A dialogue on the holocaust, despite the amount of time and history that has passed since 1945, is still vital and necessary, particularly in the current political times where the term Nazi is bandied around so frequently. Talking of the holocaust, it seems impossible to comprehend the scope (it is estimated that six million jews were murdered), and the repercussions of how this effected the modern European landscape.
Certainly the most prominent documentarian to cover the subject, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 ten hour documentary Shoah is considered the definitive artistic reflection on the time. Lanzmann has also made a number of other films on the subject, including 2013’s The Last of the Unjust. The Last of the Unjust is based on a series of interviews conducted between Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein, the last surviving “Jewish Elder” from Theresienstadt, a Czech concentration camp, in 1975. In the preceding credits, Lanzmann admits he initially had no idea what he could do with the copious amounts of footage he had with Murmelstein, and finally got around to making this film because “I (Lanzmann) had no right to keep it to myself.” The film is made up of mostly interviews between Lanzmann and Murmelstein, as well as Lanzmann in the present day reciting excerpts from Murmelstein’s book, and Lanzmann talking about his own interpretations of the horrors of the holocaust.
The problem of identification and forging a genuine emotional response to the scale of the suffering endured in the holocaust is addressed itself, towards the end of the film. Lanzmann interrupts Murmelstein to cajole him for not showing any real emotion when recalling his time at Theresienstadt, suggesting that he did not care about the rest of those who lost their lives at the camp (Murmelstein’s position as a middleman between the Jews and the Nazi authorities lead to him being denounced as a traitor in many circles, and put on trial following the war.) Murmelstein responds, believing that his calm, utilitarian approach to the suffering at Theresienstadt was necessary to stop further suffering, and that others in his place would have been less effective. It is among the first times we see Lanzmann himself in the frame during the interview sequences, and it very much feels like he is putting us on the spot as much as he is Murmelstein: if you were in his position, how would you react? The answer is, of course, impossible to know without having suffered to the point that no person should suffer, but it serves to bring the tragedy back to humanity itself, rather than the myth of statistics with which we usually regard the holocaust.
Lanzmann is also able to bring this out visually, as the second part of the film begins in the Golem Synagogue in Prague, and the camera makes its way around the walls, with the names of all the Czech Jews murdered in the holocaust, packed so tightly together it is impossible to read any of the names, when suddenly the camera reaches a wall extremely close: the frame is filled with names of those deceased as well as their years of birth and death. I noticed one name who died at the age of 20. Again, we make the connection between the global scale of the atrocities and the individual, human cost of the tragedy; something we might be able to comprehend and take back within ourselves.
In many of the more story based sequences (and Murmelstein, we soon learn, is an avid storyteller), Lanzmann breaks up the film visually by taking us, in the present day, to the sites of the atrocities that Murmelstein is describing. They are all peaceful, beautiful, and utterly horrifying. Particularly disturbing is Lanzmann reading an excerpt from Murmelstein’s novel regarding the beginning of the reign of terror at Theresienstadt. He stands in the barrack in which the execution took place, telling the story of the Nazi authorities waking the Jewish Elder (a rabbi named Edelstein, who would later be executed), and giving him four hours to find a hangman who would go on to hang a group of Jews that morning, for very little to no reason other than to strike the fear into the hearts of the populace of Theresienstadt. The camera lingers on the location well after Lanzmann leaves the frame, and we are forced to imagine the gruesome scene he has described taking place in what is a very beautiful landscape.
This documentary is 220 minutes long, and no easy feat to sit through, but it is ultimately a necessary and vital piece of education in world history, documentary storytelling, and the ability to have an honest and productive dialogue that seems so vacant from the world today.