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Published: 09 January 2015 Updated: 11:06, 09 January 2015
Having spent an extraordinary nine-and-a-half hours detailing the complicity
of ordinary Germans in the Final Solution in his 1985 documentary Shoah,
director Claude Lanzmann spends the somewhat shorter time of
three-and-a-half hours in The Last of the Unjust, telling us of his
admiration for a Viennese Jewish elder who collaborated with "the architect
of the Holocaust", Adolf Eichmann.
The rabbi in question is Benjamin Murmelstein, chief administrator of the
camp-ghetto Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, who organised the forced
departure of thousands of Jewish inmates to places of extermination.
Although Murmelstein openly supported Nazi propaganda and worked closely
with Eichmann, being the only Jew allowed into his presence, he called
Theresienstadt "death in slow motion" and rescued many inhabitants from
deportation to "the East". After the war he was arrested and charged for
collaboration, but the case was dropped and he lived in exile in Rome until
his death in 1989 with many still regarding him as a traitor.
Lanzmann interviewed him for Shoah but left the material out. Now, together
with further interviews, it forms the kernel of the new film as Lanzmann
meets him and visits Theresienstadt.
The question is whether Murmelstein is confessing or making detailed excuses
for his actions. We will never know for certain, though he seems a highly
intelligent man and converses with the director on equal terms, unlike most
of those in Shoah.
In the end Lanzmann puts his arms around Murmelstein and seems to conclude
that this Jewish elder has right on his side, since any other collaborator
might have done much worse.
Murmelstein's view of Eichmann is very different from the portrait of a
diligent bureaucrat that Hannah Arendt presented in her book Eichmann in
Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. "He was not banal," Murmelstein
says, "he was a demon." Some still think of Murmelstein as a demon too. But
if anyone can save his reputation it is the director of Shoah.
The Last of the Unjust is showing at the BFI Southbank, SE1 (020 7928 3535;
bfi.org.uk) until Jan 22

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