“The Last of the Unjust” is at once a documentary on the Holocaust, a character portrait, an inquiry into the nature of evil, a rumination on drawing moral distinctions, and a lesson on the pedagogical limits of film. This well over three-hour documentary, directed — or should we say “constructed”? — by Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-and-a-half-hour “Shoah” of 1985 set the bar impossibly high for anyone foolish enough to take on the same subject, is an adjunct to that earlier project. In “The Last of the Unjust,” Lanzmann takes a massive amount of interview footage with one Viennese rabbi, Benjamin Murmelstein, originally intended for “Shoah,” and uses it to home in on this particular Jew caught up in the ethical quagmire of the concentration camps.
In this case, the “camp” is the model village Theresienstadt, the former Czech garrison Terezin, “given to the Jews” by Hitler, but used for propaganda purposes such that the International Red Cross was taken in by the elaborate subterfuge. As a Nazi “public relations” film of the period shows, Theresienstadt was populated by happy, well fed children playing games, vigorous Jewish athletes engaged in a soccer match around a large inner courtyard for the pleasure of a packed “house,” and talented Jewish musicians performing symphonic music for the interned masses. Factory workers industriously produced goods for the self-sufficient village, and so purposeful and idealistic are the looks on all of these Jewish faces, one wonders if Leni Riefenstahl could have produced any more invigorating picture of Jews as their own master race. Indeed, in this piece of twisted propaganda, Theresienstadt is made to appear a homeland for which any Jew would seek to make aliyah.
But Lanzmann’s film does not provide a historical reconstruction of the town itself; instead, in a week’s worth of interviews conducted in 1975 with Murmelstein, the third Jewish elder to have administrated the town, and thus a man at the will and whim of the Nazis, Lanzmann forces us to measure the guilt or innocence of a Jewish “collaborator” — one of those Jewish elders whom Hannah Arendt fingered with contempt.
French documentary filmmaker and producer Claude Lanzmann will be honored at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival, where he spoke about filming his famous “Shoah” documentary.
Lanzmann, 87, was expected to receive an Honorary Golden Bear for his lifetime achievement on Thursday evening.
“I was happy, I was moved and I was proud,” Lanzmann told some 200 people who gathered for a conversation between the filmmaker and German film historian Ulrich Gregor the day before the award ceremony.
Lanzmann became famous for his 10-hour, 13-minute documentary, “Shoah,” which was released in 1985 and took about 11 years to make. A digital restoration of the film was shown at the festival, which began Feb. 7 and runs through Feb. 17.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Lanzmann recalled how he had tricked old Nazis into giving him interviews. He said that a turning point in the filmmaking came when he set foot in the Polish village of Treblinka, where the death camp was located. Nearly 1 million Jews were gassed there, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“I could not admit that a village called Treblinka with people living inside it could exist, Lanzmann recalled. “But it did exist.”
Claude Lanzmann, director of the film “Shoah,” has been busy of late. In February, his documentary, “Karski Report,” about how a Polish resistance fighter tried to warn American officials of the Holocaust as it was happening, was released on DVD. Also in February, Lanzmann, who will turn 87 on November 27, encountered some resistance on his own, when he gave a female security guard at the Tel Aviv airport what he called “one accolade around her shoulders – in English, a hug.” This resulted in Lanzmann’s being arrested and finger-printed for alleged sexual harassment.
Undeterred — in March, the[New Statesman described Lanzmann as a truculent rugbyman, a “French prop-forward of the old school - barrel-chested, florid-nosed and with no discernible neck” – Lanzmann’s hyper-energetic creative life continued with the release of the English-language version of his The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir, while Gallimard published a collection of Lanzmann’s articles from 1958 to 2007 “Tomb of the Heavenly Diver.” Its title refers to a 2,500-year-old painted tomb uncovered in 1968 outside Paestum, Greece. Showing an athletic diver throwing himself into a void, the image struck a chord with Lanzmann, who added the word “Heavenly” to what is generally known as “Tomb of the Diver.”
Last week, the Forward reported that Turkey had selected a young Jewish pop singer as its representative to 2012’s Eurovision music competition — an oblique gesture of musical détente at a time of frosty relations between Israel and Turkey.
Now, in a very different kind of cultural milestone, Turkish state television network TRT has announced it will air Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentary “Shoah” on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.
According to the Aladdin Project, whose web site describes its mission as “building bridges of knowledge between Muslims and Jews,” the January 26 airing marks the first broadcast of “Shoah” in a Muslim country. The Aladdin Project helped make the broadcast possible by subtitling “for the first time in Turkish, Arabic and Persian the nine-hour-plus documentary on the extermination of European Jews,” a press release noted.
Film still courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem
On December 6 I attended a screening of “Shoah, the Unseen Interviews,” sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 epic is more than nine hours long and features interviews with 70 individuals from 220 hours of footage (no documentary images are in the monumental film, only interviews with witnesses and survivors). This was a chance to see outtakes from the 220 hours that did not make the original film, clips which are part of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive.
More than 500 people filled the auditorium at Am Shalom synagogue in Glencoe, Illinois, to see these unseen interviews. The outtakes, which feature footage from interviews with three individuals, two of whom are in “Shoah,” will also be screened in January in the New York Jewish Film Festival, and have already been shown in Cleveland and Detroit.
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Read an exerpt of Alfred Kazin’s journals, to be published this spring by Yale University Press.
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How enigmatic Israeli music icon Ofra Haza became a breakout hit on British pirate radio.
Stephen Hazan Arnoff reviews two new books on Bob Dylan.
Joshua Furst goes to see the current revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”
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Benjamin Ivry watches the films of documentarian and social critic Frederick Wiseman.
Crossposted from Haaretz
French director Claude Lanzmann will visit Israel this week to take part in the inauguration of a new display room in kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot. The new hall, called “Treblinka,” will include a display describing the project for the annihilation of European Jewry, with particular focus on the notorious death camp. The exhibition will include photographs, testimonies, archive exhibits and a partial list of companies that benefited from forced Jewish labor, including Mercedes, BMW, Kodak and Siemens. Video footage will include excerpts from Lanzmann’s film “Shoah.”
This is the first time Lanzmann has agreed to allow any museum to permanently display parts of his work, and he will be a guest of honor in the hall’s inauguration.
For 70 years, fans of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” now widely available on DVD, have marveled at the prescience of the comedian’s anti-Nazi satire. Filmed before America actually entered World War II, when some Hollywood movie moguls still soft-pedaled critiques of Hitler, “The Great Dictator” continues to fascinate today.
Recently published by Les éditions Capricci in Nantes, France, “Why Hairdressers? Timely Notes about ‘The Great Dictator,’” by film critic Jean Narboni, makes some new and cogent observations about Chaplin’s film. Narboni, a veteran journalist for the Cahiers du cinéma, compares the nonsense German-like doublespeak used by Chaplin as the dictator Hynkel (see video below) with the Nazi’s “constant corruption of the German language” as noted by the philologist Victor Klemperer.
On April 27, at New York’s French Institute/Alliance Française, the noted French Jewish film director and producer Véra Belmont will introduce one of her films as the culmination of a three-week festival in her honor, running from April 6 to 27.
Born to a couple of humble tailors, Bronka Rotenstein and Hershel Gutenberg, in Paris’s working class 19th arrondissement, Belmont survived the war in hiding, while many of her friends and family members perished in concentration camps. Harrowing wartime experiences made Belmont into a delinquent street kid in postwar Paris, a kind of Jewish Édith Piaf.