The Last of the Unjust: Did I not get it? Or is the New Yorker's film critic wrong this time?

I couldn't help wishing that a Paxman or a Humphrys could have travelled back in time, and given Murmelstein the treatment

Share

It was, it has to be said, one of the more resistible invitations I've had this year. Would I, a friend of mine asked, like to go and see a four-hour documentary on the Holocaust? Before I could think of a reason why I might be unavailable, he told me it had been acclaimed as a highly significant work, and that, as a Jewish person, it was probably my duty to see it.

So it was that I took my place in a small audience to see The Last of the Unjust, directed by Claude Lanzmann, the French film-maker and former Resistance fighter whose lifetime mission it is to document the Holocaust, and who was responsible for Shoah, the eight-hour epic which many believe is the definitive work on Nazi era.

Thankfully, I hadn't read Anthony Lane's review of Lanzmann's latest offering before I saw it, so I was able to make my own mind up. Lane, the New Yorker's film critic, is one of the world's most influential reviewers and, boy, did he go town on The Last of the Unjust. “No character that you see onscreen this year will match the impact that is made by Benjamin Murmelstein,” he writes. The film is a series of interviews from 1975 conducted  by Lanzmann with Murmelstein, who comes across as an articulate, avuncular, old man, but was an important - and controversial - figure in Holocaust history, holding the position of Elder of the Jews in Theresienstadt, the “model ghetto” in Poland constructed by the Nazis, and where Jews in their many tens of thousands were sent to live, and die.

Murmelstein was appointed to his position by the Nazis, and there are those who believe that, far from being a hero - a pragmatic man who did what was necessary to survive, and to protect as many of his fellow Jews as he could - he was no less than a collaborator, assisting Adolf Eichmann to realise his unspeakable vision. The interviews are off-cuts from Shoah which, subsequently, Lanzmann believed merited a separate film. In the story of Theresienstadt, he says, we can see how the Nazis formulated the final solution.

Lane praises Lanzmann's tireless, forensic approach to his task as heroic, and no one can gainsay that. My problem was that - having not had the New Yorker man's encomium in my mind - I thought the film was terrible. It was unnecessarily long, as if its power came from its ability to exhaust the watcher, and - quite some feat, this, given the subject matter - it was strangely unmoving. As an interviewer, Lanzmann just doesn't cut it. The central proposition of the story - Murmelstein, hero or villain? - is ignored until right at the end, when he is lobbed a few questions, which he bats back with practised ease. I couldn't help wishing that a Paxman or a Humphrys could have travelled back in time, and given Murmelstein the treatment. We are left none the wiser at the end, as film-maker and subject walk arm in arm through the streets of Rome. I felt confused, but not as much as when I read Anthony Lane's review, and a more prosaic question gripped me: was I right, or was he? 

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Engineer

£21000 - £23600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Purchase Ledger & Arrears Supervisor

£22000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are an experienced super...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Web Designer

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Durham Free School, which has already been ordered to close, has been accused of harbouring  

From creationism and bullying to reading abilities that go backwards, free schools are a complete and utter failure

Tristram Hunt
 

Now’s the time to bring back Top Of The Pops

David Lister
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss