Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Claude Lanzmann | The Last of the Unjust

the subjects of their hate
by Douglas Messerli

Claude Lanzmann (director) The Last of the Unjust / 2013

Critic Richard Brody and others have described the filmmaking of Claude Lanzmann, who died this past week at the age of 92, as “the personal assumption of the burden of Jewish history (in particular, the black hole of devastation that is the Holocaust) in order to embody and to transmit Jewish identity in [the] present tense.”
         In honor of the great creator of Shoah (a documentary which I review in My Year 2015) I decided to watch his great second documentary, based on interviews with the Viennese rabbi, Benjamin Murmelstein, done in preparation for that earlier film but not included within it. Murmelstein, the only surviving “Elder of the Jews” from the camps—significant Jewish leaders who were forced to become emissaries between the Nazis and the millions of individuals trapped in ghettos and concentration camps, often given the devastating power to make choices about who might live and who might die—was, along with others after the war, perceived by many survivors simply as collaborators, Murmelstein being no exception, being tried and found not-guilty in the Czech courts. It is obvious why Lanzmann deleted this long sequence of interviewing from his original documentary, fraught as it is by so very many impossible moral choices.
      Yet, almost 40 years later, Lanzmann inwardly struggled with the information presented in his interview with Murmelstein, determining that he felt an obligation to present the information before he died. The result, The Last of the Unjust—the title that the interviewee applies to himself—is in its simple focus on one individual, as opposed to the hundreds of Shoah, in some respects, is even more powerful that that great earlier work. For in Murmelstein’s determined words, we see the complex webs of lies and deceptions (self-deceptions and community illusions) that any man or woman taken away by the Nazis had daily to face. Reality had been, as Murmelstein writes, “turned upside down.”

      On the surface, Murmelstein is not at all a likeable being. Argumentative, often cynical, even irreverent, and speaking emphatically in the very language of the oppressor, he seems, at different moments, self-justifying and yet completely broken by the series of events he had to endure and by what he admittedly did to others of his religion. This is a tale of beings who were forced to pretend to be what, at heart, they were not, simply in order to survive and to help others to live out the devastation of their culture.
     To ease us into the story, Lanzmann scrolls through the history of events, including the deaths by the hands of the Gestapo of previous Jewish Elders, Jakob Edelstein, a Polish-born Zionist and former head of the Prague Jewish community, Paul Eppstein, a sociologist originally from Mannheim, Germany, and—after they were each shot or hung—Murmelstein, the only survivor. From that introduction, we are introduced to the small train station in the Czech Republic where often deceived elderly Jews, who had been told they were on their way to a special city, Theresienstadt, a gift to the Jewish people from Hitler, were, as Murmelstein himself later describes it, forcibly “disembarked,” and thrown into barrack-like buildings, often forced to sleep on the floor. In some respects, the shock for these deluded individuals must have been even worse than those who surely guessed they would end up in terrible deaths.
      At the station, Lanzmann, himself at the time filming now 89 years of age, begins reading from the highly intelligent book, written by Murmelstein in Italian, Terezin, il Ghetto Modello di Eichmann (Theresienstad, the Model Ghetto of Eichmann). Murmelstein had previously been forced to work with Eichmann in Vienna, where he headed the largest city synagogue, when in Eichmann’s early years he had been seeking for ways to get rid of the Jews through mass emigration, first to the Palestine, then, in a kind of mad, made-up project, to Mozambique. Murmelstein became the investigator he needed to explain where, when they emigrated, Jews went. Obviously, this sounds a bit like something Trump himself might have imagined for those he does not like. But, if nothing else, Murmelstein’s experiences and his personal involvement in Kristallnacht make all of Hannah Arendt’s suggestions of Adolph Eichmann’s “banality” pure nonsense. Eichmann, through Murmelstein’s sharp memory, is as knowledgably complicit in the creation of the camps and the killing of Jews as anyone in the Nazi hierarchy.
      When we finally meet Murmelstein, somewhat later in the film, we perceive him as a rabbi who had helped many Jews to escape, and as a man of moral principle and high intelligence—all of which help us to recognize his impossible dilemmas.
      The “model” camp, created by Eichmann and others to make outsiders believe that the Nazis were acting in the best interests for the Jews, was anything but that within. The elderly died quickly and sometimes got lost—to never return—on the streets of the so-called model city. Any of even slightest grievances meant that individuals were daily sent “east,” which meant usually to Auschwitz, although Murmelstein argues they didn’t know the name and destination of that camp. Others were sent to Treblinka and the concentration camps in Latvia and Estonia.
     When a typhoid epidemic threatened the camp, Murmelstein, then head of the health services, demanded beds for the sick and elderly, and helped to curtail the illnesses. Nonetheless, it is estimated that about 33,000 people died in the “model camp,” although a few over 17,000 did survive it, many of them musicians, artists, and other notable figures.
      Whatever one might think of Murmelstein’s actions and motives, he is certainly one of the most knowledgeable and credible historians of the period, describing himself as having to play a kind of Scheherazade in order to rescue Jews, and who rescued himself, by helping the Germans tell a propagandistic story. As long as they were determined to create the myth of a model camp, the Nazis could not totally destroy its inmates, or himself, he argues. They needed him and its distressed citizens to pretend to themselves and others about their good intentions.
      In the end, one can’t help but being a bit charmed, despite Lanzmann’s sometimes highly charged questions, by the brilliance of this survivor, now living in what he describes as a kind of complete cultural isolation in Rome.
      The director, moreover, keeps us aware of the great loss of European culture through the Holocaust by telling us again of the roots of Hanukkah, and filming a cantor chanting Kol Nidre (from the service of Yom Kippur) and the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, in the last surviving synagogue in Vienna, Murmelstein’s previous home.
      What we perceive is that in those terrible camps and ghettos, there was no justice, and that no one might possibly be described as “just” who didn’t themselves die. To survive, you had to eat, you had to collude, you had to give up everything in which you believed. The Nazis made sure that even those Jews who might escape their vengeance could never fully forgive themselves for having been the subjects of their hate.

Los Angeles, July 24, 2018

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