Click HERE to read my synopsis for Chicago’s JUF News.
“My mother was incapable of choosing, she wanted everything,” Claude Lanzmann tells us early in the text of his huge 528 page memoir The Patagonian Hare. “I’m like her,” he continues. “It is no accident that Shoah runs to nine and a half hours.”
But nothing in “Chaussures Andre, a famous Jewish emporium on the boulevard des Capucines, with an extensive clientele, countless shop assistants and a vast selection of shoes,” could satisfy Pauline. “Distraught and exhausted, the salesgirl moved her stepladder from shelf to shelf, took down another box, yet another pair of shoes only for my mother to reject them.”
And a mere 9 1/2 hours cannot satisfy Pauline’s son either. In 2010 Lanzmann released a six-DVD “special edition” of Shoah (as part of the prestigious “Criterion Collection”) which includes three additional films culled from the footage he couldn’t fit into Shoah: A Visitor from the Living (1999, 68 minutes); Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001, 102 minutes); and The Karski Report (2010, 49 minutes).
I have seen each of these four films in theatres. Shoah’s 9 1/2 runtime is actually 566 minutes, so that’s 785 minutes = 13:05 hours. But in fact, I have seen Shoah twice—once when it was originally shown at Chicago’s Biograph (when it was still a movie theater) sometime in the 1980s, and again at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center in 2011 (just before Criterion’s DVD set became available for purchase in the USA). So I had already devoted 22 hours and 31 minutes of my life—almost an entire day—to watching Claude Lanzmann’s films in theaters before I received the invitation to attend a screening of The Last of the Unjust in Manhattan last November.
The Last of the Unjust is 218 minutes long. So that means I have now passed the 24 hour mark (1,569 = 26:09), not including the time I have spent reading The Patagonian Hare and other books and articles by and/or about Claude Lanzmann… But what does that mean for you?
If you have seen Shoah recently and you want to see more of the same, then the answer is obvious: you should definitely see The Last of the Unjust. But if your memories of Shoah are decades old at this point, I must say with some sadness that the Shoah I saw in 2011 was a far less powerful film than the Shoah I saw way back when at the Biograph. The simple truth is that we all know a great deal more about the Holocaust now than we knew in the 1980s, and while Shoah certainly played a large role in forcing thousands of people all around the world to confront the facts of the Holocaust—in all their awesome enormity—most of us have moved on while it has stayed the same.
The long slow pans of empty spaces intended to capture the ineffable—so moving in the 1980s—now seem merely tedious. Thanks to Lanzmann and all his fellow filmmakers we can now visualize most of the dreadful details. The scenes set in Poland—a country held captive behind the Iron Curtain at the time Lanzmann was shooting his footage—are particularly dated. Polish Catholic filmmakers—and Polish-born Jewish filmmakers now living in Israel—have made powerful documentaries and feature films since Shoah’s initial release in 1985.
It turns out that almost nothing about the Holocaust is “ineffable.” The events we now collect under the rubric of “the Holocaust” were all highly specific, profoundly physical, and tragically human. What makes them different from all other events in human history—so many of which can now be enumerated—lies not in individual particulars but in methodological precision (The Nazis kept such good records!) and cumulative effect (The Nazis deliberately murdered six million civilians—including grandparents and little children—and almost no one anywhere tried to stop them!).
The Last of the Unjust fills in some of the chapters Lanzmann had edited out before, but the more you already know about Nisko (the “reservation” the Nazis forced the Jews to build in the swamps of south east Poland in 1939) and Theresienstadt (the Bohemian “model ghetto” for “prominent” Jews where the Nazis brought members of the Red Cross to refute Allied press reports), the less interesting The Last of the Unjust becomes.
The only thing really new in The Last of the Unjust is the opportunity to spend several uninterrupted hours in the company of Benjamin Murmelstein. Lanzmann interviewed Murmelstein for the better part of a week in 1975, but then he decided not to use any of his Murmelstein footage in Shoah. After all these years, however, Lanzmann has returned to his Murmelstein footage to create yet another Shoah-spinoff, this one about a Rabbi living in Vienna who rose to prominence after the Anschluss, became the last President of the Jewish Council in Theresienstadt, and lived long enough to be the only “Jewish Elder” to survive World War II.
Finding himself left on the cutting room floor in 1985 seems to have been the last straw for Murmelstein. He had managed to transcend all the physical hardships of life in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. He had endured exile and the emotional indignity of watching the Eichmann Trial from afar as an observer rather than as a participant. But seeing Shoah achieve world-wide acclaim without any onscreen input from him was too much. He died soon after—in 1989—from what I diagnose as a broken heart.
My press kit tells me The Last of the Unjust “reveals the true face of Adolf Eichmann,” a man Murmelstein “fought bitterly with… week after week for seven years.” But I didn’t see Eichmann onscreen, I only saw Murmelstein. Murmelstein is the man telling me what he wants me to know about Adolf Eichmann, and what he is telling me is always in the context of “explaining” his own behavior and making the case for his own innocence “under the circumstances.”
I do not doubt anything Murmelstein says about Eichmann. I am sure he did wear the brutal “mask of command” Murmelstein describes whenever Murmelstein—and other Jews—were in his presence. I also have considerable confidence in the report of Peter Malkin, one of the Mossad agents who kidnapped Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1961. (See Eichmann in My Hands by Peter Z. Malkin & Harry Stein.)
I am more skeptical about the Willem Sassen interviews that others have found so persuasive. (According to British Historian David Cesarani in his book Becoming Eichmann: “Eichmann had been lured into the Sassen project partly by the promise of making money… But he was unhappy with the results. Sassen’s transcripts were sometimes less than faithful to the original, he made interpolations of his own, and his commentary sometimes blurred with Eichmann’s.”)
But what is most persuasive to me is what I can see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears in Michael Prazan’s remarkable documentary The Trial of Adolf Eichmann (now available on DVD from the National Center for Jewish Film):
“A man can suddenly find himself in a situation that can make him go mad… How each person reacts depends on the individual,” says Adolf Eichmann to the world from his glass box in an Israeli courtroom. “Bound by my oath of loyalty, I had to deal with matters related to transport, insofar as I had not been released from my oath. That is what I wish to say.”
From the beginning of time, most guilty parties, when confronted with their own misdeeds, have found someone else to blame. “And the man said: ‘The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.’” (Genesis 3:12; Jewish Publication Society)
Murmelstein, comparing himself to Scheherazade, spins story after story about Eichmann, but speaking of his own ruthlessness at Theresienstadt, he justifies his complicity with clichés: “If, during an operation, a surgeon starts crying over his patient, he kills him.”
Although Claude Lanzmann allowed Benjamin Murmelstein ample opportunity to mount his defense, he denied him his day in the court of public opinion while he was still alive for cross-examination. Now he, Lanzmann, mesmerized by a snake charmer, wants the last word. But as far as I can tell, Adolf Eichmann and Benjamin Murmelstein were a matched set (although, of course, Murmelstein’s range of motion was much smaller than Eichmann’s was).
Michael Prazan concludes his documentary The Trial of Adolf Eichmann with these words: “His personality still arouses controversy and conjecture. His attitude through-out the trial attested to his extraordinary self-control, the energy and intelligence he mustered to defend himself, and his utter lack of empathy for his victims.” These same words—call them the prosecutor’s closing argument—should also be used to wrap-up the case against Benjamin Murmelstein, but Lanzmann has lost his courage.
Photo Credit: Claude Lanzmann (left) interviews Benjamin Murmelstein in 1975. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group
Follow this link to learn more about Michael Prazan’s documentary The Trial of Adolf Eichmann.