Every documentary leaves good material in the cutting room. Crafting a contained narrative from reality entails exacting editing of reams of footage gathered by the filmmakers. For the acclaimed Shoah, director Claude Lanzmann and his crew shot over 350 hours’ worth of interviews with Holocaust survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders that they winnowed down to a nine and a half hour final cut. Lanzmann was gripped by the subject, and even after eleven years of production on his epic, he couldn’t let it go. In the decades since Shoah’s release, he’s used “outtakes” from his interviews to make more documentaries about the Holocaust. The Last of the Unjust is the fourth of these films.
In 1975, Lanzmann sat down with Benjamin Murmelstein, the only Judenälteste to survive the war. These were the Nazi-appointed heads of the councils of elders who would oversee each of the various Jewish ghettos and concentration camps. Acting as intermediaries between the Nazis and their communities, the main job of these councils was to make incarceration and extermination run as smoothly as possible. Murmelstein served as the third Judenälteste of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, after the executions of his two predecessors.
The film alternates between Lanzmann’s interview with Murmelstein and modern day sequences of Lanzmann visiting Murmelstein’s places of work during the Holocaust. He mainly goes to spots around Vienna where Murmelstein served on the council of elders before his deportation, but he also takes the camera to spots as varied as Madagascar, where the Nazi’s briefly considered exiling all the Jews before settling on the Final Solution, or a Czech train station where many “were disembarked” to their deaths. Along the way, Lanzmann reads excerpts from Murmelstein’s autobiography, allowing the man to continue to have a voice about his experience long after his death. Sometimes, artwork made by Theresienstadt prisoners depicting their conditions accompany the passages.
But the real meat of the film is in the interview. Unlike Shoah, which drew together a multitude of voices, only one person speaks in The Last of the Unjust. We do not hear from anyone else at Theresienstadt who might lend a different perspective. Murmelstein is here to explain his actions, how and why he took up a position that some consider to have made him a collaborator in genocide. He is alternately remorseful and defiant, sympathetic and unsympathetic. A good deal of time is spent to explaining the logistics of running the camp and dealing with the Nazis. On occasion, Murmelstein seems bizarrely proud of himself. He speaks of how it was a great victory to get to sit in a chair during a meeting with his superiors. He recalls fondly how he was able to improve efficiency in the camp. This doesn’t make him a villain so much as it reveals how supremely twisted a human being can become in their need to grasp some sense of normalcy, even in the most horrific of circumstances.
Murmelstein’s work often brought him into contact with Adolf Eichmann, and in speaking of the infamous war criminal, he mocks Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil. There was nothing banal about Eichmann, he states bluntly. The film itself picks apart this concept, using Murmelstein’s words to explore the mind of someone who helps run a death machine. An erudite scholar, Murmelstein peppers his long soliloquies with literary references, comparing himself to both Scheherazade and Orpheus. But his tangled justifications and self-interrogations often make little sense. Was he staving off death by telling a story or, as he claims in another metaphor, acting as the iron between the hammer and the anvil?
While the previous Shoah “spin-offs” each ran around one and a half hours, Last of the Unjust stands an imposing three and a half. It only looks brief in comparison to its mother film. Taking in such a work, especially about a topic as grim as the Shoah, is a daunting prospect for any viewer, and Lanzmann’s unadorned style means that the runtime is not made to feel any shorter. Murmelstein and the movie repeat the same things endlessly, which may be part of the point, but that doesn’t alleviate the boredom it instills. There’s no need for this film to be anywhere near as long as it is.
The Last of the Unjust is frustrating. Parts of the doc touch greatness, as the subject talks of how he tried his best in impossible situations, sometimes triumphing but often failing. But spaced between these moments are long stretches of dullness. Lanzmann is so close to this topic that he can’t seem to understand what is and isn’t necessary to give the audience what they need.
The Upside: Fitfully engrossing as a portrait of a man alternately grappling with and denying his guilt
The Downside: So, so, soooooo long; inflated with dead air
On the Side: The last shot, in which the camera watches as Lanzmann and Murmelstein walk into the distance while talking, seems quite intentionally cinematic. It makes me wonder if it was initially thought that the interview would serve a prominent role in Shoah.