An Everlasting Name
By Max Nelson
The Last of the Unjust
Dir. Claude Lanzmann, France/Austria, Cohen Media Group
Claude Lanzmann, the most intractable and demanding of modern filmmakers, has spent his career hammering out two iron-clad, seemingly unresolvable principles: a) memory, in any really meaningful sense of the word, is close to impossible, and b) memory is completely, indisputably necessary. Lanzmann’s films, all of which concern the experience of European Jews during the Holocaust, are less about solving this problem than they are about making inroads into it, encompassing it, defining it. His latest, The Last of the Unjust, is a wide-ranging, digressive essay film, half new footage shot in crisp HD during the director’s recent travels through Eastern Europe; half footage originally shot for, though not used in, Shoah. In Lanzmann’s work, all roads lead quickly to that looping, nine-hour torrent of precise, agonizing details—a film that commands us to remember, if only by sheer brute force of will.
Many of Shoah’s admirers have emphasized the way Lanzmann conflates—or, as Kent Jones put it, collapses—the present and the past. This is clear in the film’s unforgettable first shot of an aging survivor paddling down the same river he once traveled as a thirteen-year-old prisoner, humming the same folk songs the Gestapo once forced him to sing; in the way the camera probes the ruins of onetime extermination sites, zooming in, tracking forward, or just standing mutely in place; in the way it retraces the path of a prisoner on work detail descending into a crematorium, or that of a train creeping towards Birkenau. Certainly, Shoah’s method of historical excavation rests partly on the assumption that the past is alive in the present—if nothing else than as an unforgettable memory or an ineffaceable trace. Equally striking, though, is the emphasis Shoah places on the passage of time: the untended grass growing in Chełmno; the weeds sprouting up between tracks in an Auschwitz railway line; the snow falling gently on Sobibór; the inexplicable stillness of landscapes where thousands once perished in a day. Time and nature have been working, Lanzmann suggests, to bring about the Nazis’ intention that, as one subject puts it, “not one trace [be] allowed to remain.”
Late in his life, W. G. Sebald wrote, “We can no longer speak of everlasting memory and the veneration of our forebears. On the contrary: the dead must be cleared out of the way as quickly and comprehensively as possible.” For Sebald, this condition was the result of spiking population densities, and, critically, lack of space: “Where will they all go, the dead of Buenos Aires and São Paulo, of Mexico City, Lagos and Cairo, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Bombay?” There’s no shortage of space in Shoah. Instead, Lanzmann suggests that the Holocaust was designed to erase its own traces, in part by scrambling western civilization’s long-held assumptions about the value and purpose of memory.
For Lanzmann, the Holocaust permanently severed the Enlightenment’s already tenuous association between moral progress and progress in time. It left its victims stranded in a wide-open space without nation, family, or history, like the resistance fighter in Shoah’s final monologue who, returning to his Warsaw ghetto after it’s been reduced to ashes and rubble, wanders through the ruins all night tracing phantom voices and finds himself hopelessly alone, as if he was “the last Jew.” (In this context, the film’s epigraph, drawn from God’s promise to the Israelites in Isaiah 56:5—“and I will give them an everlasting name”—seems like a gesture either of defiant resistance or bitter defeat.) But it also demonstrated that the most advanced developments in industry, communication, and large-scale organization could be put to the basest and most inhuman ends. It proved that history doesn’t always ascend toward the light; that the forward movement of time and technology doesn’t always entail the refinement of values and the improvement of man; that modernity could be its own kind of dark age. Adorno famously declared, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In his films, Lanzmann suggests that to remember after Auschwitz, at least in the moral, progressive sense that memory once carried, is impossible—except, perhaps, through poetry.
Which is what makes Shoah so necessary, and so fiercely positive in its aims despite the utter horror of its subject: the film itself is a kind of trace, a piece of evidence, a link between present and past. By layering his subjects’ spoken testimonies over those tranquil fields and overgrown ruins, Lanzmann actively, sometimes violently, imposes the past onto the present. He makes Treblinka’s trees and Warsaw’s paving-stones remember a crime they never saw, or one to which they’ve long stopped bearing witness. This re-coupling of the present and past doesn’t necessarily imply a return to the old, progressive Enlightenment vision of history as a continuous path towards moral improvement (what would?), but it is, if nothing else, evidence of Lanzmann’s intimation that art can give form to the inconceivable, names to the unnamable, and memory to the forgotten—or at least prevent the dead from being cleared out of the way as quickly and comprehensively as possible.
