By Laurie Johnson
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 first Rome interview segment shown in Unjust, Murmelstein emphasizes the fact that the absence of Jews in Europe has enormous consequences for substantial parts of the globe. In segments shot in the present, Lanzmann visits the Memorial to the 80,000 Jewish Victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, as well the Old Jewish Cemetery in the same city. The thousands of names inscribed on the synagogue walls, and the crowded stones in the cemetery may initially make an anonymous and overwhelming impression, but it is precisely then that we can access something like a feeling for the absence Murmelstein invokes. The walls filled with names and the jumble of stones do not impel us (at least not when viewed all at once, as a whole) to remember specific people or moments—they are not markers of lost presences so much as of an utter absence. Similarly, the deserted streets of Theresienstadt, the “Kleine Festung” prison on the opposite side of the Ohre River from the ghetto, and other sites Lanzmann visits, empty now again, underscore the collective absence of all who could have been. There is no escape from this absence, even in anti-Semitic fantasy: when Murmelstein speaks about the plan concocted at the 1936 Diet of Warsaw to deport Jews to Madagascar, he emphasizes that for the Nazis Madagascar was a trick, a double-mask that hid the truth of Theresienstadt, even as Theresienstadt in turn hid the fact of Auschwitz.
Murmelstein casts himself as a modern-day Scheherazade, who survived the Shoah in part due to his ability to tell stories—and who, he implies, still survives (in 1975) in order to continue storytelling. Telling his own story is part of this as well. When explaining why he did not leave Vienna in the late 1930s when he had the chance (he in fact returned from London voluntarily), Murmelstein acknowledges a certain “thirst for adventure” and sense of mission. He reminds Lanzmann that he was also young and healthy then, and simply felt less vulnerable. Murmelstein also relays part of the story of his own relationship to power, saying: “Everyone picked to do something has the feeling he is the right one to do it.” Near the end of the film he asserts that an “Elder of the Jews can be condemned. In fact, he must be condemned. But he can’t be judged, because one cannot take his place.” Of course, Murmelstein did take the place of not one but two previous, murdered Jewish Elders, Jacob Edelstein and Paul Eppstein (and Eppstein had taken the place of Edelstein). Yet Murmelstein convincingly asserts his unique place in a world that counted on his replaceability.
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.
In addition to delineating differences between the two Lanzmann films, Rothberg also reminded the audience of the differences between Lanzmann’s persona as a filmmaker as opposed to as a public figure. When interviewing and filming other scenes in his documentaries, Lanzmann tends to be very focused on detail and on the minutiae of history. But when he speaks as a public figure, he addresses the Holocaust in a mode perhaps more sacral than historiographic.
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.
Lilya Kaganovsky (Comparative and World Literature and Slavic, Illinois) returned to the question of why the Murmelstein interviews were not included in Shoah. She commented on the fact that Unjust in general breaks with many of the filmic strategies Lanzmann used in Shoah, introducing footage from very different time periods, using archival material and images of memorials, and including Lanzmann himself as a type of character, in the present-day scenes. Even though the Murmelstein interviews were conducted during the making of Shoah, they end up contributing to a very different kind of film. But both are documentaries, and Kaganovsky remarked that the documentary’s “pursuit of truth” permits all kinds of strategies: interviews, re-enactments, the use of archival images, and the re-inhabiting of spaces that no longer signify what happened there in the past.
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.
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The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies
is an interdisciplinary program based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Founded in 2009 and located within the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, HGMS provides a platform for cutting-edge, comparative research, teaching, and public engagement related to genocide, trauma, and collective memory.