Alfredo de Braganza

The Whippoorwill Of Murmel The Pig: A Pasteurized Film By Claude Lanzmann (At Your Doorstep Just For A Few “Rumkis”)

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair

Unpleasant and painful truth the above quotation: how much influence the Money Power has on societal understanding? How stupid our sons and daughters will be? How much poison we´ll eat and drink? How lacking the health of our people will continue to be? What would be life like without ads? And, how much entertainment we need?

The power of money as leverage against acknowledging truth; that’s why some media tell so many lies. The journalists are not stupid. They know that the powers expect them to parrot certain ideas. So since employees of the media have families to feed, they fall in line.

Another very common quirk of human behavior that is used to great manipulative effect is the tendency of humans to be insecure and, therefore, unwilling to admit error regardless of the facts arrayed against them.

Jerome Klapka once said: “It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form.” In our so called modern times the psychological science of sales has been perfected: big pharmaceutical companies invent drugs formulas to match every symptom imaginable, then, contracts slick media producers to bring it into your home; whose sole purpose is to arouse in us all kinds of paranoid ideations, among which hypochondria is not the least.

So, talking about a psychiatric disorder, it seems that among many religious fundamentalists there is a pronounced cult of death to the point that this influence is received from very early ages, example; blaming Israel for all the Palestinian tragedy, and not only is up to the Palestinians that “education” to their own people but said indoctrination export is welcomed from other nations of the international community to complement the discursive subject. But like a medical drug side effect the speeches in the current Palestinian powers are a tangle of feelings and ideas that often do not fit together.

And, not fitting together so many tangles, is what comes out of the mouth of Benjamin Murmelstein; a rabbi who worked closely with Adolf Eichmann in facilitating the deportation of Jews and served as the last administrator of the Theresienstadt camp. Over a week in 1975, the then 50-year-old French filmmaker known for the Holocaust documentary film Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann, interviewed the 80-year-old Viennese rabbi at his self-imposed exile in scenic Rome, where he lived until his death in 1989. That interview he did in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein and adding contemporary footage has become “The Last of the Unjust” (2013), the latest documentary film to date of the french filmmaker.

The core of Murmelstein’s story takes place at Theresienstadt, where he was the last of three Jewish Elders (his two predecessors were each killed by the Nazis with a bullet to the head) and whose role was to organize the camp life of the Jews (at times, he looks a bit like Alec Guinness as Col. Nicholson in David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” totally forgetting the purpose of himself and his soldiers even in a P.O.W. situation but thinking solely in terms of oneupmanship, however, Murmelstein shares more common things with Chaim Rumkowski and his behavior in Łódź Ghetto.) So, to refuse the job would mean an instant death sentence, no doubt the position was hugely uncomfortable; he describes it as being “between the hammer and the anvil” and admits to having enjoyed certain privileges that came with his position. He sent innumerable Jews to their deaths, but exploited what power he had to prolong the lives of a few thousand others, he said. Murmelstein, who died in 1989, remains highly controversial. For some, his survival, when so many perished, is, by definition, morally suspect. He worked under Adolf Eichmann and defended his bullying tactics. Charged with withholding food from some of his fellow Jews, he explains this was only to force them to be inoculated against typhus. Even he was accused for propping up the “embellishments” of the “model ghetto”. Murmelstein, said, he was just trying to help people, although he says that of course people are human and power has a certain feelings…

Many people, after watching the film, justify Murmelstein’s actions and behavior arguing “if anyone has ever been in a morally challenging situation, you would realize how challenging it probably was for this guy.” Like recalling Primo Levi’s account of finding a slightly leaky pipe whose few drops of water made that summer’s heat a little more bearable, and whose prospect made it possible to get through the rest of the day: he never told anyone else because he was afraid that if he told anyone else, no-one would get much from the pipe, and more people lingering there would call attention to it, and it would be fixed… He didn’t feel good about this, but he indicates that selfishness was considered a given.

But this is not the case. Fitfully engrossing as a portrait of a cunning man alternately grappling with and denying his guilt, Murmelstein in the film is far superior to Lanzmann in the use and misuse of dialectic and thus is able to lead him around with a nose ring; he is like those Whippoorwill birds; masters in the art of night time movements and camouflage, who chant their loud namesake whip-poor-will song continuously on spring and summer evenings. It was once believed that they sucked milk from goats’ udders and caused them to dry up; hence their family name, Caprimulgidae, from the Latin capri and mulgus, meaning “goat-milker.” Also, the Whippoorwill bird is the topic of numerous stories; one New England legend says the Whippoorwill can sense a soul departing, and can capture it as it flees (this is used as a plot device in H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Dunwich Horror“.) Another American folk legend says that the singing of the birds is a death omen; this is also referred in a short story of James Thurber, in which the constant nighttime singing of a Whippoorwill results in maddening insomnia of the protagonist who eventually loses his mind and kills everyone in his house, including himself.

Murmelstein was a brutal, violent person, mistrusted and often feared by his colleagues in Vienna and Theresienstadt. The truth is that he did not save one single Jew, revealingly, his name in Theresienstadt was Murmelschwein (Murmel-pig). The SS-men supervising the loading of the transport to Auschwitz behaved with the prisoners practically like gentlemen compared to Murmelstein and his equally brutal assistant named Prochnik; both strutting around in their boots, yelling at people to hurry up and pushing them who were not fast enough stepping into the wagons. Even, Murmelstein tried to dissuade prisoners from leaving the railway station, which eventually would lead them to Auschwitz. His learning and intelligence were outstanding, but so was his shrewdness and deceitfulness.

In his film, Lanzmann swallowed Murmelstein’s story hook; he reduced himself to the mere mouthpiece of his interviewee. The french filmmaker chose the famous saying by Deng Xiaoping: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” Like most doctors who are plied by the pharmaceutical companies and are happy as can be to write prescriptions for every symptom, meeting the expectation of and even demands of many patients.

Claude Lanzmann is so close to this topic that he can’t seem to understand what is and he doesn’t find necessary to give to the audience an authentic objective point of view of what happened: he just want to please his audience, to whom the film is aimed solely. “The Last of the Unjust” was nominated for César Awards Best Documentary Film and screened at Cannes Film Festival, Official Selection. As the cynical Murmelstein could have said at the railway station: “Come on! Ev’rybody’s gonna have a wonderful time up there…”

About the Author
Alfredo de Braganza is an award-winning independent filmmaker & chocolate-coated sufganiyah lover from Spain currently living in India. His documentary "Smoking Babas" was selected for the Madrid International Film Festival and his film "Maayan The Fisherman" for Best Narrative Film at the Florida International Film Festival. He is the first Spanish person to make a feature film in India, on celluloid and native language. His documentary "Boxing Babylon" won Best Documentary Awards at the 2013-Norway Film Festival and New Delhi International Sports Film Festival. He can be contacted at:
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