Son of Saul/Geza Rohrig (actor)

In order to execute the more than 1 million Jews, Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, German mental patients, and gays who died at Auschwitz alone, the Nazis set up a highly efficient extermination machine. At its heart were the gas chambers, where victims were poisoned with Zyklon B. Their bodies were removed from the chambers, processed, and transported to crematoria, where their remains were incinerated, ground to dust and mixed with ashes. The Nazis carried out the gassings, but the rest was done by the Sonderkommando—groups of young Jewish men forced to do the Nazis’ dirty work or be executed themselves. It is here, in the middle of the gas chamber, where Son of Saul unfolds: Sonderkommando member Saul Auslander recognizes one of the bodies in the gas chamber as his son’s. Son of Saul is rightly being hailed as revolutionary for its groundbreaking mode of presenting the Holocaust: the dead bodies are kept in the background, blurred, so that we can only hear the horror in the terrifying soundscape, or read its impact on Saul’s face, which fills nearly every frame. Less is more, and the effect is devastating. Director Talk speaks with Geza Rohrig, the remarkable man who portrays Saul Auslander, about the filmmakers’ intentions in making the movie.  More than an actor, Rohrig is a poet, a Jewish scholar, and a philosopher, all of which he brings to his role as Saul. Son of Saul is the winner of the 2016 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and nominee for a 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Availability: Opens on Friday, December 18 in New York (Lincoln Plaza and Film Forum) and Los Angeles. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  The members of the Sonderkommando were controversial figures, both during the Holocaust and afterward. As an actor, you had to deal with the moral dilemma of being in the Sonderkommando. How did you personally address this aspect of your role?

 

GR:  The institution of the Sonderkommando shows nothing but to what point a human being can be brought under permanent threat of death. I think judgment has to be suspended when it comes to the Sonderkommando. These people were not voluntary accomplices of the executioners. They were unwilling, but they were lured into a deadly trap. They had no real choice whatsoever apart from committing suicide. They had no way to refuse or to resign the task.

They were inducted right upon arrival at the ramp. The Nazis approached these people wisely right upon arrival, when they were dazed and shattered by this often weeklong or ten-day-long trip in a cattle car with no water, and promised these people a better life. They were not given any sort of advance notice about the task, any sort of job description. The Nazis just asked, Who wants to have a better life? They promised better food, less atrocious conditions. The Sonderkommando members slept on mattresses, they didn’t have to shave their hair, they were in a heated bunker, as opposed to the others. These privileges were the ones that were promised to them, and the Nazis kept their word. Except….the Sonderkommando were better fed for the simple reason that it was exhausting manual labor for them to schlepp the dead bodies. The whole system was predicated on the premise of how can the greatest number of Jews be murdered with the least number of Germans involved. That was the whole idea—to leave the dirty work to the Jews so Jews burned Jews.

The Sonderkommando members had no say in this. The will to live is independent from a person very, very quickly. It’s uncontrollable. Unless you are a saint—unless you are a saint—it’s not fair for anyone to say to you, Why don’t you commit suicide? While you’re clearly participating in the extermination machine, you are not the one who conceived or implemented the Final Solution. You were thrown into this situation. The Sonderkommando members just wanted to survive. So what I’m saying is that morally speaking, with the conception of free and civil society that we are trying to use in 2015, with iPhones in our pockets and without being in their shoes, it’s outrageous to label them this and that. These people were traumatized, these people were the victims, and the burden of guilt should not be shifted to them. It belongs to the perpetrators.

 

DT:  In another interview, you spoke about the loneliness of the Sonderkommando. I was very struck by that, because of all the feelings I would conjure up for them, loneliness is not one of them.

GR:  I was answering a question about Saul Auslander, the character I play, who happens to be the protagonist of this movie. There are social people, and there are less social people. Just by the script, Saul Auslander was clearly a lonely guy, and his last name attests to that; it doesn’t just mean “foreigner” or “outsider.” I would in some way translate it poetically as “extraterrestrial.” He is Auslander, he is almost a UFO. And you can see in this movie that while the others are eating together and singing and playing guitar and being much more chatty, he happens to be a lonely man, and a lonely man gets even lonelier as a Sonderkomannado member because Auschwitz is a planet. There is no surrounding world. It gradually disappears. If you are in Auschwitz, that’s all you know about. You’re going to lose your past. You’re going to lose your future. All you’ve got is the minute you find yourself in. Saul did not really have friends; somehow everybody is pissed off with him. He’s jeopardizing the rebellion, Abraham keeps wanting to have conversations but all Sam gives him is one-line responses. Saul’s a lonely man.

