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Blank Generations: 'Last of the Unjust' and 'The Missing Picture' Reconstruct Genocide's History

A victim of the Khmer Rouge and a Holocaust historian bring the past into the present.
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'The Missing Picture'
'The Missing Picture'

Rithy Panh has spent more than twenty years making films about his native Cambodia in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge. In The Missing Picture, he finally addresses his own horrific personal history. In 1975, his family was forcibly relocated from their home in Phnom Penh to a swampy, fever-infested labor camp, where they, along with hundreds of thousands of other Cambodian citizens, were assigned numbers instead of names, stripped of personal possessions, and forced into a life of physical labor on a communal farm. Living on meager rations of rice and denied Western medicine, some two million of these "new people" starved, died from treatable diseases, or were executed outright for even the smallest indications of dissent. Panh eventually escaped to Thailand in 1979 -- not before losing every last member of his family and witnessing unspeakable atrocity. 

In The Missing Picture, he has taken on the Herculean task of dredging up a trauma that most people would prefer to forget and making it palpable, painful and urgent to an international audience who may never have even heard of the Khmer Rouge, let alone experienced the horrors of life under its rule. His first-person narration, performed in English by actor Randal Douc, announces from the beginning his intention of restoring to vivid, personal color what has become a black and white, patchy historical record. He is searching for an elusive "missing picture," the images of life under the Khmer Rouge that have been erased by time, and, in many cases, willful deception.  

Any success he has in this impossible task comes from the film's brilliantly off-kilter visual coup: Panh recreates and reimagines these lost scenes of life under the Khmer Rouge using hundreds of miniature, hand-painted clay figurines. This allows him to visualize, in a tangible, profoundly affecting way, these otherwise unfathomable and, perhaps, unwatchable traumas. In Panh's hands, what could easily become a sort of grotesquely humorous art project (think Superstar: The Karen Carpenter story) becomes a solemn, ritualistic scouring of personal and collective memory. 

There is something both intimate and impersonal about these crudely rendered but detailed clay figures arranged in their elaborate tableaus. As the film progress, the models are carved away to practically nothing. They become gaunt, scarred forms, whose simplistic painted features nonetheless seem haunted and haggard. Theirs is a world of almost unremitting grimness -- with everyday occurrences like a nine year-old boy denouncing his own mother for stealing food, leading to her execution -- but also one perforated by traces of human grace and courage. Panh pays tribute to many men and women who, in some small way, rebelled against their oppressors, often at the cost of their lives. 

Panh's incorporation of archival footage from Khmer Rouge propaganda films -- which show staged scenes of happy, healthy laborers working harmoniously -- allows him to comment on the problematic, treacherous nature of treating cinema as memory. "There is no truth, only cinema," he says. "The revolution is cinema." Film was one of the most cherished weapons of the Khmer Rouge, whose leaders, Panh tells us, would execute cameramen for over-exposing footage -- but still keep the footage. 

This self-awareness cuts both ways; Panh illuminates the falseness of the existing historical record even as he acknowledges that his own film is, inevitably, a work of fictionalization. Cinema, he seems to suggest, is not a triumph over time and degraded memory, but only another invention. The clay models of his mother, father and siblings do nothing to lessen his longing to touch them, to hear their voices again. The final moments of the film --  despite the swelling of the soundtrack and the narrator's assurances that his story, now passed on, might cease to torment him -- are filled with resignation and doubt. 

In 1975, the year in which Rithy Panh's life was uprooted by the Khmer Rouge, a very different Main Slate selection of this year's NYFF also had its genesis. Claude Lanzmann's The Last of the Unjust is the fourth feature film he has made from footage originally shot for his epochal, nine and a half hour Holocaust documentary Shoah. The film consists largely of filmed conversations between Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein, a figure he found far too problematic to feature in Shoah, but too fascinating not to eventually explore in depth --  even though it took him nearly forty years to feel prepared to do so. 

Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein in 'The Last of the Unjust'
Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein in 'The Last of the Unjust'

Murmelstein was a prominent rabbi in Vienna before the Nazis appointed him as the president of the Jewish Council of Theresienstadt, the notorious "model" concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. There, he oversaw the day-to-day administration of the ghetto, working directly under Adolf Eichmann. Murmelstein was the last such administrator, and the only man in his position to survive. After the war, largely shunned by his own people and condemned for his apparent collaboration with the Nazis, he often referred to himself as "the last of the unjust." 

Like Shoah or Alain Resnais's Night and Fog, The Last of the Unjust uses no archival footage or images of outright horror. Lanzmann understands, probably better than any other filmmaker, the power of empty spaces and the poignancy of silence. "The Holocaust is first of all unique in that it constructs a circle of flames around itself," he once said in reference to Shoah, "the limit not to be broken because a certain absolute horror is not transmittable." Lanzmann's candid conversations with Murmelstein in Rome from 1975, intercut with footage of Lanzmann, in the present day, visiting the sites they discuss and reading aloud from Murmelstein's writings, make for a surprisingly revelatory and ultimately wrenching exploration of one of the darkest hours of modern history.

Murmelstein is a mesmerizing subject, and perhaps an even more skillful storyteller than Lanzmann himself. While discussing his time at Theresienstadt, he constantly filters his experiences through the framework of fables and myths. He was not an administrator, he says, so much as he was Orpheus, unable to look back at Eurydice for fear of annihilation. ("What good would crying have done?" he later asks Lanzmann.) He was the Nazi's "King for a Day", a slave dressed up in finery but utterly powerless and condemned to die. He was Scheherazade, telling tales, night after night, to keep himself and his people alive. As the head of the Jewish Council, he helped the Nazis maintain Theresienstadt as a model camp to present to the outside world -- for as long as Theresienstadt was a useful propagandistic tool, Murmelstein knew, its inhabitants wouldn't be exterminated. Theresienstadt was the story Murmelstein told to stay alive. 

Lanzmann himself is a far more active presence in The Last of the Unjust than in Shoah, in which he seemed to totally refuse any interpretation or authorial commentary. Here, we can't help but notice his strangely affectionate rapport with Lanzmann, which is so freely on display in their conversations. In some ways, this film is an attempt to rehabilitate the image of a man who seems to have done a miraculous amount of good in the harrowing, unthinkable role he was dealt by fate. 

But Lanzmann, like Rithy Panh, has no pretense of handing down an ultimate version of the truth; he is aware of the fallibility of his medium. The Last of the Unjust, like Shoah, is not an attempt to reproduce the trauma of the Holocaust, only to understand how this trauma continues to bleed into the present. In the film's final scene, he and Murmelstein walk through the ruins of the Roman forum. History seems to bear down on them; the distance between past and present seems to widen. A mere thirty years have gone by since the liquidation of Theresienstadt, but, suddenly, the past of which they are speaking seems as silent and remote as the fragments of marble rising up behind them.

This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year's New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.

This article is related to: New York Film Festival , Critics Academy


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