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REVISITING 1944 in 2013
Claude Lanzmann began his interviews for Shoah with what he intended as an expose of the head of the Jewish Council at Theresienstadt, Benjamin Murmelstein. Then he found himself convinced not only that the man was not guilty of sacrificing his fellow Jews or a Nazi collaborator but someone facing no good choices at a time when history offered none. At great length, Murmelstein makes his case that reinforcing the artificial image the Nazis cultivated of the “privileged camp”in a propaganda film made in 1944 represented the best chance for his own and his fellow inmates’ survival. [I think of Sebald’s masterful sequences in Austerlitz and feel glad to have seen clips of the original propaganda films here. Even without slow motion, the faces look so sad.] Murmelstein is witty, urbane, and filled not with self-hatred but with a sense that he made mistakes that history has judged harshly but he—and, after a lapse of almost 35 years—Lanzmann see as reasonable choices and perhaps even the best ones. Long, tough, and dense, like many of Lanzmann’s films, this documentary opens up new insights even for me, someone steeped in WWII history (including Nisko, a prominent stop in the film). I felt most impressed by the director’s hallmark: showing place and letting the site (empty and peopled by his interviewees) speak. 1944 lived in 1975 when Lanzmann filmed the original interviews. Now 87—his subject’s age back then— Lanzmann has produced a thought provoking film.
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