Review: 'The Last of the Unjust'

At the end of part one of Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah," the director and quasi-star reads with venomously uninflected patience from a Nazi directive on how to improve the killing efficiency of a Saurer "gas van." The camera is on the road, slowly zooming into the truck behind it to reveal that company's logo, making Lanzmann's point all the more effectively for making through dialectical juxtaposition rather than through direct speech: perpetrators and agents of the Holocaust still populate the European continent, having managed to sever themselves from any visual association or other connotation with genocide.

Eschewing archival imagery, training its gaze on landscapes dangerously close to shedding their historical shame, "Shoah" is now itself a bit of a globe-trotting time capsule, with determined investigator Lanzmann traveling through the '70s and '80s in search of ever more details. "The Last Of The Unjust" combines unused '70s interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein from that extensive shoot with Lanzmann in the present walking, talking and ranting, making for a triple time period mashup. Murmelstein's unusual position is nearly impossible to succinctly describe, but as the third, last and sole surviving Jewish Elder of the "model ghetto" Theresienstadt he was a sort of collaborative administrator.

The narrative Murmelstein tells Lanzmann in oft-excruciating detail (patience testing, not stomach churning) is that he tried his best to preserve the façade of a "model ghetto" and save as many people as possible from being deported to other camps, meeting the Nazis' demands to the letter for a greater good. After the war, Murmelstein was accused of collaboration and generally relishing the opportunity to abuse his power over Theresienstadt's inmates; scholar Gershom Scholem said he should be hanged.

There's a fairly vile bit of archival footage in "The Last Of The Unjust," an inevitably ghastly piece of Nazi propaganda about the cheerful life of Jews at Theresienstadt, complete with retroactively unnerving images of happy group showers after a healthy day's work. Lanzmann visits present-day Theresienstadt, overgrown with unchecked greenery, abandoned to lapse into a building betraying nothing of its origins. Strolling with loosely held print-outs from relevant texts, Lanzmann rails against this "sinister place of unforgettable beauty," reciting in great detail the hanging of a previous Elder and once again doing his best to re-inscribe the seemingly innocuous landscape with its atrocious history.

"The Last Of The Unjust" is a total primer/interrogation of a man introduced in unflattering close-up from behind, zooming into a combover falling down his nape. When he turns around, you can see Lanzmann reflected in his lenses: as in "Shoah," the director patiently chain-smokes his way through long answers but is prone to argumentative interruption as necessary. Murmelstein positions himself as a mythologist able to think of many analogical precedents for his position as a "tragi-comic character," one comparable to Don Quixote's patient, pragmatic and long-suffering squire Sancho Panza. (It's an inadvertently self-trapping comparison, since Panza stayed with the delusional knight because he hoped to someday be gifted with land and status, but let that pass.)

Towards the end, Lanzmann interrupts yet another detailed litany on the finer points of camp administration to object to his subject's lack of visible emotion. "There's one thing that bothers me," Lanzmann complains. "When one listens to you, one doesn't get the feeling that misfortune reigned" at Theriesenstadt — that the dominant impression is that "you feel nothing." "You don't get anywhere by weeping," Murmelstein reasonably replies; demonstrative empathy or sadness is indeed often a smokescreen. It's a surprising accusation from a filmmaker so unsentimentally obsessed with details rather than feelings, the better to assemble a total picture of atrocity that requires no emotional undercurrent — an insulting prerequisite, frankly, assuming genocide isn't absorbing without "someone to relate to."

At the very end, Lanzmann and Murmelstein are walking through the Roman Forum. At this point, Lanzmann is comfortable pretty much directly, affectionately and repeatedly trying to Murmelstein to say something that's not completely exculpatory. The response is the most unexpected metaphor you may see all year: Murmelstein compares himself to "a dinosaur on the freeway" who will soon be dead, leaving the motorway open for cars to travel freely. Whether or not he's guilty, to what extent and what to do with him (he "must be condemned, but not judged") will soon be lost to history and become as dead a question as the man himself.

Lanzmann and Murmelstein wander away from the camera, arm in arm to continue their chat out of auditory earshot. "The Last Of The Unjust" can feel endless in all the wrong ways, with a severely testing faith in the inherently gripping qualities in the value of watching Lanzmann testify and self-affirm his status as cinema's pre-eminent Holocaust historian and/or the importance of wading through detail in and of itself, but for such a moving ending — two different generations sharing an unlikely companionability, worried that the shared historical tragedy shaping their lives may someday be an archaic concern — much may be forgiven.