“You are very well informed,” Holocaust survivor Ruth Elias tells filmmaker Claude Lanzmann in The Four Sisters: The Hippocratic Oath. Thanks to the Paris-born Lanzmann, a French resistance fighter during WWII, we are all very well informed about so many of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, told to him in moving, powerful stories by “living witnesses” for decades. In The Four Sisters, which made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival in October, the Shoah director, who passed away in July at the age of ninety-two, focuses on the extraordinary experiences of four strong women who survived concentration camps, each one originally interviewed for Shoah. “The more I thought about these four women, the more the necessity to bring the spotlight on these female faces of the Shoah seemed important,” Lanzmann explains in his director’s note about deciding to turn them into four separate portraits. “Each of them deals with a little-known chapter of the Holocaust, each from a unique point of view. . . . The incredible strength in each of them has to exist in its own right, and yet the exceptional quality they all share also had to come through — that searingly sharp, almost physical intelligence, and an irrepressible survival instinct which could not be extinguished, despite an apparently certain death awaiting them.” The four-part film is being told in two parts at the Quad beginning November 14, Hanna & Paula and Ruth & Ada.
In The Hippocratic Oath, Ruth Elias tells her remarkable story from the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 to her deportation in April 1942 to Theresienstadt, where she was reunited with and married her boyfriend, to her pregnancy in the winter of 1943, which led to her being sent to Ravensbrück and Auschwitz, where she met Dr. Josef Mengele, who chose to use her baby in an inhuman experiment. Filmed in a little garden, Elias, an accordion player, is firm and direct as she shares the details of precisely what happened, her dark eyes seemingly sent back to Eastern Europe as her words bring it all to vivid life; one can visualize each location, each movement, each glance. The camera occasionally turns to Lanzmann, smoking a cigarette as he listens to her, mesmerized, just as the audience is. Lanzmann is more active in Baluty, walking along the shore in Panama City, Florida, with Paula Biren, whose story begins in Lodz, Poland. An elegant woman, Biren needs a little more prodding to speak, which she does very carefully, with a brutally cold honesty. She describes how Lodz was turned into a ghetto, how she became a police officer there, and then was sent to Auschwitz, where her younger sister and mother were killed, followed by her father’s death shortly thereafter. Lanzmann supplements the film with archival photographs of Lodz. Throughout The Merry Flea, Ada Lichtman is cleaning and mending dolls; it is eerie as viewers eventually find out why. Lichtman, from the Polish town of Wieliczka, relates her story of being captured by the Germans and sent to Sobibór, speaking at a determined, almost eager pace, sometimes skipping around so that Lanzmann has to interject to get her back on track or to go into more specifics, particularly regarding her treatment at the hands of a Nazi officer named Wagner and her description of cattle cars where naked men, women, and children were forced to dance with one another. The camera occasionally shifts to her husband, who she met in the camps; he stares ahead almost blankly, with hollow, haunted eyes, then hides his head in his hands. The sound of traffic outside can be heard, as if coming from another time and place.
Finally, in Noah’s Ark, Lanzmann introduces Hungarian native Hanna Marton, who sits calmly in a chair, holding a small notebook as she speaks in Hebrew, the director sitting right in front of her, nearly knocking knees; in the film’s production notes, Lanzmann explains, “I’ve never heard an account that is as constantly, relentlessly painful as the one that Hanna Marton gave me when I filmed her during the shoot for Shoah in her Jerusalem apartment.” Her eyes sometimes tearing up, Marton, continually on edge and at times defensive, talks about the early Zionist movement in her hometown of Cluj, the capital of Transylvania; discusses how Jews were used by the Hungarian army, which supported Germany and Italy, as living mine detectors; details the creation of the Kolozsvár ghetto in May 1944 as a way to quickly exterminate Jews; and delves into her involvement with the Kastner train, a deal made between Jewish-Hungarian lawyer Rudolf Kastner and Nazi Obersturmbannführer Adolph Eichmann. The Four Sisters is no mere addendum to Shoah, nor is it a footnote to Lanzmann’s long, important career; together, the four films make a powerful statement about hatred and bigotry, about violence and war, and about the indomitable strength and spirit of women, especially during the war and its aftermath. They are also a terrifying reminder that given the state of the world today, it’s not impossible that something like this could happen again, even right here in America, as there are fewer and fewer concentration-camp eyewitnesses, Holocaust deniers litter the internet, nations build walls and fences to keep out refugees, and a sitting president insists that some white supremacists are “very fine people.”
THE LAST OF THE UNJUST (LE DERNIER DES INJUSTES) (Claude Lanzmann, 2013)
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Wednesday, November 14, 6:35, and Monday, November 19, 6:35
For more than forty years, late French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann documented the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel in such provocative and powerful films as Israel, Why; Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.; and his nine-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, Shoah. In 1997, he made A Visitor from the Living, built around a 1979 interview with International Red Cross worker Maurice Rossel, who led a delegation inspecting the Nazis’ so-called “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt, which turned out to be a glorified concentration camp. Lanzmann returns to the Czech camp in The Last of the Unjust, an utterly fascinating 218-minute documentary consisting of a series of interviews he conducted in Rome in 1975 with Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, the only Jewish Elder to survive the Holocaust. For years, Murmelstein, who was appointed directly by and reported to Obersturmbannführer Adolph Eichmann, has been declared a Nazi collaborator, by writer Hannah Arendt and many others, even being arrested, imprisoned, and tried by Czech authorities. But in The Last of the Unjust, he paints a vivid portrait of everyday life in Theresienstadt, claiming he was not a collaborator but instead was doing whatever he could to improve conditions for the Jews there.
He poignantly describes not knowing about gas chambers and trains to Auschwitz and proudly defends his actions, referring to himself as the “last of the unjust.” Murmelstein has a spectacular memory, vividly recalling specific moments, answering all of Lanzmann’s questions with a bold honesty and correcting long-held misbeliefs concerning Theresienstadt. A cool, cigarette-smoking Lanzmann is seen in the old interviews and he also appears in new footage shot as he visits the camp and other relevant locations, geographically linking the past and the present. Between Murmelstein’s amazing storytelling ability and Lanzmann’s sharing of his personal perspective, the film never gets boring or repetitive over the course of its three-and-a-half-hour length. In the written introduction, Lanzmann states, “It took me a long time to come to the realization that I didn’t have the right to keep this to myself.” He indeed did a great service by not keeping this to himself, making yet another poignant document of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a unique and thoroughly intriguing witness. The Last of the Unjust is screening at the Quad on November 14 and 19 at 6:35 (the November 14 show will be introduced by Lanzmann assistant Laura Koeppel) as part of the “Claude Lanzmann’s Cinema of Remembrance” series, which continues through November 21 with such other works as Napalm; Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.; Israel, Why; A Visitor from the Living and The Karski Report; Shoah in two sections; and Tsahal.