Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

An Auteur's Postscript to 'Shoah' ; with 'Last of the Unjust,' Director Finds New Voice in Interviews with Rabbi

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

An Auteur's Postscript to 'Shoah' ; with 'Last of the Unjust,' Director Finds New Voice in Interviews with Rabbi

Article excerpt

With 'Last of the Unjust,' the director finds a new voice in interviews with a rabbi.

The French film director Claude Lanzmann's apartment is decorated with trophies and souvenirs. The latest is an Honorary Golden Bear, his lifetime achievement award from the Berlin film festival this winter.

There is a coffee table with books piled helter-skelter, and copies of Les Temps Modernes, the magazine founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Mr. Lanzmann, who was close to Sartre and closer still to Beauvoir (he lived with her for several years) is its editor in chief. On a wall crowded with photographs are a couple of lovely ones of Beauvoir.

This is not the study of a modest man. Lanzmann is a champion provocateur, best known as the director of the nearly nine-hour "Shoah" (1985). He is presenting his most recent work, "Le Dernier des Injustes" (The Last of the Unjust), out of competition at Cannes on Sunday. "I would have liked being in competition," he said.

"The Last of the Unjust" is built on interviews he conducted during the filming of "Shoah" with Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, who was one of the heads of the Jewish Council at the Theresienstadt concentration camp near Prague. The council was a group set up by the Nazis as a mostly fictitious Jewish administration of the camp.

Mr. Lanzmann has an enormous physical presence in his films. He argues, insinuates, harangues -- then pulls back and listens. Still barrel-chested at 87, he says that he suffers from sleeplessness: "I am an insomniac."

He met Murmelstein in 1975 in Rome for what turned out to be a 17- hour interview, from which he fashioned the 3-hour-and-40-minute "Last of the Unjust."

The film's title was based on the way Murmelstein described himself, referring to Andre Schwartz-Bart's book "Le Dernier des Justes" (The Last of the Just). He knew that his fellow Jews judged him harshly. "But he was a workaholic and he saved 121,000 Jews," Mr. Lanzmann said.

At the beginning of the film, the two men meet against the background of Roman rooftops: the brilliant animated rabbi who ended his days in Rome and the more reserved, questing Mr. Lanzmann. At the end of the film, which takes viewers to the heart of the Nazi system, they are shown arm in arm on the Appian Way.

"I was 50; Murmelstein was 70," Mr. Lanzmann recalled. "He impressed me. He was the first protagonist I filmed for 'Shoah,' but I didn't know how to fit him into the film.

"I was fascinated by the Jewish Council because it was vital to understand what it was, who they were. Despite what others thought, I never thought they were collaborators."

"The French collaborators had the same ideology as the Nazis," Mr. Lanzmann continued. "They were anti-Semitic. Whereas those who were forced into their job had no choice. Murmelstein describes them as marionettes who had to pull their own strings. …

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