“Madagascar, Nisko, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz.”

“Madagascar, Nisko, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz.”

On the Visibility of Sites in Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust (2013)

Gertrud Koch
Claude Lanzmann's documentary film The Last of the Unjust (2013) addresses philosophical and ethical aspects of survival in the Theresienstadt ghetto under the last Jewish Elder, Benjamin Murmelstein (1906-89). Not only was he instrumental in the embellishment of the city but he was also responsible for encouraging a specific cinematic visibility of the ghetto dwellers. Lanzmann portrayed Murmelstein as director of a theatrical performance in which ghetto inhabitants performed their lives. The propaganda strategies of the Nazis were used by Murmelstein to create a fake image which would nevertheless – by sheer visibility and the meta level introduced – give rise to the hope of survival: Being seen is being alive. The author shows how Lanzmann's film reveals Murmelstein's combination of logic and pragmaticism leading to a Realpolitik of the Theresienstadt Judenrat in the last phase of the Holocaust. Lanzmann draws upon material shot for but not included into his film Shoah (1985). In retrospect he opens the old interview to new questions about the antinomies of surviving the Holocaust and the role of fiction. The film takes on the character of a double-portrait of the two men who reflect about the range of action under the condition of extreme repression.
Claude Lanzmann; Benjamin Murmelstein; Bohušovice; Theresienstadt; Rome; Jerusalem; Vienna; Nisko; Madagascar; Prague; Ghetto; oral history; Holocaust; Holocaust survivor; Judenrat; propaganda; narrative time; performativity; ethics; fiction




Suggested Citation

In 1975 in Rome Claude Lanzmann interviewed Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Jewish Elder of the Theresienstadt ghetto. Since Lanzmann gave the eleven and a half hour interview to the archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where it is now publicly accessible,1 much scholarly work has been undertaken on the historical background and the revisions that this double portrait – the self-portrait by Murmelstein and the portrait of Murmelstein by Lanzmann – has inspired in terms of a re-evaluation of the historical character and his role in the history of the Theresienstadt ghetto. My concern here is not so much to join the debate about the historical characters, but to look at the film Lanzmann has made under the title Le Dernier des injustes / The Last of the Unjust (2013, France) in which he included parts of a long and extraordinary interview that seemed already to astonish him in 1975 when it was filmed.

Some critics have stressed the importance of the double portrait of Murmelstein and Lanzmann, but I would enlarge the group portrait by suggesting that the film contains two self-portraits, one of Murmelstein and the other of Lanzmann (in addition to the portrait of Murmelstein by Lanzmann). And in many respects one could even say that the men mirrored each other in their admiration for action – even if the action ranged from minimal to none.

A gesture in the last shot points to a moment of empathetic recognition. When Lanzmann embraces Murmelstein in a kind of protective gesture while walking toward the Titus arch in Rome where Murmelstein lived, the two men are shown with their backs turned to us like a Chaplinesque couple. It is an ironic gesture that takes place after they discuss Gershom Scholem’s death sentence for which Lanzmann held Murmelstein responsible. Lanzmann at the same time was arguing that it was a mistake to execute Eichmann as his trial was in some ways highly unsatisfactory. Was there a shared “understanding” between Murmelstein and Lanzmann that is revealed in the film? To answer this question we need to take a closer look at Lanzmann’s film.

How did Lanzmann choose the sequences from the overwhelming amount of material at his disposal? I want to focus on two aspects: places and sites, and the assumed duality of fiction/fact, lies/truth, authenticity/masks, and numbers/narratives.

The places we can see in the film are: Bohušovice, Theresienstadt, Rome, Jerusalem, Vienna, Nisko, Madagascar, Krakow, and Prague. All of these places exist on geographic maps and can be seen both in reality and through a camera lens. The logic behind Lanzmann’s showing these places is, however, not clear. Two of the locations are not in Europe and never became the sites of mass destruction of the European Jewry: Jerusalem and Madagascar. However, both play a role in the narrative of Theresienstadt and Murmelstein. It is Lanzmann reading a text while standing at a gate of one of the numerous train stations who lists “Madagascar, Nisko, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz” and names these places as forming a line that leads to destruction. When he starts with the historical narrative of the Madagascar plan the film shows a beautiful river on the island of Madagascar. An image that is repeated when Murmelstein starts his Madagascar narrative.