 

DT:  In the Hollywood Reporter, your cameraman is quoted as saying, “We tried to hide as much of the information as possible.” He was, of course, referring to the horror of what was physically happening day to day in the gas chambers and the crematoria. Director Laszlo Nemes and cameraman Matyas Erdely kept all of that in the background while focusing on your face, your gestures, your physical presence instead. You worked very closely with them.  Knowing what they were doing, what kind of burden did that put on you as an actor?

GR: We dogmatically followed through with that explicit treatment of the horror in a principled way. Throwing it into the viewers’ faces would be counterproductive. It’s too much. We had to reduce the scope. The Holocaust, the enormity of horror, is too much. It can’t be fit into film, and it’s almost unethical to do it. What you have to do is leave it out of focus, you have to keep it blurry, and in that way, the power of suggestion speaks much more to the viewers, making them use his or her imagination, as opposed to spoon-feeding and telling too much in a voyeuristic way. We felt—and that was our general approach—that in making a movie that was trying to interrogate the very nature of the Shoah, the most you can talk about is one man’s experience. Otherwise you’re going to end up with this historical drama full of interpretations and all that. That’s not what we wanted….we thought that was a postwar perspective.

What we wanted to do is to immerse the viewer, to take the viewer as a companion of the protagonist and be in the here and there, so instead of making a film about the Holocaust from the outside, we wanted to shoot a movie from the inside, the here and now. This is one day of one man, the face of one man. To make it…less is more. By focusing [on Geza Rohrig, rather than on the physical reality of the crematoria], we were able to create a visceral experience, something where you can almost smell the stench, the odor, you are right there.

Instead of talking about an abstract Holocaust, we wanted to create an experience that’s really not an emotional experience. We didn’t want the viewer to cry. No one cries at this movie, because crying makes you feel good, especially after. When you’re done with crying, your system is clear, you feel good, probably better than before crying. It’s a good feeling; it’s cathartic. We wanted to deliver a punch to the stomach or the throat. Something that lasts, whose impact lasts longer than just a cry. We wanted to create something that comes up in your dreams. It’s something that doesn’t let you emerge unscarred and safe. Basically what we are saying is that the world cannot become a better place unless the people become better people in it, and I don’t think that’s a possible case to make. I don’t think people become better in history.

 

DT:  Why did the script appeal to you so much?

 

GR:  The honesty of it. I felt the genre is frustratingly fake and false. I think most movies on this subject matter use and abuse the drama of the Holocaust. They run stupid stories of survival and love, and all kind of rescue, and all kinds of stories in front of this background. They throw in a couple of cliches and swastikas, and then they have this entertaining, conventional, melodramatic kitsch at the end. The reason for my disappointment with the genre is that you are making a movie about a state-sponsored, full-scale genocide that attempts to erase an entire race from the face of the earth, in the heart of the European civilization, where practically nobody stands up, Church leaders included. The best humanist ethical traditions and legacies are all out the window, and it’s a free-for-all.

Two Jews out of three are murdered during the Holocaust in Europe. If that is what your subject matter is, then you better not water it down or treat it lightly. All these other movies that I saw talk about the third, the lucky third who made it through, who survived. We wanted to make a movie about the first two, the ones who died. That was the norm. Every survival was due to a systemic error. No one was meant to survive, and if you want this world to heal, if you want a new era underway, then you have to admit what happened and not sugar-coat it, not Disnify it. If you find it too dark, then don’t make a movie about the Holocaust.

