Cannes 2013 – Out of Competition
1975. In Rome, Claude Lanzmann filmed a series of interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last President of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia, the only “Elder of the Jews” (according to Nazi terminology) not to have been killed during the war. A rabbi in Vienna, following the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, Murmelstein fought bitterly with Adolf Eichmann, week after week for seven years, managing to help around 121,000 Jews leave the country, and preventing the liquidation of the ghetto.
2012. Claude Lanzmann, at 87 – without masking anything of the passage of time on men, but showing the incredible permanence of the locations involved – exhumes these interviews shot in Rome, returning to Theresienstadt, the town “given to the Jews by Hitler”, a so-called model ghetto, but a ghetto of deceit chosen by Adolf Eichmann to dupe the world. We discover the extraordinary personality of Benjamin Murmelstein: a man blessed with a dazzling intelligence and a true courage, which, along with an unrivaled memory, makes him a wonderfully wry, sardonic and authentic storyteller.
Through these three periods, from Nisko in Poland to Theresienstadt, and from Vienna to Rome, the film provides an unprecedented insight into the genesis of the Final Solution. It reveals the true face of Eichmann, and exposes without artifice the savage contradictions of the Jewish Councils.
From the acclaimed director of the epic masterpiece SHOAH.
A powerful reflection on the beginning of Hitler’s Final Solution is seen through the intelligent, sardonic eyes of an aged eyewitness... Claude Lanzmann’s previously unseen 1975 interview with the last Jewish Council Elder, Benjamin Murmelstein, is a unique historical document... In almost four hours of relentless interviews and reflection, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann returns to the ghostly lands of Shoah, his 91?2 hour documentary which has been a watershed for human knowledge about the Holocaust since it appeared in 1985... The forcefulness of Murmelstein’s personality carries the audience through some longeurs in a powerful, often painful revisitation that is bound to unleash new debate on the role of Jews who worked for the Nazis... Lanzmann’s great strength as a filmmaker is the clarity of his moral stance, which comes through in every question he asks, in every chilling image shot by master French cinematographer Caroline Champetier of the empty, staring streets, the carefully repainted buildings, the innocent-looking train stations that the viewer is demanded to envision otherwise. Sketches flash on the screen, as shocking as they are moving, of hearses and bent figures, drawn by Jewish artists who buried their work deep in the ground of the camp. This is another film that forces you to stare at the horror, however painful it is to do so.. the fine ending is impossible not to watch.
— Deborah Young, HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
Demanding and deeply rewarding... While the raw footage of Lanzmann’s dense, probing conversations with the brilliant Murmelstein has been available previously at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the filmmaker has shaped the material, along with newly shot scenes, into an aptly somber and searing investigation, one that richly deserves distribution and discussion... Throughout the nearly four-hour documentary, the filmmaker uses contemporary images to suggest various European sites as “living” witnesses to the horrors that Murmelstein describes in voiceover. The viewer is thereby asked to imagine the worst, which feels at least as devastating as the result of anything that a narrative filmmaker might depict. Lanzmann also includes contempo images of a cantor delivering the first prayer of Yom Kippur; shots of haunting eyewitness sketches by Jewish artists who buried their work underground; and portions of a tattered black- and-white Nazi propaganda film of the Theresienstadt camp — the “model ghetto” ... By the end of the docu, it becomes clear that, among its many other accomplishments, “The Last of the Unjust” has rendered a tale of two men valiantly working — sometimes tussling — to establish a vital historical record, and coming to respect one another greatly in the process.
— Rob Nelson, VARIETY
Claude Lanzmann's sprawling 1985 documentary "Shoah" deserves its slot as the definitive non-fiction Holocaust movie, but even its eight-hour running time can't fully encompass the director's years of research. Lanzmann spent a decade gathering interviews exploring virtually every angle of that tumultuous period, wisely relying on first-hand testimonies and the haunting quality of contemporary locations where the genocide took place to give his chronicle weight. With "The Last of the Unjust," he proves the approach maintains its gripping power... "The Last of the Unjust," a 218-minute look at the Czech ghetto Theresienstadt and one of the Jewish men tasked with running it, magnifies a previously underexplored tale of persecution with incredible dexterity. By unearthing a series of interviews conducted in 1975 with the elderly Benjamin Murmelstein, the only survivor of the so-called "Elder of the Jews" in charge of the ghetto, Lanzmann resurrects the aesthetics of "Shoah" while extending its narrative into a new chapter... "The Last of the Unjust" rewards those willing to invest in Lanzmann's pensive technique with a complex tale that's alternately sad, enlightening, unexpectedly witty and ultimately exhausting, but carried along throughout by Lanzmann's commitment... By reading excerpts from Murmelstein's memoir and other documents about the experience of Theresienstadt's residents while adding additional context, Lanzmann allows his 87-year-old self to become as much a character in the film as the younger, sprightlier version who appears in the archival content. Though he hasn't mellowed with age, he appears more introspective, adding poetic insights alongside the empirical content.
— Eric Kohn, INDIEWIRE