Saturday, September 28, 2013

Last of the Unjust (2013) New York Film Festival 2013

Filmmaker and subject

Claude Lanzmann's epic look at Benjamin Murmelstein who was the last leader of the Theresienstadt ghetto (the subject of Lanzmann's Last of the Living) is an almost four hour schizophrenic film in desperate need of an editor.

Last of the Unjust is ultimately two films of very different quality. The first is the interviews Lanzmann did with Murmelstein over the course of a week in 1975 for Shoah. During the course of the interviews Murmelstein tells the story of his life under the Nazi's. and his interaction before and during the early days with Adolf Eichmann when he tried to get Jews out of the country, on through the various attempts at resettlement which lead him to Theresienstadt.

The footage is brilliant and thought provoking. It's a stunning look at a man who tried to do right and survive in a time of great moral ambiguity. Things were so ambiguous that after the war Murmelstein was arrested and tried for collaboration but was found not guilty. That didn't stop many Jews calling for him to be dragged to Israel and executed. This footage  is something that you should see since it paints a portrait of a man and the time he lived in beautifully It raises the intriguing question  is it collaboration if by talking to the enemy you can make life better for the people you are leading?

I could watch Murmelstein talk all day long since he was a character in the true sense of the word. Its clear Lanzmann liked him a great deal since through much of the interview segments he is smiling, Also it's clear by the way he interacts with Murmelstein as they sit and walk together. Lanzmann said that he was haunted by the footage for almost 40 years and its easy to see why.

The second film, which is badly put together is new material shot by the director in the present day in the various locations mentioned. Much of the new material involves Lanzmann either commenting on events, reading from Murmelstein's book with no inflection or simply images of places. Its dull as dirt and boring as all hell and needs to be removed. Granted some of it puts the Murmelstein footage in context, but at the same time its badly organized and goes on way past the point of being interesting into endless droning. In all seriousness how many times do we need to hear kaddish? I was nodding off through most of it. I mean I was almost dead asleep.

The new material is so bad I feel sorry for anyone seeing this in a theater and can not recommend you see it that way. Personally if I had to see this again in a theater I'd walk out.

On the other hand if you can see this streaming or on DVD do so since you can zip past the crap that Lanzmann has padded the gold with.

For me the cool part of the film was afterward as I got to be a fly on the wall as John Anderson and several other big name reviewers had a discussion of the questions of moral ambiguity and what Murmelstein knew and when he knew it. They pondered how many people did he save? (the press notes but the number over 120,000)  and other bits of his story.  Anderson knew enough about the subject to question how much was revision is in Murmelstein's story. It was fascinating and the sort of thing that one only gets to experience once in a life time.  It's also a clear indication about how much food for thought is contained in this very uneven package.

If you want food for thought see this film- but do so on DVD.

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