He was a figurehead in a Potemkin village. Set up as a “model ghetto” to deceive the International Red Cross and the unaligned world at large, Theresienstadt hid its brutality from public view, but it was there just the same.
Benjamin Murmelstein had the dubious distinction of being appointed the third and final president of Theresienstadt’s Jewish Council, or the “Elder of the Jews,” as the National Socialists dubbed them.
A resourceful or perhaps expedient leader (depending on one’s point of view), Murmelstein remained a figure of controversy throughout his life. “Shoah” director Claude Lanzmann returns to the hours of interview footage he shot with Murmelstein in 1975 for his belated documentary profile, “The Last of the Unjust,” which opens this Friday, Feb. 7, in New York.
When Murmelstein was appointed as the Elder of Theresienstadt, he did not have much say in the matter. With no practical authority, he did his best with his powers of persuasion, going toe-to-toe with an often manically demonic Otto Adolf Eichmann—a far cry from what political theorist Johanna Arendt made him out to be.
Murmelstein estimates he saved over 120,000 lives during the war years by arranging mass emigration to what is now Israel. On the other hand, the 70-hour work weeks he instituted, in hopes of making the Theresienstadt prisoners too valuable to be “deported east,” were a double-edged sword.
In his lengthy discussions with Lanzmann, Murmelstein is both his best and worst character witness, but he steadily wins the documentarian over, at least to some extent. Unquestionably, his testimony and Lanzmann’s supplemental evidence will help viewers understand the precariousness of his position. Clearly, Lanzmann hopes viewers will speculate how they might respond if placed in similar circumstances.
Is Murmelstein worthy of an in-depth biographical treatment? Without reservation, the answer is yes. Nonetheless, at 3 hours and 38 minutes, the Spartan “Unjust” is a demanding viewing experience. Even Lanzmann’s towering “Shoah,” with its considerably wider scope, is better digested in installments.
“Unjust” is rich with insight and offers more than a few eye-opening scoops. However, Lanzmann makes the film longer and therefore more arduous than necessary by frequently including multiple accounts of incidents with little appreciable variation.
There is a personal quality to this film, which apparently tested his editorial sensibilities. Lanzmann admits right from the top that Murmelstein’s story has haunted him for years. Indeed, the contrast between Lanzmann in 1975, still quite the dashing figure at age 50, and the gray-haired documentary statesman of today heightens the film’s keen sense of history.
Recommended for those who are prepared for its intellectual and aesthetic rigors, “The Last of the Unjust” opens this Friday, Feb. 7, at the Lincoln Plaza.
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com
‘The Last of the Unjust’
Director: Claude Lanzmann
Starring: Benjamin Murmelstein, Claude Lanzmann
Run Time: 3 hours, 38 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 7
3.5 stars out of 5