During the filming of Shoah, Lanzmann shot nearly nine hours of interview footage with Benjamin Murmelstein, the third and final Jewish Elder of Theresienstadt. Essentially, Murmelstein had been a Nazi-installed figurehead commissioned to keep the Czech “model ghetto”—a concentration camp in everything but name—in good running order. For seven years, he reported directly to Adolf Eichmann. Murmelstein wasn’t meant to survive—both of his predecessors had been executed, and it was only a matter of time before he, too, stepped out of line—but he was seen through by a mixture of good timing, careful calculation, and, many would say, a great deal of moral compromise. For the rest of his life, his very existence would be a mark of guilt: “Why are you living?” he recalls being asked during his imprisonment and pre-trial in 1945. (“Why are you?” he shot back, a bit blindly.) A onetime rabbi and scholar, he shied away from Jewish cultural life—and the fact that he worked for years in the Papal Biblical Institute after settling in Rome certainly didn’t help. In the eyes of his own people, he was a collaborator, a traitor, and a tyrant to boot: his rule over Theresienstadt, to the extent that he had one, was notoriously iron-fisted.
Murmelstein didn’t made it into Shoah, perhaps because he was too strong a personality, perhaps because of the special moral fuzziness of his position: had he been presented as one more voice in that film’s vast catalogue of victims, bystanders, and perpetrators, it might have been harder to make out his strange status as none—and all—of the above. (Not that it’s especially easy to make sense of it now.) But he is the unequivocal star of The Last of the Unjust, an excitable, mesmerizing performer who plays with his legacy like an actor chewing scenery. He’s speaking onscreen for about two of the film’s three-and-a-half hours, red-eared, combed-over, and conspicuously dewlapped, with a jowly face and eyes blown out of proportion by a pair of thick glasses. In Lanzmann’s footage, he comes off as a born self-mythologizer. A single passage has him comparing himself to, among other things, Orpheus and Eurydice (from which he concludes that “sometimes it’s best not to look back”—a motto that Lanzmann has spent his career trying to resist); Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, telling stories to save her life; the slaves in the Ancient East who would be made king for a day, mocked, then executed; Little Red Riding Hood trapped with the wolf; a marionette pulling its own strings; and, a little immodestly, Christ on the day of the Passion. None of Shoah’s subjects took such evident glee in their own self-presentation, and none, when it came down to recounting details, did so with Murmelstein’s urgent, obsessive zeal. His extended monologues on the logistics of managing a ghetto day-by-day touch on typhus epidemics, fuzzy bookkeeping, the constant struggle to get emigration requests through fields of red tape, the difficult business of securing better housing for the elderly and sick, and the constant pressure from Nazi higher-ups to keep things presentable. Eventually, everything else recedes into a distant abstraction, from the death camps (which, says Murmelstein, went undiscovered in Theresienstadt until 1944), to the ghetto’s miserable quality of life.
His motives come across as terribly mixed. When asked why he turned down two separate chances to flee the country in 1939 (returning home after a trip to London, and later giving away two Palestinian travel certificates to a friend), he makes an appeal to duty: “Can you not accept,” he snaps back, “that someone has the impression that he has to do something?” (And he did do something, pushing to obtain visas for Jews who had only a narrow time to emigrate.) And then, almost in the same breath: “Perhaps it was a thirst for adventure.” Murmelstein has a habit of conflating the power to will and the pleasure of willing with the moral right to will; in this respect, perhaps, his rhetoric isn’t very different from that of his oppressors. Listening to him can be paralyzing. “I am just human,” he confesses. “That is—who is displeased with power? By which I mean the possibility to accomplish something, the possibility of doing something. This is real satisfaction. For what did I abuse power? Not to get advantages for me, not to get advantages for my family, but just in order to help people.”
Further complicating matters is Lanzmann himself, who settles over the course of the interview into a loose, chummy mode unglimpsed in Shoah. He has a complicated affinity for Murmelstein, equal parts awe at the depth of the man’s capacity for self-justification, respect for his intransigence, and identification with his outsider status. The film’s final shot is of the two men walking off into the distance, the director’s arm flung over his subject’s shoulder. This would have seemed like a kind of violation in Shoah—where Lanzmann’s identification wasn’t supposed to depend on the character of any single victim—but it’s in keeping with the director’s more forthright personal presence throughout The Last of the Unjust.
Throughout Shoah, Lanzmann maintained a kind of furious, animated (and animating) invisibility: he was the patient listener who’d occasionally interject a blunt, crippling question; the impassive fringe of hair glimpsed at the bottom of the frame; the gaze that would linger mercilessly on choked-up faces until they carried their testimony to the end. In his footage of the ruined camps, he seemed to disappear into the lens, as if identifying himself with his camera was a way of empathizing with the victims of Chełmno and Birkenau. (“I truly think it was possible,” he wrote in his memoir The Patagonian Hare, “that I was in the grip of a sort of madness… in each of the places of death, I wanted to make the last journey, descending with [cinematographer Dominique] Chapuis, camera in hand, the steps to the vast underground rooms of [the Birkenau crematoria.]”) Nine hours, and he barely ever makes a judgment himself. The verdict, or whatever there is of a verdict, is there in the rocks, the trees, and the camera’s restless forward advances.
