Claude Lanzmann built Shoah, his nine-hour, 1985 Holocaust documentary, from over 350 hours of footage — interviews, staged scenes, silent European landscapes as seen from a passing train, their secrets reborn in tender shades of green. One interview, with the only surviving former chairman of a Czech ghetto’s Nazi-appointed Jewish Council, so vexed Lanzmann that he left their conversation out of Shoah. The story of a Jewish elder’s cooperation with the Nazis, his knowledge of mass deportations, and his role in the ghetto’s masquerade was too difficult to parse, even for a documentary that would deal only in impossibilities. For years, the 1975 interview “haunted me,” Lanzmann says at the outset of Last of the Unjust, a discursive, essential Shoah postscript centered on as fascinating and inconvenient a figure as may have survived Hitler’s annihilation.
Last of the Unjust revives its predecessor’s visual motifs: The now-88-year-old Lanzmann visits the locations at the center of his story — Nisko; Theresienstadt — finding their eerie placidity bothered only by the occasional wind or roaring train. In Vienna, tourists walk a pathway of remembrance, pausing at marked intervals to observe the place of otherwise ordinary streets and doorways in the history of the Holocaust. Lanzmann has forged a similar path for most of his life; in 1975, it led him to Rome, where Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein spent his postwar decades in exile. Following his opening remarks, Lanzmann offers little commentary on the 38-year-old interview, though he speaks vehemently and at length on the sites Murmelstein describes, contextualizing landscapes as rubbled and overgrown in historical memory as they are in life.
Again and again, Murmelstein insists on context in these conversations, pulling impossibly simple questions into the weeds of background and mitigating detail. Perhaps as often, he insists that no outsider could understand his actions or experience. Still, in animated, thick-voiced German, Murmelstein appears bound to try to explain life under Eichmann and life in Theresienstadt, a ghetto advertised as a safe haven for displaced Jews. Forthright and meticulously reasoned, Murmelstein’s understanding of his own past is inflected with myth, folklore, and fairy tale. He cites Eurydice on the dangers of looking back, and compares himself to Sancho Panza, another “calculating realist with both feet on the ground.” This is perhaps Murmelstein’s clearest answer to the loaded observation Lanzmann makes more than once — that this self-described adventurer managed to survive what millions did not.
But the war made a storyteller of the calculating realist. Murmelstein’s most valuable reflections are on the role of imagination and narrative in both conceiving and surviving genocide. The “embellishments” he oversaw — to persuade the Red Cross and others that all was well in the ghetto — were, Murmelstein says, central to its population’s survival: “If they hid us, they could kill us.” The embellishments also corroborated a larger, willed ignorance, helping to make Theresienstadt, says Lanzmann today, “central to the genesis and process of the final solution.” This the rabbi, who died in 1989, might not deny; indeed, there are no simple denials, nor anything simple at all in Last of the Unjust. Only stories, recovered and retold, of a reality beyond their reach.