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'The Last of the Unjust' review: Claude Lanzmann's epic follow-up to 'Shoah' Holocaust documentary

Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein

Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein "The Last of the Unjust." Credit: Cohen Media Group

At nearly four hours, "The Last of the Unjust" is a short subject for Claude Lanzmann -- "Shoah," his landmark 1985 Holocaust documentary, clocked in at 9½ hours. The new film, drawn from interviews that the now-87-year-old Lanzmann conducted in 1975 with the charmingly problematic Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, is a companion piece, of sorts, to the monumental "Shoah." But it possesses its own soul, and heart, and makes its own way toward trying to explain what Lanzmann himself knows is the inexplicable.

Eschewing chronology, using neither Murmelstein's interview segments nor the contemporary footage of Theresienstadt in any standardized fashion, Lanzmann creates the same kind of disorienting ambiguity that his subject presents, however unjustly. The title is coined, facetiously, by Murmelstein himself (it is a reference to the André Schwarz-Bart novel "The Last of the Just"), because at the end of the war he was accused by fellow Jews of having collaborated with the Nazis in administering Theresienstadt, the infamous "model camp" of Nazi propaganda films. Murmelstein was the last of the chairmen of elders whom the Nazis appointed to administer the Jewish population, an impossible task. And though he saved many lives, no good deed goes unpunished.

Murmelstein, who served 18 months in prison after the war, stood trial and was eventually acquitted of all charges. Questions remained, however, and Lanzmann raises them again by way of his 1975 interviews, intercut with recent visits to Holocaust sites in Austria and the Czech Republic (Theresienstadt was between Prague and Dresden). In that 1975 interview, Murmelstein addresses Lanzmann's skepticism and questions with earnestness, passion and -- as if the rest of it wasn't troubling enough -- what seems like total recall.

PLOT The last Jewish elder of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, is interviewed in 1975.

RATING PG-13 (some thematic material)


BOTTOM LINE Epic. (In French and German with English subtitles)

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