But if you are interested in it, then you have to get into that taboo zone, the very center of the hell, that basically defines and shows the full extent of the crime. And that is exactly where the Sonderkommando members worked—the zone right there between the gas chambers and the crematoria. That is basically what the Holocaust is. The rest is stories. This is what it really was. Without this, you’re talking about something else. I felt this movie should have been done by others long ago, but they didn’t, probably because they themselves felt that they didn’t get the right cinematic language, they didn’t get the right angle, the right plot. It took seven years for the director to come up with this. I’m not saying it’s easy, but once I read the script, I was able to fully believe in it, and I felt we all knew that there was something special in birth here. We were very devoted and focused on bringing it alive.

 

DT:  There’s a problematic element to making art about the Holocaust, whether it’s literature, or painting, or cinema, especially when the artist did not experience it directly.

 

GR:  Yes.

 

DT:  At the same time, the story needs to be told.

 

GR:  Yes.

 

DT: So what is our responsibility to the story of the Holocaust, both in terms of not letting it die, but also in terms of respecting the fact that we’re basically telling someone else’s story.  I mean, we’re Jewish, but it’s someone else’s story. We weren’t there.

 

GR:  Yes, but it’s tricky, because the Holocaust is a multigenerational, or transgenerational, trauma. It’s phantom pain. I am the third generation, and I feel the pain of a limb that was amputated from my grandfather’s body. I feel the pain, and the pain is real. These kinds of traumas go beyond one generation. Just because I wasn’t there and I did not experience it directly, the enormity of the event is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if one day they would point out that in some genetic way even this trauma is transmitted. [In fact, researchers are beginning to find scientific evidence to support this idea.]

But leaving genetics aside, my grandparents and parents tried to spare me, thinking in a silly way that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Of course the psychic reality of the parents is being communicated, and children pick it up in a million nonverbal ways. You don’t have to be told what your parents or grandparents have been through. It will somehow trickle down, and you’re going to get it. When I was twelve, I confronted my grandfather and showed him photos that I found in the apartment. They were prewar photos, these brownish, silverish photos. I kind of guessed, but I wanted to hear it from him: Who were these people? I could see right away from his face that on the one hand, he was in deep trouble because he’d consciously decided not to discuss this with us, but I also felt a great liberation and relief that it was out of the closet and he could speak about it and let it go from a deep, deep realm of his personality. So he talked, and he said, “These are my parents, this is my pregnant sister, this is my eleven-year-old younger brother,” and then the whole story came out, bit by bit.

I think there are two statements that are equally true. One is that it’s impossible to do Holocaust art, and the other is that it’s necessary to do Holocaust art. What tips the balance is if you have the right calling, so to speak. If it’s really an urgency, if it’s really coming from the right place, then you have to do it, because it would be a great gift for the Nazis of this world to keep silent and not talk about it. When we did this movie, we were not just making a Holocaust movie. We never thought that the Holocaust itself is a parochial and only a Jewish issue. If you ask me, during the Holocaust Christianity failed its greatest test since its origins. This should be as important to Christians as it is for Jews. What happened is mind-boggling and paralyzing and outrageous and a scandal on so many levels. For a Jew, it’s obviously a challenge to his or her faith: We have a covenant with God, and He certainly could have intervened a bit sooner. He did not, so that’s a struggle in itself. And then for me, as a Hungarian, there was this extremely shameful episode of being an unwanted citizen who is delivered for clear purposes of being liquidated and annihilated. How will that affect my relationship with my country?

This creates a crisis in many ways, and I think that humankind unfortunately tries to sweep this under the rug. Genocide…not just ours, so to speak, but the Cambodian, the Bosnian, the Rwandan, Darfur, you name it…all the genocides, with their alarming frequency since the Second World War, how many of them do we need to understand that this should be a point of departure when we are thinking about modernity?  It’s an essential part of the legacy, and somehow people keep trying to hold firm to this illusion of progress. I understand the progress in science, I understand the progress in technology, but I simply can’t see the progress in terms of how we relate to one another.  I don’t. And that’s scary, because with that prospect going right into the twenty-first century, I’m extremely pessimistic.

 

DT: I was very moved by something you said at the New York Film Festival Q&A. You referred to Psalm 28, in which David pleads with God not to be deaf. You said, “It’s true that God did not listen, but did God stop talking?”  You then went on to explain that in Auschwitz, God spoke through people who were trying to do the right thing. I believe that at that point, you were articulating the very essence of what Judaism is supposed to be.

