in Israel and after several seconds of panning over all this lushness a caption appears explaining that these are the vineyards outside Vienna. Testimony from 1975 plays over the landscape of 2013. In the opening text of the film Lanzmann tells us that Murmelstein has a “pure love” for Israel but has never gone there; at the close of the film Lanzmann asks why he has never traveled there and Murmelstein replies that the Israelis could not try him properly. Israel appears then, as “pure love” as a series of landscapes shot from a moving car, as the place that did not try Eichmann properly, and as the natural response when presented with evidence of genocide. This last point happens when Lanzmann, regarding one of the memorial plaques entitled the Gedenkweg [path of memory/chemin de la pensée] in Vienna happens upon six non-Jewish Viennese who are taking the memory walk and who, once they have read the plaque, unfurl an Israeli flag.[vi] Murmelstein tells us that he was issued two certificates for Israel in 1939 which he gave to a student instead of taking his wife and child to Palestine because he informs us that he needed to stay and the student and his wife did emigrate; Murmelstein wonders whether he did the right thing in giving the certificates away and forever forgoing this landscape of pure, unrequited, love.
Lanzmann lingers over a long take of a cantor singing first the Kol Nidre and then the Kaddish for all the Jews killed during the war. This is the only music in the entire film. The cantor himself then becomes another landscape over which Lanzmann projects his discourse; in this case he describes a memorial for the 65,000 names of the Viennese Jews murdered in the war which evokes Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial even though the practice of the listing of the names long predated this sculpture.
All of a sudden we are in Prague, it’s the iconic shot of the Charles Bridge, tourists and people walking over it; a long take of an upright church contrasted sharply with the tumbled down cemetery in Prague. The Golem Synagogue is, Lanzmann tells us, a “bijou absolut.”
Lanzmann reminds us that people wanted to believe that Theresienstadt could be a place that was not like the rest of the death camps. Then we are suddenly inside the remains of the ghetto, on the very spot where the events Murmelstein has been testifying about unfolded. And then Lanzmann describes a long scene of hanging. At one point it was decided by the Nazi administration that anyone who committed a tiny infraction would be hung. Edelstein was then the Jewish Elder in charge and he was given a choice: if you do not find a hangman, you will be hung. And so, Edelstein, who Lanzmann describes as a “brave Zionist” set out to find a hangman. First, he asked three butchers who all said no; and then he found a certain Fischer who worked in a morgue and he decided that he would offer himself as the hangman. Lanzmann stands there in the space where the people were hung and he looks up at the sky, which is visible through the decaying remains of the corrugated ceiling, he looks down at the weeds and he describes it as a “lieu de mort.” It is also a place of “inoubliable beauté,” unforgettable beauty.
[iv] Personal email, 11 March 2014.