The Last of the Unjust

I’ve lamented—frequently—on the trials and tribulations of being a frequent moviegoer at this time of the year. The Oscar contenders linger in the theaters like the smell of microwaved skunk, and the new crap being shoveled out are typically foreordained failures to meet even the meager demands of genre films.

I mention this as an explanation as to why, when a 3:40 minute documentary is the only thing at the local movie house you haven’t seen, it actually doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

And, in fact, except for the very beginning of the film, the movie flies by.

The Last of the Unjust is Claude Lanzmann’s follow-up to his nine hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah, and I would say, with all humility, that it’s worthy of the 100% ratings (both critical and audience) on Rotten Tomatoes.

These are Lanzmann’s interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the Last of the Elder Jews (a title apparently conferred by the Nazis), who was the last person to “run” the Threisenstadt ghetto at the end of The War.

Well, it’s 210 minutes—what can I say? There’s so much here. I had a little trouble following at first, because Lanzmann is an expert in the material, obviously, and at first he was throwing around a lot of detail about streets and railways and stuff like that.

But by the end, that stuff all comes back, over and over again, and becomes significant, so, yeah, even though it made me nervous at first—’cause nothing’s worse than being five minutes into a 3-hour movie you know you’re going to hate—the initial slowness sets everything up well.

The story? Gotta be one of the most challenging in human history.

Murmelstein was a “collaborator”, a Jew who worked with the Nazis, in this case to make Threisenstadt useful for propaganda purposes. Dreadful! An abomination! He deserves to be hanged, according to one prominent Israeli historian (who had agitated for mercy for Eichmann).

And yet.

And yet.

Nothing about this is simple. Murmelstein had many chances to flee, yet took none. He ascribes this to a “thirst for adventure”. When asked if he likes power, he retorts “Who doesn’t?” When asked if he abused his power, he says, yes, but always in service of the people of the ghetto.

I said of Hannah Arendt that her thesis that the Jews could’ve done more to fight the Nazis may be accurate, but it’s also Grand Champion Hall of Fame Monday Morning Quarterbacking. (More on Arendt later.)

I felt that here.

Would it have been nobler for him to leave? It doesn’t seem to be in dispute that he helped a lot of Jews escape. In fact, what’s clear is that the reason he’s vilified is that he lived and that’s therefore suspicious, but it’s just as clear that he lived primarily because the war ended before the Nazis could muster up the excuse to kill him. (While he was there for a couple of years, he was only in charge for a few months.)

And Murmelstein seems to have viewed his mission to say alive, and keep others alive as well, even if that didn’t make him popular. At one point, the Nazis said, “Hey, get this typhus epidemic under control or…”

The “or” was always a given. The Jews knew the Nazis would kill them but at the same time (at least according to Murmelstein) the Jews pointedly did not know about the camps. There was “out east”, which was known to be worse, but not known how much worse. Murmelstein relates two stories of trainloads coming in from other places where the passengers freaked out about the showers.

And yet, it’s human nature to deny the awful, especially in the face of powerlessness. So when he says they didn’t know, I believe that. When he says he played Scheherazade, spinning stories to keep the ghetto alive, I believe that, too.

And when he says he withheld food from people who refused to get typhus vaccines, that’s not in doubt, and it’s entirely inevitable that this would produce resentment in those who were there. And when he says he ended the freedom-for-favor style of management of the privileged Jews, who traded exit visas for service, sex, or whatever, well, then you can see why he’d really be hated.

It’s not much discussed but the Jews did not behave admirably in the camps (and Threisenstadt was a camp, even if they called it a ghetto). This is expected: Treat people like animals and they’ll become animals.

I’m just scratching the surface here, of course, but it’s just an amazing thing, this record.

It was instructive to hear Murmelstein speak of Eichmann, whom he personally knew and personally witnessed during the Krystallnacht. He wasn’t impressed with the tribunal that couldn’t determine that Eichmann was there at all, given that there were hundreds of witnesses—and pictures!

He was also particularly disdainful of Hannah Arendt’s description of Eichmann with the phrase “the banality of evil”. “He was a monster,” says Murmselstein, and he’s got the anecdotes to back it up.

It does support my observation of the Arendt movie when I said “ it never seems to occur to Arendt that Eichmann is just lying.” There’s no doubt in Murmelstein—the hated collaborator—that Eichmann was no mere paper pusher.

Anyway, I could go on and on, and I’d understand being deterred by the length, but not only did I have no trouble sitting through it, The Boy found it riveting.

Now I’m looking to find the Shoah movie online—that one I’m going to watch over a period of a few days.

4 thoughts on “The Last of the Unjust

  1. I have limited control over when I die, alas, but I figure if I can hang on till 2019, “Seven Samurai” will show up in a 65th anniversary showing, and if I can hang on till 2020, “Magnificent Seven” will show up in a 60th anniversary showing. (“Yojimbo” just had a 55th anniversary showing but I couldn’t make it. The Boy didn’t think it was amazing, which is interesting.)

    A Kurosawa retrospective could pop up at any moment, so I look out for those. I =wish= a John Sturges retrospective would pop up but that seems unlikely.

Leave a Reply