 

GR:  Listen, I found my faith in Auschwitz. I went there when I was nineteen years old. I knew about it, I read about it, I heard about it in my family, but I never saw the place. I tried to delay it. I knew it was not going to be a day at the beach, but finally I went there. It was 1987. And I found one survivor in Auschwitz…nobody cared…and that was my God. He was there, and I caught myself praying, as if it was some sort of shameful thing to do. Like, You’re not supposed to pray, don’t you know there is no God, you want to pray here, to who, the one who abides this cruelty?  What are you doing?  But I just caught myself praying because I felt sorry for God, and I picked God up and I started to nurse God with my prayers. I wanted God, I wanted a God, I wanted my God. I am the kind of man who needs a God, and that was my God.

I thought, If I want a God, a Jew should pray in Hebrew, so I went to Israel right after and sat in yeshiva. I got circumcised, I learned Hebrew, and I felt that I had to nurse this God. And that’s when I found my faith. It’s a very strange thing, that people simplistically try to act like it’s a given: Don’t you know there is no God?  How can there be?  There was Auschwitz, duh. Are you kidding me?  It’s such a simple thing to say, like Astronauts went into space and didn’t find God. It’s silly, OK?

Let me clarify a few things. The Holocaust was a human event in human history done by human actors. God never rounded up anything, not perfectly Aryan German mental patients or Jews or Gypsies or gays. He didn’t do that. The Final Solution is not spelled out in the Torah, God forbid. It was done by us, the human family. So don’t blame the skies and point your finger to God and say, What’s the matter with you?  Let’s first take responsibility. We did this. I understand of course that God is responsible in some way, but His responsibility in permitting it does not cancel the responsibility of the actual murderers, because they acted on their own free will.

This is something that I’ve been struggling with, but there is no doubt in my mind that in some awkward, negative way, the Holocaust has a tremendous transcendence to it. If I would understand Him, I would be God. As Jews, we are never fully going to grasp what took place here and why,  but I found God, and I couldn’t just leave Him in the camp. I had to take Him with me. That is my personal journey. Others have theirs, but this notion that the experience of the Holocaust substantially altered the loyalty or the relationship between Jews and their God is simply not true. Surveys show that by and large, people who did not believe before the Holocaust did not believe after the Holocaust, and people who believed before the Holocaust, believed after the Holocaust. There is no sea change in this regard.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

Labyrinth of Lies/Giulio Ricciarelli

While there is a great deal of controversy over how much the average German citizen knew about the concentration camps that lay hundreds of feet away from their farms and villages, there is little controversy over how much they were willing to admit:  Nothing. Until 1963, when Fritz Bauer, the Hessian State Attorney General, initiated the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, in which 22 lower-ranking SS officers who served at Auschwitz were tried according to German criminal law. Giulio Ricciarelli pays homage to Fritz Bauer and the young attorneys who prosecuted the case in Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s Official Selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. •Availability: Opens nationwide September 30. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  Most people don’t know about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Can you talk about their significance and why they attracted you as a subject for a feature film?

 

GR:  I must admit I didn’t know about them until I started working on the film. Amazingly, they are not known in Germany; they’re unknown all over the world. The historical importance of this Auschwitz trial—we’re talking 1963—is that it forced German society to look at the crimes of the past. Before that, for almost eighteen years, everybody tried to sweep the Holocaust under the rug, to deny it, to not talk about it. You had a young generation growing up who’d never heard the word. Before working on the film, my perception of German history was that there was the Second World War, there was the Holocaust, and then in 1945, Germany started dealing with its past. The truth is there were almost two decades of denial and negation. These two decades were ended by the trial. And these two decades are forgotten, so I found that an incredibly important and timeless story for today.

It was also the first time a country put its own soldiers on trial. That’s a given for democracies today, but it was unheard of before the trial, so I felt that historically it was quite an important moment in German history, probably the most important moment after the Second World War. The fact that it is forgotten is unbelievable to me.

 

DT:  Your name is Italian. Would you mind clarifying your background?

 

GR:  I have an Italian father who was born in Italy, but I have a German mother, and I moved to Germany when I was four. I grew up bilingual, and I feel both. I feel Italian and I feel German.

