The term 'three-and-a-half hour long tennis match’ doesn't sound scary to tennis fans, but the term 'three-and-a-half hour long documentary’ sounds scary to many potential filmgoers.
deeply important and riveting
A three-and-a-half hour long documentary is not ideal viewing in the context of a bustling festival – but an outstanding film, whatever its length, is always a better choice/allocation of time than, say, two mediocre films that only run 90 minutes each.
Claude Lanzmann's The Last of the Unjust (3 hours and 40 minutes) premiered at Cannes in May and played the Toronto and New York film festivals, among others. It will be shown at the London Film Festival. All of those cities have Jewish populations. Had Hitler's plans worked out, there wouldn't be any Jews anywhere.
There's a concise and flippant history of the Jewish people that goes something like this:
"They tried to kill us. They failed. Let's eat."
I'm not sure Lanzmann would laugh at that. At age 88, he's a cranky fellow. (In preparation for my own 15 minutes with the director, I asked an Israeli colleague whether he had ever interviewed Lanzmann. His reply was, "Many times. Unfortunately.") Nowhere is it written that a creative individual who has done brilliant work has to be a fun conversationalist or even a cordial human being.
Lanzmann has lived a rather amazing life whose highlights – in addition to having made Shoah – include a long stint as Simone de Beauvoir's main squeeze. Shoah is a film so airtight in its painstaking and irrefutable multiple proofs that Jews across Europe were deliberately and systematically exterminated on a vast scale, it makes Holocaust revisionists as credible as flat-earthers.
In 1975, very early in his years of conducting interviews for the project that became Shoah, Lanzmann went to Rome to speak with Benjamin Murmelstein. A former prominent rabbi from Vienna, Murmelstein was living very modestly in exile. He had been the head of the so-called 'model ghetto’ of Theresienstadt outside Prague. Hitler made a 'gift’ of a town to the Jews. What a swell guy. The Nazi's ruse was to park Jews in a sort of fake village that could be shown to concerned outside inspectors. The charade (musical instruments! Educational lectures! Uh, okay, the residents do look awfully gaunt...) was as effective as it was nauseating. Murmelstein's two predecessors died horrible deaths, as did many of the inmates or those who transited through. Murmelstein survived. Hmmmmm.
Starting in 1938, Murmelstein dealt with Adolf Eichmann – whom he'd met "on a stairway" that summer – for seven long years, endeavouring – with some success – to save tens of thousands of Jewish individuals.
Lanzmann asked the right questions and Murmelstein has lucid, detailed memories to offer. Murmelstein doesn't fit into the story of what happened to the Jews in Europe as neatly as he should. In fact, Murmelstein's personality is so strong and his assertions so interesting, terrifying and convincing, that Lanzmann couldn't incorporate them into Shoah without unbalancing that film.
So he saved the footage. This year he's agreed to share it with the rest of us. ("I didn't have the right to keep it to myself," he says.) Combining sequences of his now-older self visiting or revisiting specific locations evoked in the Murmelstein interviews with the interviews themselves, Lanzmann has made something deeply important and riveting.
The Last of the Unjust is the kind of movie whose content you never forget. You may forget a great many details but you will not forget the thrust of it – that most people will do anything to survive and that when you happen to survive a holocaust when countless others perished, some people are going to question your integrity.
The thing is, we, as viewers can tell that Benjamin Murmelstein is telling the truth. We don't really need for Lanzmann to tell us he finds his interview subject convincing. We're convinced.
Since Margarethe von Trotta's clunkily reverent biopic Hannah Arendt has been making the rounds, one sits up and takes notice when Murmelstein dismisses the allegedly great philosopher and her theory of "the banality of evil" as an underinformed paragon of half-assed thinking. (As somebody who has let a deadline or two slip, I was sympathetic to Arendt's struggle to shape for the magazine The New Yorker the information she'd gathered at Eichmann's trial.) But Murmelstein makes mincemeat of Arendt and her half-baked theory. He tells us in no uncertain terms that the trial was botched and Arendt's conclusions laughably flawed.
The film starts with a long crawl of text and, not unlike the famous written start to Star Wars, to most contemporary viewers the horrors of WWII seem to have taken place in a galaxy far, far away.
The searing immediacy of Murmelstein's recollections, his precision and combativeness, bring that awful galaxy into sharp focus. He's a balding old guy wearing thick glasses, but he's thrilling to watch and hear.
The film overflows with intriguing moments and adamant pronouncements but the kernel that sticks out is that Murmelstein couldn't disagree more with Arendt's famous riff on how Eichmann was just a standard bureaucrat, following orders and instructions in such a workaday fashion that although his actions were evil, there is nothing remarkable about his having carried them out under the circumstances. Hence, the alleged "banality" of evil.
"Eichmann was not banal!" protests Murmelstein. He calls Eichmann "a demon" who was exclusively out for his own gain. Not only does Murmelstein ferociously object to Atendt's famous phrase, he also objects to the widely-circulated 'explanation’ for Kristallnacht. The court that tried Eichmann concluded that Eichmann hadn't participated in 'the night of the breaking glass’. That's funny: Murmelstein says none other than Eichmann practically broke down his door at 3 in the morning waving a pistol, giddy with the night's ongoing destruction, which included ordering SS troops to smash any religious object they could get their hands on. Forty-two synagogues were destroyed in that one night of November 9 to 10, 1938. Only one synagogue survived. Lanzmann shot there at length, in 2008. It has now been restored. What differs from the decor as it was on Kristallnacht is that there are now panels inscribed with the names of the 65,000 Vienna Jews who perished.
All Eichmann cared about, Murmelstein contends convincingly, was making money for himself and the only reason he didn't liquidate the model ghetto was that he got a separate budget for it that he could then skim. In other words, there was nothing 'banal’ about the man or his actions and he was most definitely not just following orders. He worked hard at being evil and having put in his
10,000 hours, was quite good at it.
Murmelstein details Eichmann's devious, perverted and cruel scams to leave Jews trapped and destitute. You can't help thinking that were Eichmann alive today, he'd thrive at divesting people of their identities and their wealth via the Internet.
As both a rabbi and a respected academic, Murmelstein could have emigrated to the U.S., England or Palestine with next-to-no difficulty but he pointedly passed up every such opportunity.
He says he felt he had a role to play – a mission to accomplish – and admits that the treacherous times sparked his sense of adventure.
We 'know’ what Theresienstadt looked like because inmates managed to make and bury detailed sketches. The art survived; the artists did not. Illustrations of hearses indicate that hearses were used to transport everything, bread and corpses alike. The Nazis excelled at using fear as a weapon.
"Sometimes, looking back is dangerous," says Murmelstein, admitting that Lanzmann convinced him to sit for a series of interviews. The first question he was asked after the war in 1945 was "How is it you're still alive?" And 30 years after the fact, that's still what we want to know. And 38 years after that, thanks to Lanzmann's probing, we get a glimpse of the abyss and hear a man who lived to tell the tale.
Lanzmann has 'only’ made 7 films in 40 years. He excels at coaxing powerful results out of the juxtaposition of words and images. His style is the opposite of glossy snippets and reductive sound bites. He climbs steps in real time, which makes us feel as if we are climbing with him. Yes, this film is lengthy. But Lanzmann takes the time to establish things. Always. It is time well spent, just as yours will be when watching this ornery old filmmaker's latest remarkable accomplishment.