In contrast, the Lanzmann of The Last of the Unjust is less a guiding presence or an animating spirit than a flesh-and-blood man: chatty, forthright, quick to judgment and prone to melancholy. He’s onscreen from the film’s first shot, standing on a train platform with a bundle of papers clutched tightly in one hand, drumming his fingers impatiently like a theater director pacing backstage on opening night. Over the course of the film, he drifts in and out of a handful of roles, from tour guide to diarist to confessor to professorial lecturer. “Zarzecze is still there,” he tells us over car-window footage of a small Polish town, “with all the trappings of the modern world—even a nightclub.” It’s hard to imagine Shoah’s Lanzmann inserting that even, or referring to a manuscript as bouleversant (“overwhelming”), or whispering that Prague’s Old New Synagogue is “magnificent.” If Lanzmann once came off as a self-proclaimed channel for the suffering of millions, a kind of Great Synthesizer between past and present, here he seems more like a solitary traveler making his way through a strange and hostile world: a guy whose opinions and affections are pointedly his, and often his alone.
The Last of the Unjust is less a poem of Homeric proportions in the Shoah mode than a loose, baggy personal essay. Here, Lanzmann rarely takes on the burden of speaking directly for the six million; instead he circles wearily around his huge and terrible subject as if wondering where to begin. Now more than ever, Lanzmann seems like a man singularly out of step with time, a wandering prophet lost in a world that seems not to want his message. If Murmelstein is the last of the unjust, Lanzmann is among the last of the old-fashioned modernists, still clinging, fervently and unfashionably, to his faith in the power of art to catch and redeem life. There is a beautiful moment in The Last of the Unjust when, tracking across the interior of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, he reflects on the millions of names printed on the walls (“so many pressed together . . . we’re close to illegibility”), then zooms in steadily on a small handful: “Suddenly, they become visible. Some names stick out.” It’s an elegant metaphor for the camera’s ability to bring the invisible to light, but something about it sticks clumsily out. Why speak? What is Lanzmann telling us that we can’t see for ourselves? One response might be that he’s not talking to us at all; that most of the film’s discourse is private and introspective. He’s thinking out loud.
Here, for instance, is Lanzmann as he wanders through a dilapidated, overgrown ex-barrack: “This place in the Ústecký Barrack in Theresienstadt was a dead place, and also a place of death. Yet it has suddenly come alive for me.” We, the audience, are at least partly left out of the picture. Lanzmann may be speaking for our benefit, but he’s speaking about something to which we can’t possibly have access: his own solitary communion with the past. Elsewhere he meets us halfway, staring the camera down and reciting passages from Murmelstein’s diary, or imitating the way former Theresienstadt elder Paul Eppstein stood before the SS in the moments leading up to his death. But even here, Lanzmann rarely returns to his onetime brand of history-by-immersion. He rarely invites us to take on his perspective, and never forces us, as he once did, to travel with him down weed-choked railways or into ruined crematoriums. Shoah’s moral power comes precisely from its willingness to bully—which applies both to Lanzmann’s habit of stubbornly, relentlessly pressing his subjects for details, and to the way his irrevocable tracking shots strong-arm us into remembrance, pulling us forcibly along. (Crucially, though, we’re kept from identifying ourselves too completely with the victims: Shoah is always dramatizing its own failure to evoke, and suggesting by extension how much of its subject is unevokable, unavailable for our vicarious experience.)
In The Last of the Unjust, Lanzmann keeps us on a longer leash. He gives us the freedom to remember how we please—which is also, perhaps, the freedom to forget. Lanzmann’s on-camera readings and extended monologues are starting points as opposed to closed circuits; in a way, they’re a kind of demonstration aimed at anyone willing to pick up where he leaves off. So, for that matter, are the watercolors, drawings, and sketches of Theresienstadt life that Lanzmann submits for our consideration, or the names on the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue, or that nightclub in Zarzecze. So, in a slightly different way, are Murmelstein’s monologues. And so are the photographs and Nazi propaganda film clips that Lanzmann inserts near the start of The Last of the Unjust, breaking a career-wide ban on archival footage—a ban for which he’s long been chastised. (His first-ever cutaway to a photograph, early in The Last of the Unjust, is abrupt and, for all intents and purposes, gratuitous. You can almost hear him asking, “Are you happy now? Can we move on?”) Where Shoah was about inventing—and forcibly implementing—a system of memory that wouldn’t buckle under the weight of a mass tragedy, The Last of the Unjust is about suggesting alternative systems as yet untried. If that film was the lighting of a flame, this one is the passing of a torch.