 

DT:  You cowrote and directed the film. What kind of research did you do?

 

GR:  Today there’s a huge amount of material that you can access; all the testimonies are online. We worked very closely with the Fritz Bauer Institute and the University of Frankfurt. They read every draft and saw three rough cuts of the film, always commenting on it. The most important thing for us was to have an historical stamp of approval, so it was very important to work very closely with historians on this. We did extensive reading, and we worked very closely with two of the original prosecutors from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, Joachim Kugler and  Gerhard Wiese. We basically started talking to anybody who was alive and conscious in the ’50s to get a glimpse, because you never know where there’s an idea for a scene or a dialogue.

 

DT:  What kind of questions did you ask Mr. Kugler and Mr. Wiese, who actually worked on the trial?

 

GR: We had an interesting concept. Historically, we were very precise. However, the character of Johann, the prosecutor in our film, is actually a composite of the three real-life prosecutors. We took liberties with his emotional life, so of course we asked the original prosecutors how it felt to be somebody doing this kind of work, this kind of research, at that time. These are men of the ’50s, so we had to be very sensitive to hear the little glimpses of emotion they would throw out; these are not men who talk about their emotions. Gerhard Wiese, who is now 87, said, “Well, it was a job and I did my job.” When you start talking to them more and more, though, you realize it was emotionally exhausting. For almost ten years Gerhard was researching these trials on Auschwitz while there was a country around him that was basically booming; it was “the economic miracle.” Gerhard told me, “My friends would say, ‘What are you doing now?’ and I would say, ‘Still working on Auschwitz.’” His life work was basically forgotten, as was Fritz Bauer’s, but one of the unsuspected gifts of the film was that Gerhard, at age 87, got the recognition he never got. He was at the opening night of the film in Frankfurt, and there was a standing ovation for him. He told me his grandchildren said, “You know what? Our grandfather’s a hero.” That was amazing.

 

DT:  You mentioned the fact that the character of Johann is a composite of the three real-life prosecutors. What difficulties did that approach present? I imagine in some ways it was also liberating.

 

GR:  Yes. If you’re making a historic film and you tell only the facts, you will not make a good film, because film has its own laws of dramatic structure. What often happens is that people start inventing or moving things up in history to make the story dramatic. We were very clear that we did not want to do that, because the most important thing to us was actually telling the atmosphere of Germany in the ’50s, because if you want to understand the historical dimension of the trial, you have to understand the atmosphere of denial that came before that. From a filmmaker’s point of view that is quite hard to get across, because we’re talking about the best-known crime of humanity, the Holocaust. Auschwitz has become a symbol of evil, and we were taking people into a time in Germany when that was not the case.

We don’t have an outer dramatic structure. Our dramatic structure is actually the emotional journey of the main character, Johann. He starts out very black-and-white, sitting on a high moral horse, and it’s a journey to humility, basically.  In the end he becomes the right man to do this trial…he has faced his own family, he has faced his own weakness. When he realizes that his father was a Party member, he denies it. He does what everybody else does even though he’s been so obsessed about the trial.

With that concept, you can then be really free. Emotional life is not history, it’s an invention, and it’s very clear that the dramatic arc is the inner life of this character. It allows us to be very precise with the facts without playing around with history, starting to invent meetings that never took place, or moving things up, or inventing a kidnapping, or a blackmail or things that didn’t happen, because the actual trial, as historically important as it was, was not a dramatic thing.

 

DT:  In the scene where the survivors reveal for the first time what they went through at Auschwitz, you didn’t use sound.  I found that incredibly moving. Why did you decide to do it that way? Also, you spoke to real-life survivors as part of your research. Did their stories influence how you shot that scene?

 

GR:  This is a core question to the film. There is a discussion in Holocaust filmography about what you should show and what you shouldn’t show when you make a film that in any way touches the Holocaust. In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann basically proclaimed you should not show. He didn’t use any documentary footage; he just used witnesses.

