TIFF ’13: Revisiting the “Unjust”

At 87, Shoah director Claude Lanzmann has had one of the busiest years of his life, with awards, re-releases, Academy recognition and a new doc bowing in Cannes. As TIFF kicks off today, he talks to realscreen about the latest - and possibly last - film to be fashioned from the outtakes of his Holocaust masterpiece.
September 5, 2013

At 87, Shoah director Claude Lanzmann (pictured) has had one of the busiest years of his life, with awards, re-releases, Academy recognition and a new doc bowing in Cannes. As the Toronto International Film Festival kicks off today (September 5), he talks to realscreen about the latest – and possibly last – film to be fashioned from the outtakes of his Holocaust masterpiece.

In 1985, Claude Lanzmann released his 12-years-in-the-making masterpiece Shoah upon an unsuspecting world, stunning cinemagoers and significantly deepening our understanding of the Holocaust.

At nine-and-a-half hours long, the film eschewed a traditional archival footage approach, instead relying solely on first person testimony – from death camp survivors, Polish bystanders, and surreptitiously filmed Nazis – to paint a vivid, dark and technical portrait of the extermination of millions of Europe’s Jews during the Second World War.

And while the French director shied away from describing the film as a documentary, it has persistently topped ‘greatest docs of all time’ lists in the years since its release. Film critic Gene Siskel fĂȘted it as his top film of ’85, while his then-colleague Roger Ebert went further by refusing to rank it at all; considering it to be in a cinematic class of its own.

Lanzmann has continued to make new films from the more than 300 hours of footage he shot during the making of Shoah, first releasing 1997′s A Visitor from the Living (Un vivant qui passe); followed by 2001′s Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.; and 2010′s The Karski Report (Le rapport Karski).

This year, the filmmaker finished fashioning a fourth film from the Shoah material, premiering The Last of the Unjust (Le dernier des injustes) at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The film looks at Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Jewish Council of Elders, who was appointed by top Nazi Adolf Eichmann to oversee the Theresienstadt Ghetto, a concentration camp in the city of TerezĂ­n.

Murmelstein, who uses the film’s title to describe himself, says he used his role to fight as hard as he could to protect fellow Jews. After the war, he was charged, tried, and acquitted of being a Nazi collaborator.

The doc comprises a series of 1975 interviews Lanzmann originally shot with Murmelstein in Italy, alongside new footage of the director in 2013, revisiting key locations discussed in those conversations nearly 40 years on.

“I spent a whole week with him, on the roof of a hotel in Rome – the Piazza Montecitorio Hotel Nazionale,” recalls Lanzmann, talking to realscreen over coffee in Paris.

“It was a hotel where I used to go when I accompanied [Jean-Paul] Sartre on vacation – he liked Rome very, very much. And it’s a comfortable hotel, not ultra modern but the view from the roof of the hotel, of the other roofs of Rome, is overwhelming.”

benjamin murmelstein (left) talking to filmmaker claude lanzmann in "the last of the unjust"

Benjamin Murmelstein (left) talking to filmmaker Claude Lanzmann (right) in Rome, Italy, in 1975

Lanzmann’s interview sessions with Murmelstein were among the earliest footage shot for Shoah but, like so much of the material filmed, did not make the doc’s final cut. Nevertheless, the filmmaker says the importance of Murmelstein’s testimony has weighed heavily on him in the years since.

“Making this film was very important,” Lanzmann says. “Not only does it add something crucial to Shoah, but the lack of this film was a real loss. I was always haunted by [the idea of] the film, saying to myself, ‘It’s a pity not to do a film with this; you don’t have the right to keep this for yourself.’

“I think that the question of the Jewish Councils was a central one. It was in one way the acme – the summit – of the cruelty of Nazi perversity.

“It is the reason why I was so fascinated by them,” he adds. “All of them [the Elders] had been killed; all except this one, Murmelstein, who – because he was extraordinarily intelligent, with a very acute intelligence – was able to foresee what would happen, how the Nazis would behave, et cetera.”

The Last of the Unjust, he adds, possesses “a completely different tone” to Shoah. “There is no contradiction between the two, but it is definitely not the same, and it is one of the reasons why I could not include Murmelstein in Shoah,” he explains, describing his original opus as “an epic film, with tragedy present from the beginning until the end, without any possibility of escaping.”

The Cannes premiere of Lanzmann’s latest documentary came amid a year of great activity for the French filmmaker.

In February, he was bestowed an honorary Golden Bear and honored with a retrospective at the 63rd Berlinale; in June, prestigious film label The Criterion Collection released a newly remastered version of Shoah, issuing the work on Blu-ray for the first time; and later the same month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited Lanzmann to become a member.

claude lanzmann and benjamin murmelstein in "the last of the unjust"

Meanwhile, The Last of the Unjust continues its festival run this fall, with its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this Sunday (September 8), followed by screenings at the New York Film Festival and the Vienna International Film Festival.

Despite its 220-minute running time, the film has enjoyed positive reviews since playing in Cannes, and French producers Synecdoche and Le Pacte are planning an awards-qualifying run for the film in the U.S.

At 87 years of age, Lanzmann is non-committal about the possibility of making more movies out of the Shoah material – the two and a half years spent working on Unjust were tiring and exacting.

“The difficulties were so great,” he reflects. “It was not a pleasure to return to Theresienstadt. At one point, I gave up. I said, ‘Okay, there are many very beautiful things which were not in Shoah.’ But in another way, it was not such an unbearable suffering.”

Certainly, the positive reception the doc received at its world premiere seems to have somewhat justified the decision.

“Cannes was… it was really extraordinary,” Lanzmann smiles. “I did not expect such a success. And people were extremely warm – I think that they understood that this was not an ordinary film; that it went deep into the human soul, if I may say so.”

  • This interview appears in the forthcoming September/October issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
  • The Last of the Unjust plays during TIFF at Toronto’s Jackman Hall on September 8 and at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 15. Check out a clip from the documentary below:

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