The Final Shoah Addendum: Last Of the Unjust (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

One of the great things about Criterion's Shoah blu-ray, besides simply being an exceptionally high-end presentation of the most important and powerful documentary about the holocaust, is that it also included all of Claude Lanzmann's subsequent short films. You can pretty much divide all of Lanzmann's films into two categories: those on the Shoah (The Karski Report, Sobibor, A Visitor From the Living) and those on a more contemporary Israel (Tsahal, Isreal Why?, Lights and Shadows). And obviously there's a strong thematic connection between those two groups as well. Criterion had finally rounded up the whole set of Shoah films except, just as Criterion was putting out the set, Lanzmann was putting out one more. And unlike the other three subsequent films, Last Of the Unjust isn't short. It's a full, four-hour doc. And so it wound up being released separately.
Three quarters of The Last Of the Unjust is, like Lanzmann's previous Shoah follow-ups, footage shot but not used for Shoah. So it's mostly footage from the 1970s, a series of talks with Benjamin Murmelstein, a man who wasn't included in any of the prior films. The final third, then, is modern footage of Lanzmann exploring Theresienstadt and neighboring sites discussed in the film as they are today. Theresienstadt was the "model ghetto" discussed in A Visitor From the Living. That film talked to Maurice Rossel, a representative who of the red cross who toured Theresienstadt and left saying the Jewish prisoners there were being treated humanely, and it explores the charade that lead him to that declaration. The Last Of the Unjust, now, talks Murmelstein, the final surviving member of the "Jewish elder," who were appointed by the Nazis to represent/ manage their people. Murmelstein worked closely with the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann and he's the man who was left in charge of Theresienstad, the one who pushed the prisoners to work to hide their suffering from the outer world and perpetuate the Nazis illusion.
Why did he go along with this? What else should or could he have done? Was he saving himself in becoming a Nazi collaborator or working in the best interest of his people? These are the questions Lanzmann faces, and they're not without controversy. Murmelstein died in exile from Israel, spending his final years in Rome, which is where Lanzmann finds him. And this slowly paced film, broken up into two distinct two-hour halves, isn't in a hurry to give you easy answers. There's much more important matters in this film's sites than rushing to judgement on Murmelstein anyway; it's another deep look into the actual lived experience of the holocaust that more generic documentaries can never reach, which is why all of Lanzmann's Shoah films are a treasure, this one no less than the others.
So Criterion's Shoah came out in 2013, and The Last of the Unjust came to DVD and blu at the end of 2014. It was put out by a relatively new label called Cohen Media Group, though they have got some other interesting titles under their belt. The DVD and blu are separate, it's not a combo pack, but I got my hands on both for this review.
2014 Cohen DVD on top; and their blu-ray below.
The new footage doesn't look very much like the old footage, and that's natural considering for the disparity in technology used in making this film over decades, I also suspect it's intentional. I say that because the disparity seems to be played up. Rather than having it fill most of a widescreen television, the vintage interview footage is window-boxed. I'm guessing this is so even the less cinematographically astute won't be confused as the film moves between new and old footage. So the modern footage is just slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1, and the image is very crisp and clear. The vintage footage, as I say, floating window-boxed at about 1.53:1, and looks softer, with lower contrast. But still looks like very highly preserved footage with natural grain on the blu.

The DVD is a concurrent release of a new film, so unsurprisingly it looks almost the same. It's a bit softer and definitely more compressed, which you notice more in the new footage where there's lots of detail (like the grass above). Both discs give you the choice between a 5.1 and 2.0 stereo track (though the blu is in DTS-HD), with removable subtitles.
Extras are minimal, but not non-existent. Both the DVD and blu-ray include the original theatrical trailer, a couple bonus trailers, and chiefly, a very brief interview with Claude Lanzmann. It's good and may answer a question or two you have about the film, but when I say brief, I mean super brief. It's four-minutes long, and that includes clips from the film. It's essentially a long trailer for the film, with explanatory interview footage dropped in, used to promote the film rather than enhance the experience on disc. But it's better than nothing, and Lanzmann just might manage to squeeze in a bit of useful insight into that short time. Also included is an eight-page booklet with chapters and photos.
So, there you go. It's not a fancy special edition, but did you really expect one for this film? The film is treated right, spread out over two blu-ray discs. In the UK, this film was released in a 4-disc set with all of Lanzmann's other Shoah films (The Last Of the Unjust being squeezed onto one disc there), but you miss out on all the extras. And I don't just mean the mini-interview here, but all the stuff from Criterion's Shoah. So this is how I recommend going about it, as Cohen Media Group have done the film justice.

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