I feel that there’s one aspect to this discussion that is overlooked, and that is time.  There was a television series with Meryl Streep in the ’70s called Holocaust. It was the first time such a film was seen in Germany. It had an enormous impact, so making a film that re-created [scenes from the camps] had merit at that time. Today, in 2015, you’re making a film for an audience that is filled with images—iconic images, horrible images—and has the whole story very present. I felt that as filmmakers, we had to be bold in the sense of refraining from actually re-creating a scene from the camp, like in a flashback, but also from re-creating actual testimony. An audience knows this is an actor, in a costume, who’s been directed by the director, and he’s acting as if he was there. I felt that today in 2015 you cannot do that anymore.

The closest we get to actual testimony in the film is when the character of the painter talks about his children [who were murdered in the camps], but that is not something he witnessed. He says, “And then they told me what Mengele did to twins,” so that is also not direct testimony.  Regarding these moments, the concept of the film was that we weren’t making a film about the Holocaust; we were making a film about how Germany dealt with the Holocaust. We needed the Holocaust and the horror of it in the film, but every time the movie has that, it’s a canvas for the emotions of the audience. The filmmaking aspect of it was more like leaving it up to the audience to fill in their own stories. We felt that would be much stronger than if we tried to re-create it in any way.

There’s a deeper psychological explanation. When I was eight, somebody brought pictures from Auschwitz to school. You already have a worldview by the time you’re eight, and I was devastated. I was destroyed. I could not believe it. The whole world kind of crumbled, because I couldn’t match everything I thought about the world to these pictures. Interestingly, with all the research we did, we had the very basic experience of not comprehending what actually happened there… I know what happened there, but it’s like you cannot grasp it, you cannot digest it, you cannot deal with it in a way. This was also something that I felt needed to be in the film, and we did it by refraining from using sound. In the scene with the witnesses, they weren’t even actors, they were just extras. Everybody had forty-five minutes on camera, and we improvised. There was no sound, so they could be really open. We just worked to get these moments that we could use in a montage.

There is an even simpler example. We refer to a picture made by the character of the painter right after Auschwitz. It’s called The Angel of Death. The production department came to me and said, “Giulio, what are we going to do? Who is going to paint this?” I said, “We’re not going to do anything, because anything we do will be less strong than what the audience has in their minds.” If I tell you somebody painted a picture right after Auschwitz, you will have an image and an emotion in your head, and if I then show you what I think the picture is, you will be disappointed. So again, that’s also a point where we just see his reaction to it but we don’t see the actual painting.

 

DT:  The trial represented a turning point in Germany, but to be quite honest, even today there are young Germans who know nothing about the Holocaust. I’m wondering whether the trial simply exchanged ignorance for denial?

 

GR:  I grew up in the German system, and I was taught extensively about the Holocaust. I visited a camp in school, and I would say there is a clear political decision to really teach it to children, teach it in school, do films like my film, have memorials. I would say that if today there’s still somebody who’s ignorant, then it’s an active ignorance. It’s somebody really turning their head and actively walking away from what he’s taught, because it is taught in schools. I’ve traveled a lot with this film, and I think there’s a general recognition that Germany really is trying… There is no one hundred percent, it’s always an attempt, but I think people recognize that Germany really is trying to deal with its past. But that all started in 1963, not 1945.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

The Last of the Unjust/Claude Lanzmann

In order to carry out their policies of death and deportation in the Jewish ghettos of Poland, the Nazis forced the Jews to create councils of Jewish elders to enforce Nazi rule. Many of the Jews who served on these councils did so out of the belief that they could mitigate circumstances for their communities, but they were reviled as collaborators nonetheless.  None was despised more than the Judenalteste, or council head.  In Last of the Unjust, Shoah director Claude Lanzmann interviews Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Judenalteste of the Theresienstadt ghetto.  Lanzmann found Murmelstein living in self-imposed exile in Rome in 1975, and Murmelstein consented to a series of interviews. Lanzmann originally shot the material for Shoah, but he decided against using it…until now.  •Availability:  In theaters February 7.  Check local listings.  Thanks to Aimee Morris and Sophie Gluck, Sophie Gluck PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  Benjamin Murmelstein worked for Adolf Eichmann for seven years in the Central Office for Jewish Emigration, then as head of the Jewish council of elders at Theresienstadt.  Murmelstein knew Eichmann very well and considered him a monster. Murmelstein was not allowed to testify at Eichmann’s trial because he had served as Judenalteste.  Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, considered Eichmann banal and covered the trial for The New Yorker.  Is there any reason we should adopt Hannah Arendt’s view of Eichmann rather than Murmelstein’s?

