Never mind, for the moment, that director Claude (Shoah) Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust is another epic documentary on the subject of specifics of the Holocaust. It does qualify in that select subgenre of cinema; it’s a nearly four-hour film based primarily on a long, rambling, and detail-rich interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, the third Elder of the Jews at the infamous “spa” camp/ghetto of Theresienstadt and the only one to survive. After the war, the Elder was accused of being a collaborator, though acquitted, and never visited Israel, explaining “I considered Israel wasn’t competent to try me.”
But more generally, the film is also a strangely fascinating and engaging study of the lingering curiosity and stock-taking of one chapter of the Holocaust story, a real-life, real-world nightmare that can’t and shouldn’t be relegated to distant memory. The secondary subject here is Lanzmann himself, who shot these interviews with the then-70-year-old Murmelstein in Rome in 1975 while working on Shoah but didn’t include any of the footage in the celebrated, 9.5-hour 1985 film. In the interest of storytelling and the urge to “never forget,” the director felt compelled to find a way to get the material out, and now, nearly 40 years later, he has fashioned a unique and uniquely moving documentary, despite — and partly thanks to — the time commitment on the viewer’s part.
As in Shoah, Lanzmann’s cool, narration-free and music-free filming style softens the epic sprawl of the viewing experience, easing us into its slow, probing pace. He returns to the deceptively soothing effect of lavishing long takes on now-peaceful scenery and sites where the WWII-era horrors occurred, often detailed in words. In terms of archival footage and historic imagery, surprisingly little enters into the picture here, apart from occasional drawings by residents of Therensienstadt (ostensibly a haven for artists and musicians), and one stunning example: fragments of a propaganda film made in 1944, showing a sham version of what Adolf Eichmann called a “model ghetto,” with happy workers enjoying a relatively normal village life.
Late in the film, the interrogator and the wily, witty, and detailed interviewee are seen casually strolling around Rome, and the Elder says, “I have the blood of an adventurer. I’ve never backed down from anything in my life,” wryly adding, “You’re the final danger to come my way, I hope.” He cites his age and shrugs, “Sooner or later, the problem of the Jewish Elder will be solved and the dinosaur will vanish.” With this film, the dinosaur and witness to a 20th-century atrocity has one last act on the world stage.