Screens at CIFF: 10/13
World premiere: 19 May, 2013, Cannes International Film Festival

There is a great deal to be said about The Last of the Unjust, and since it is three hours and 38 minutes long, this is a good thing - if one invested that kind of time in watching a movie and walked off with the profound sense that, that would be just awful. There is too much to be said, in fact, in the space of one review propped up by a single viewing and woefully insufficient notes, so I'd like to apologise in advance to the movie for not treating it with the awesome depth it deserves. We have to start somewhere, anyhow, and I think a nice place to ease into it is to regard the film as history about history, taking place in three distinct time frames and meaning different things about each of them based on how the other two reflect upon it.

The movie is Claude Lanzmann's latest (and potentially last, given both its monumental feel and the director's not-inconsiderable age) film taken from the mountain of footage he compiled in the 1970s when, after having cut his teeth on the documentary Pourquoi Israel, he decided to continue his study of modern Jewish identity by looking straight into the eyes of the single most dominant even of 20th Century Judaism, the Holocaust. The most famous product of his great labor is the more than 9-hour Shoah, itself released in 1985, ten years after Lanzmann's first interviews were conducted, but it was not the only film to come from that footage; starting with 1999's A Visitor from the Living, the director has since made three other films containing smaller, more self-contained narratives than the "let's try to talk to everyone about everything" style of his biggest work; these are breathtakingly short by Lanzmann's standards, with the longest, 2001's Sobibór, blasting by at 95 minutes.

The Last of the Unjust is entirely concerned with one of the very first interviews Lanzmann conducted in 1975, with Benjamin Murmelstein. Murmelstein, as we are told in an immensely lengthy opening crawl, was the only Jewish Elder to survive the war, and the Jewish Elders, we are also told, were basically the go-betweens for the Nazis and the various Jewish ghettoes that the Nazis blocked off throughout Europe. He was a tremendously controversial figure, regarded by many as the worst kind of collaborator, and the interviews find Lanzmann both charmed by the older man's immense vitality, and eager to find some point of vulnerability that would win him the journalistic coup of making Murmelstein admit his culpability.

When I speak of The Last of the Unjust as history about history, I mean something like this: the film, created in 2013 by an 87-year-old Lanzmann, consists of footage shot by the 49-year-old Lanzmann in 1975, discussing matters that happened in between 1933 and 1945, and the 87-year-old Lanzmann (who regularly appears onscreen in newly-shot sequences in the 2010s incarnation of places described in Murmelstein's interviews to read passages of "textbook" history) is almost as interested in in examining the process by which the entire Shoah project of the last 28 years has worked as he is in presenting Murmelstein's testimony to the world. The director himself has become something of a controversial figure - nothing to the level of his subject in this film, certainly - with a vocal minority having significant problems with the way Shoah packaged its contents (most famously, Pauline Kael called it "logy"), and The Last of the Unjust can be thought of as being, in one of its guises, as one controversial elderly Jew presenting his impressions of another controversial elderly Jew; it is also a film about Lanzmann's approach to making historical documentaries, in which he draws our attention to himself far more than he's ever done, clarifying that this is a film filtered through one man's historical sensibility, which will necessarily be personal and biased no matter how much effort he brings to bear in making sure that it's as objective and intellectual as possible (by reading directly from his notes on camera, for example).

This is the kind of argument that Lanzmann's career-capping multi-hour epic ought to present, perhaps, but it's also a version of the argument of the interviews themselves, which revolve around the question of how we choose to remember events - Murmelstein does not shy away from telling events in the way that reflects honorably upon himself, even while openly admitting that he was enamored of the power conferred by being an Elder, and even before then, one of the few Jews who had any kind of active, working relationship with the infamous Adolf Eichmann. Yet he also explains bluntly and persuasively why he thinks that his actions during the Holocaust were uniformly in the best interest of his fellow Jews, and that it so happened that serving as a Nazi toady in certain ways (he doesn't hesitate an instant in agreeing that his efforts to keep Eichmann's "model ghetto" of Theresienstadt as shiny and glamorous as possible played into Nazi propaganda) also benefited the community he was trying to keep alive.

It's a damn tough movie, investigating how one man made some very difficult choices and how much of an emotional callous he's had to build up to feel the smallest possible amount of self-doubt over those choices. This would be a remarkable study of a fascinating man, full of apparent contradictions and remarkable candor, even if it weren't set against the backdrop of the most hellish moral crime in the modern history of the species; that Murmelstein's history overlaps to such a degree with that event is what pushes this from "great" to "absolutely top-shelf, instant-masterpiece"; and Lanzmann's construction of the piece ends up creating a weird history lesson of sorts, taking us chronologically from the early conquests of the Third Reich into their creation of Theresienstadt, with the newly-shot footage serving as a frame and conduit for the vintage interviews to fully blossom without the messiness of too much explaining and backtracking. It's astoundingly interesting, justifying each and every second of the running time; even the languid pauses in the new material seem meaningful and deliberate, allowing us to soak in the depth of what we've been told without having to immediately process it.

Along the way, there are moments where Lanzmann stops to pay respect to an atrocity or two, but this isn't, like Shoah, a compendium of tragedies and death. It is a study in intimate detail and epic scope of human behavior: how one man acted in extreme situations, for good and for worse, and while the film ends with the 49-year-old interviewer having reach a point of camaraderie with his subject, Murmelstein is no more exonerated than he is condemned. He is, instead, presented before us, to be judged as we see fit, to be recognised as a fellow human, and to be understood as a figure who lived a life that absolutely none of us will ever come close to experiencing. And for all these reasons, it is as essential as any piece of cinema I have seen in many years.