Between Hammer and Anvil

Stefan Grissemann

Profil (10/22/2007)

For thirty-two years Shoah regisseur Claude Lanzmann kept film material on Vienna’s NS history under lock and key. Profil held the only extensive interview with the regisseur about it.

An older, finely dressed man with thick glasses sits on the terrace of a hotel in Rome. He moves his lips, smiles gently, and nervously moves his third set of teeth up and down. One cannot hear what he says since the sound recording is silent. The cameraman is looking for an appropriate film crop and adjusts the focus. A clapperboard comes into view; suddenly there is sound; it sputters and crackles; the camera assistant knocks on the microphone with a piece of cardboard. The man sitting in front of the camera lens waits for his entry. He will tell about something he never wanted to talk about; namely, from his years when he was forced to be a  functionary of the National Socialists in Vienna and later as “oldest Jew” in Theresienstadt; from his experiences serving Adolf Eichmann’s SS troops and Alois Brunner in the “Central Office for Jewish Emigration.” 

The man’s name is Benjamin Murmelstein, and he was seventy years old at the time of the film shooting in 1975. In March 1938, at the time of the Anschluß by Nazi German, he was Rabbi in Vienna. Those new in power had approached him about  administering the “emigration of the Jews.” Murmelstein cooperated.  Although he could have emigrated, he gave into the insane logic of the NS in order to organize the evacuation of thousands of Austrian Jews – and to the extent it was possible, to free children and the elderly from the evacatuion and care for the exception cases.

Regisseur Claude Lanzmann, forty-nine years old at the time, was able to convince Murmelstein with some prodding to cooperate with him on a film. The filming was to benefit the documentary, Shoah, on which Lanzmann had just begun to work. It lasted ten more years before it was finished in 1985, having the length of an epic lasting nine and a half hours. The interview with Murmelstein, however, was missing in the final version since, as Lanzmann said, it no longer fit with the tone and style of his film. He no longer recalls how many hours he shot film material between 1974 and 1981 in order to distill the 566 minutes of his main work. “No idea,” said Lanzmann, throwing his hands up into the air.  “Three hundred hours, perhaps even three hundred fifty. In any case, a great number.”

Indefatigable. Thirty-two years after the interview – Murmelstein had died in 1989 – Claude Lanzmann opened up insight into the material. Under the title, “The Last of the Unjust,” given by Benjamin Murmelstein, himself, the Austrian Film Museum showed the film on Sunday last week in its entirety in the presence of the regisseur. Murmelstein proved to be a brilliant narrator, whose “singular indefatigability,” was surprising, as historian and writer Doron Rabinovici so aptly described it. General suspicion surrounding the survivor hit Murmelstein directly after the war: “Why are you living,” he was asked during an interrogation in 1945. The “oldest Jew” has always been between a hammer and an anvil,” remarked Murmelstein laconically. “He is spared nothing.”


No Genius in Organization
Sunday morning Lanzmann appears a few minutes later than agreed upon to the meeting with Profil. In the bar of Hotel Ambassador, the lighting initially appears to be too strong, and the air conditioning too cold. Vienna is a good place to present his raw film material, he claims. He is aware of the fact that it also decisively corrects the historical Eichmann picture. Eichmann, a specialist in deportation, was a lousy organizer who learned everything from him, says Murmelstein in the film interview with Lanzmann: “He studied emigration from me.” Eichmann was everything else but a genius in organization, says also Lanzmann: “But the historians emphasize to this day that Eichmann was a pure product of the bureaucracy, that he couldn’t have cared less about the Jews. That isn’t correct: Eichmann was a fervent anti-Semite.” During the Kristallnacht, he personally witnessed Eichmann destroying the furnishings of the Jewish Community, recalled Murmelstein in front of Lanzmann’s camera. One could only “laugh about” Hannah Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann as   “banality of evil,” when assessing the man.” He was much more corrupt and violent – he was “a demon.”

The discussion held in the film museum was sold out and left Lanzmann cool. He remains calm also when Secretary General of the Jewish Community Vienna Raimund Fastenbauer addresses the mistrust of many IKG members who have protested previously over the participation of the Jewish Community in this event. There is a staunch hatred by many Jews for Murmelstein, says Fastenbauer. Rudolf Gelbard, a survivor of Theresienstadt concentration camp, argued that Murmelstein was in no way hated by all of the prisoners; it was somewhat understandable that as “oldest Jew” he had to stage outbreaks of anger in order to make his work appear credible, allowing him to protect innumerable prisoners from deportation.

Before Lanzmann flies back to Paris where he is currently writing his autobiography, he is playing with the idea of “possibly” making his own film of the Murmelstein conversation. But to do that he has to do some filming, particularly in Theresienstadt. The question as to when and whether that will ever happen is something he doesn’t answer. Claude Lanzmann refuses to pin himself down to anything anymore. He will do what he can.