“Madagascar” and “Theresienstadt” follow a similar logic – both are words that hide the intentions to kill and destroy those that were promised shelter, only to find that they are only masks and code words for the final solution. At the very moment they were proposed to the Jews they had already changed their meaning: Madagascar was never available, Theresienstadt was never a safe haven, and both were only false promises on the path to final death. But there is still a difference between the two: Madagascar remains an image and never materializes as a concrete site while Theresienstadt became the concrete site and materialization of a falsehood. Theresienstadt becomes both the site of death and the pretense of life. Lanzmann suggests this in the extracts chosen from Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet / Theresienstadt. A Documentary Film about the Jewish Settlement, a film that should function as an image in a double sense: as propaganda that masqueraded as a token for “truth” and as the production of a physical reality represented on film for the purpose of visits paid by external delegations like the Red Cross. The Theresienstadt film project followed the same logic that Murmelstein describes. The Lanzmann film turns constantly around this double structure of seeing something as an image (Madagascar as an image of a place to live) and materialising in an image (in Murmelstein’s perspective the Theresienstadt film and the modelling of the ghetto into a showcase requires “Stadtverschönerung” or the “embellishment of the city”).2 As such it is the attempt to present the living as a screen that hides the true intention of destruction – as long as the play goes on, life goes on, playing alive is staying alive, the staged image has a material kernel, a reverse mummification.

From this perspective, the film is never a mere document but always a double system of coding, it turns concrete materials into an artefact, both as play in front of the camera and as an image itself: as an image it points to what it shows and as a technical image it registers what is in front of the camera no matter how artificial or faked this reality may be. Insofar as it is a film, it is a film about “Theresienstadt” from the narrative perspective of the Nazis for whom “Theresienstadt” was thought of as a fake, a deception for those who should see the film about the city or inspect the props and masks that were made out of the inmates and locations as if they were first degree reality.

The recurrent shot of the river on Madagascar fulfills a similar task: it is a beautiful image similar to those in brochures that invite travellers to Madagascar. As an image it is no place where one can live. Theresienstadt, in Murmelstein’s words, is the city of “As If”. “You know,” he says, “there is this philosophical thing with Als Ob.” Obviously he refers here to Die Philosophie des Als Ob from 1911 by the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger who wrote a fundamental book, very well received at the time, on the logic of fiction in which he included logical, religious and scientific fictions (as, for example, in thought experiments and hypothetical assumptions). At this point Murmelstein does not refer to those implications and treats the concept of “Als Ob” as simple deception. But it turns out that he associates much more with the concept of “Theresienstadt as the place of make-believe”. There is the making believe from above but also the subversion of the play that follows the Scheherazade principle of the fairy tale in One Thousand and One Nights that stands at the centre of Murmelstein’s explanations of his own actions. Murmelstein, as emphasised in Lanzmann’s film, approaches the situation in the ghetto with a complex model of reality (and there he comes very near to H. G. Adler’s description of the universe of Theresienstadt in his book, Theresienstadt 1941-1945. Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft): there is the reality of facts that point to death, and there is a “second degree” reality that one imagines as the temporal horizon of action (hope, despair, and illusion are motives for our action and as such become real), and there is the variety of perspectives that stem from the expectations and interactions between different groups of actors and their intentions. This last is the field where the “realist” Murmelstein operates. He cuts out the material part from the Nazi plan to make a staged documentary about Theresienstadt, where the “embellishment” needs a real “beautification” that fits the surviving interests of the inmates. And this is the third degree reality, the one which turns the second degree reality of the perpetrators (the wish to deceive) into an increased lifespan. The material change of conditions on location is accompanied with a broad concept of time in an analogous way: material lifespan depends on the expansion of narrative time, on the constant attempt to stretch the time horizon of the double play – the staged play for the film is a play with the time of the life of the player. Hence they are playing another game in the same set. Murmelstein was not the only one who put play and storytelling at the centre of imagined and real actions of surviving. Jurek Becker’s novel Jakob der Lügner / Jacob the Liar, its film adaptations, the new wave of Holocaust film comedies like La vita è bella / Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997, Italy), and older Hollywood comedies like Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942, USA) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940, USA) rely on the double structure of play itself. The best known play that brings the real into play is still Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose central character seeks to unveil the truth in a performative act that deeply changes the reality for the characters in the play. The performative, pragmatic aspect of playing is crucial for both Murmelstein and Lanzmann, who in Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985, France) stages a role-playing game for the people he films in order to jog their memory (e.g. the sequence in the Israeli barber shop that serves as prop or mask for the historical scene of shaving the newly arrived transports).

Murmelstein compares himself to Sancho Panza who embodies the reality principle as opposed to the fictionalism and strategies of self-delusion in which Don Quixote is entangled. Sancho Panza remains “am Fußboden der Tatsachen” (“with both feet firmly on the ground”).

