Few filmmakers’ careers are defined by one film as Claude Lanzmann’s has been. His 1985 sophomore documentary Shoah, a nine-hour film on the extermination of the Jews in the 1930s and 40s, is perhaps the most acclaimed documentary ever made. His latest film, The Last of the Unjust, takes a self-contravening step out of its shadow.
Shoah was a monumental film, and justifiably so: comprised entirely of interviews with the bystanders, perpetrators, and above all victims of the Holocaust, the film confronts the way that the obscenities of the past reverberate forward in time. To watch Shoah is to go in thinking it will be too much, and leave realizing that it is not and can never be enough.
No one knows that better than Lanzmann, who accumulated enormous amounts of footage while filming for the project from 1976-1981. He has since used that footage to make four further documentary features; easily the bulk of his remaining filmography. Unlike Shoah’s diverse tapestry of witnesses, each of these films has focused on a single interview subject, and have not broken from Lanzmann’s refusal to depict the atrocities committed, even in archive footage.
In an article dismissing Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Lanzmann laid out the objections that led to this approach, particularly condemning the obscenity of the relatable image. “Fiction is a transgression, I am deeply convinced that there is a ban on depiction,” he wrote, adding further that if he found footage of a gas chamber execution secretly filmed by Nazis, he would not only not show it, he would destroy it.
Which makes Last of the Unjust, his new (perhaps final) film, a shocking and problematic departure from the Shoah project. A great, deeply moving, and intelligent transgression.
Yes, Unjust centers around 1976 footage from an interview (shot over several days) with Benjamin Murmelstein, the wartime president of the Jewish Council of Theresienstadt, a Czechoslovakian “model ghetto.” That footage reveals the moral incomprehensibility of the Holocaust, as Murmelstein convincingly argues that his actions — which were controversial enough that he was exiled from Israel after the war — were not perfect, but conducted with good intentions under pressures that literally no one can empathize with or understand. He was, after all, the only “Elder of the Jews” who survived the war.
Lanzmann does two things he has never done before. First, he includes newly shot material of himself reading from notes at the pertinent locations; digital footage that shows him 40 years older than the Lanzmann conducting the interview, and long after his subject’s death.
Second, more briefly but more shockingly, he includes in one sequence excerpts from a Nazi propaganda film, made to depict Theresienstadt as a pleasant haven of day-to-day living for Jews. In the upper right of the screen, text disclaims it as such throughout the scene, but there it is, nonetheless: a depiction of the Holocaust, more fictional than anything Spielberg would have dreamed of attempting.
What Lanzmann attempts here is to depict his own relationship to the material, as a chronicler, a witness of witnesses. It’s him coming to terms with the things from his own past that haunt him in his own singular, controversial place in history, reinforced by the bond that visibly forms between him and Murmelstein in the ‘76 footage. In this respect, he succeeds.
He also attempts to examine the difficulty of judging a man like Murmelstein, who is honest: by his own admission, he was not always a perfect or magnanimous leader; he did his best but prioritized his own survival. Murmelstein suggests that his most unacceptable act was survival. “But not all martyrs are saints,” he argues. In this respect, Lanzmann also succeeds.
What’s troubling is that Lanzmann seems to have taken two individually successful but somewhat contradictory ideological approaches. By inserting his modern self, reading from prepared notes and, by implication, reflecting on the interviews, Lanzmann erects a historical distance between us and Murmelstein, permitting exactly what the filmmaker said he opposed: “a consoling identification.”
It’s a problem, but not one Lanzmann is entirely ignorant of, and perhaps there is merit in its inclusion here; perhaps this is the twilight hour when he should bracket his whole career’s methodology by questioning it. It wouldn’t be the first time: Shoah openly shows him lying to subjects for interviews, or cruelly insisting that weeping survivors finish unbearable stories. Perhaps the only way to correctly approach the Holocaust is to at once acknowledge that one cannot correctly approach the Holocaust, and then try anyway.