The Last of the Unjust
Claude Lanzmann’s portrait of the man who ran the Jewish Council at Theresienstadt concentration camp revisits material shot for his monumental Shoah.
In 1975, while preparing his landmark Holocaust documentary Shoah, Claude Lanzmann interviewed Benjamin Murmelstein. Aged 70 and living in exile in Rome, Murmelstein was the only surviving ‘Jewish Elder’ appointed by the Nazis to run the ghetto camp at Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. The interview that Lanzmann, then in his early 50s, conducted with over a few sunny days on a balcony overlooking Rome wasn’t included in his film but it’s the centrepiece of this magisterial, bleakly compelling three-and-half-hour documentary. Condemned after the war as a collaborator, Murmelstein explains, without a trace of self-pity, the terrible accommodation he had to strike with a murderous regime. Lanzmann returns to sites that marked Murmelstein’s wartime experiences and uncovers their savage history with the same unblinking, sorrowful precision that marked Shoah. But it’s the intelligent, sardonic, courageous Murmelstein who provides the film’s most compelling testimony. Comparing himself to Sheherazade from The Arabian Nights, Murmelstein survived, he tells Lanzmann, because he ‘had a story to tell.’
Born in Paris on 27 November 1925. He was one of the organizers of the Resistance at Blaise Pascal Highschool in Clermont-Ferrand in 1943. He took part in the undercover urban struggle, then joined the maquis Resistance fighters in the Auvergne region. In 1952, while working as a lector for literature and philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin, during the blockade of Berlin (1948-1949), he became friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. So began his lifelong involvement with the famous monthly magazine Les Temps Modernes, of which he is now the Director. Until 1970, he divided his time between Les Temps Modernes and journalism, writing a host of articles and first-hand reports and remaining true to both his loyalty to Israel (which he visited for the first time in 1952), and his commitment against colonialism. He was a co-signer of the “Manifesto of the 121” which denounced the repression in Algeria and called for civil disobedience. One of the ten persons prosecuted following the Manifesto, he began working on a special issue of Les Temps Modernes devoted to the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which for the first time both sides exposed their arguments. In 1970, Claude Lanzmann turned to filmmaking. He made the film Israel, Why, partly as an answer to his former comrades from the anti-colonialist struggle, who refused to understand how one can stand simultaneously for the independence of Algeria and for the survival of Israel. The premiere was held in the USA at the New York Film Festival on 7 October 1973, just a few hours after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war. During the summer of 1973, Claude Lanzmann started to work on Shoah, which took 11 years of full-time work to accomplish. Released worldwide from 1985 onwards, it was hailed as a major event, both historically and cinematographically. Since then the echo of Shoah hasn’t ceased to grow. After Israel, Why and Shoah, Tsahal, a film about fear and courage, about the conquest of courage, about weapons and the reappropriation of force and violence by the Jews, was the third and final piece in Claude Lanzmann’s trilogy, which he has been carrying within him from the beginning. A Visitor From the Living, his fourth film, takes as a starting point an interview he conducted with Maurice Rossel in 1979 during the shooting of Shoah. It is a unique piece of evidence in the history of the Second World War: dispatched to Berlin in 1942 as a representative of the International Red Cross, Maurice Rossel was the only one to visit Auschwitz in 1943, when the camp was working at maximum efficiency as a death camp. He also headed the Red Cross delegation in June 1944 to inspect the “model ghetto” at Theresienstadt. Sobibor, 14 October 1943, 4pm, the fifth film of Claude Lanzmann, was part of the Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival 2001 (out of contest). Claude Lanzmann, published in March 2009 memoirs The Patagonian Hare, a personal journey which runs through the history of the 20th Century. In 2013 he was awarded the Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival.
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