 

CL:  It’s very clear:  Murmelstein speaks the truth.

 

DT:  Murmelstein had a diplomatic passport.  He could have left Europe at any point during the war, but he felt he could save Jewish lives by staying and working for Eichmann. After the war, Murmelstein chose to spend a year and a half in a Czech prison waiting to be cleared of wrongdoing.  Why did he do that?

 

CL:   He knew perfectly well that many Jews in Theresienstadt hated him.  He knew they hated him because they were stupid and because he screamed a lot.  One has to make an effort to understand this man.  He could not act in another way.  He had to scream in order to silence the Jews and to silence the Nazis.  When you are tortured, there are two possibilities.  Either you can do this [Lanzmann clenches his fists and clamps his mouth tight] and do everything you can in order not to talk; to remain silent.  Or you scream.  And sometimes it’s easier to resist if you scream.  It was easier for him to deceive the Nazis screaming.  And he did scream against the Jews, but he never gave a Jew to the Germans, contrary to the other elders of Theresienstadt who came before him.

 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Lanzmann’s following remarks refer to an outbreak of typhus in Theresienstadt. To control the outbreak, Murmelstein required all Jews to submit to a typhus vaccine, but many resisted.  To force them to comply, Murmelstein informed them that anyone refusing the vaccine would not be allowed to eat.]

CL:  In the film, Murmelstein says that people had to be vaccinated in order to fight typhus. The way he invented was to cut the food ration card—if they don’t want to be vaccinated, they don’t eat.  And these Jews said, “He wanted to starve us.”  Murmelstein says, “I didn’t want to starve them.  I didn’t want them to die of typhus.”  This is very important, just to give you an example of the reason why he has been so hated.  He said that he stayed in prison in Czechoslovakia voluntarily, and it is absolutely true.  He wanted to be washed of any accusations.  And he was indeed. He stayed in jail for fifteen months.  It was very courageous.

 

DT:  There’s a moment in the film when you’re standing under the gallows at Theresienstadt and you’re talking about a brief point in time when the Jews of Theresienstadt could have rebelled, but it was too late.  What did you feel at that moment?  Frustration? Anger?

 

CL:   The idea that the Jews of Theresienstadt could have revolted was pure illusion.  They complied since the very beginning.  As soon as the Germans arrived it was pure terror.  The Jews were afraid.  Naturally. It’s normal.  And when I say that when Edelstein, who was the first Judenalteste of Theresienstadt, was obliged to assist with the hangings, I meant that if he had chosen to refuse, the fate of Theresienstadt might have changed because it would have been an act of resistance. Of course, he probably would have been hung himself.  The Jews loved life too much.

 

DT:  Eichmann maintained Theresienstadt as a “show ghetto” to demonstrate the Nazis’ good intentions to the International Red Cross.  To keep up an agreeable appearance in the ghetto, Eichmann launched a program of “embellishment.”  In Last of the Unjust, you ask Murmelstein why he agreed to help embellish Theresienstadt, which kept up the fiction that the ghetto was a beautiful place to live. Murmelstein replied, “If they give me wood, I’ll take it.”  He then explained that he took the wood so that he could build decent housing for the elderly.  That seeemed like his way of rebelling.

 

CL:  Murmelstein didn’t stop fighting.  In the film, he compares himself to a marionette that learned to pull its own strings.  He’s a complex man, which you see in the subtle construction of the film.

 

DT:  People say you shouldn’t judge a man until you’ve walked in his shoes.  Certainly that applies to Murmelstein, but can’t you also say that about the Jews who accuse him of collaborating?

 

CL:  I don’t understand why you’re saying that.  One cannot compare Murmelstein and the people who accused him and who sent him into exile.  Somebody is right and somebody is wrong, but not both.

 

DT:  One of the things I found very moving about Last of the Unjust was the affection you felt for Murmelstein when so many other people vilified him.

 

CL:  I show it.  I am not ashamed to love him.

 

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