Murmelstein describes himself as a director who obtained the material goods to build props to deceive by making a false image, but who instead tried to turn the props into real things that could be seen. Being seen, becoming visible was the aim and means to survive – or at least that was what Murmelstein thought. As in ancient Greek philosophy, “being” meant “being seen”, and in practice the death penalty was meted out by throwing the condemned into holes, where they were out of view until they died. Death was first a social death by being taken out of sight and only in the aftermath did the physical death take place. The deep conviction was held that keeping Theresienstadt inmates visible, if only in front of a camera used for propaganda purposes, was the only way to escape death – as long as everybody played along. This logic of material visibility as the real justification for a fake image was the Catch-22 Murmelstein discovered in the propagandistic strategies of the Nazis. And he repeatedly returns to ancient Greek and Roman mythology and thought to ground his actions in systematic arguments. The mixture of positivism and fictionalism provides the perspective for a view on Theresienstadt that satisfies a rationale for systematic action. It may sound cynical, but this strong urge for logic and pragmaticism might have been the fiction that made Murmelstein function against all odds – the obsession to find rationality, at least an instrumental one behind a thick layer of sadistic lies, gruesome plays and simulations. In his obsession to leave the fictional world of “make believe” and to keep both feet on the ground, he becomes the director of a meta-play like Hamlet who performs as play the facts that are hidden in reality. Lanzmann proposes in his own film that this is the way in which Murmelstein thought about Theresienstadt as the city of make believe, and there is his rationale for action. If we step out of this world of the between life and death, we could certainly come to different conclusions in regard to the “reality” of Theresienstadt: that, no matter how intelligently the power play was subverted, the rules of the game were never stable. In the long run decisions were determined by the “final solution” – the extent of the game was lethally limited and that is why Murmelstein after the war was so much criticized. He thought that he somehow could be part of the game, as a player, while the actions of destruction did not follow strict rules of any game and instead established the sheer terror of unpredictability – at least one has to reserve judgment as other attitudes or understandings of the situation could have pointed in other directions.

Murmelstein’s complex views about the need for visibility and a concept of reality that involves different degrees of material and imagined spatial and temporal horizons links his thoughts to Lanzmann’s concepts of the filmic image. Lanzmann also links the filmic image to the materiality of place and to the temporal structure of imagination that goes back and forth in time. In doing so he creates moving images that become historical re-enactments pointing to the future of our memory. During the 2014 conference at the historic site of Theresienstadt we watched a film that reflects the reversal of the outtakes of another film confronting us with Murmelstein reflecting thirty years later what happened with him in the 1940s in Theresienstadt. It is a confirmation of the prophecy given by Murmelstein in Lanzmann’s film. Murmelstein argues that the destruction of European Jewry leaves an absence, an enormous void that is globally felt and will hunt the memories of the world. And somehow the strange images of Lanzmann visiting historical sites, empty synagogues, waste landscapes and ruins – and images of its own past, a week in Rome with Murmelstein, lead back to Murmelstein’s remarks. This links the images with the enormous need to point to the void, to make it visible.


Gertrud Koch

Free University of Berlin



Adler, H. G. 2005. Theresienstadt 1941-1945. Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft. Göttingen.

Becker, Jurek. 1969. Jakob der Lügner. Berlin.

Vaihinger, H. 1911. Die Philosophie des Als Ob. System der theoretischen, praktischen und religiösen Fiktionen der Menschen aufgrund eines idealistischen Positivismus. Leipzig.


Benigni, Roberto. 1997. La vita è bella / Life Is Beautiful. Melampo Cinematografica, Cecchi Gori Group.

Chaplin, Charles. 1940. The Great Dictator. Charles Chaplin Productions.

Gerron, Kurt, and Karel Pečený under the supervision of SS-Sturmbannführer Hans Günther. 1945. Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet / Theresienstadt. A Documentary Film about the Jewish Settlement. Aktualita.

Lanzmann, Claude. 1985. Shoah. BBC, Historia, Les Films Aleph, Ministère de la Culture de la Republique Française.

Lanzmann, Claude. 2013 Le Dernier des injustes / The Last of the Unjust. Synecdoche.

Lubitsch, Ernst. 1942. To Be or Not to Be. Romaine Film Corporation.

Suggested Citation

Koch, Gertrud. “‘Madagascar, Nisko, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz.’ On the Visibility of Sites in Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust (2013).” Ghetto Films and their Afterlife (ed. by Natascha Drubek). Special Double Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 2-3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2016.0003.49

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner’s terms.


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