Filming the Gray Zone

It is an eerie thing to imagine beautiful music being played in Theresienstadt.

Alice Herz-Sommer, the last known Holocaust survivor, died yesterday at the age of 110. Scheduled to be loaded on a transport to a death camp in October 1944, her life was spared one last time so that she could “keep on playing and singing”. A short documentary about her life and ecstatic embrace of music, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Lifeis up for an Academy Award next Sunday.

Karl Rahm, an SS officer, made the decision not to send Sommer to her death. But also in the room that day — the author of many of the previous transport lists that likewise spared Sommer — was Benjamin Murmelstein, the Nazi-appointed Jewish Elder at Theresienstadt. A debate continues over whether he was a despicable collaborator or a pragmatic realist who saved as many Jews as possible. (Gershon Scholem argued for Murmelstein to be hanged, but opposed hanging Eichmann.) The debate takes place in what Primo Levi calls “the gray zone” in his 1986 memoir The Drowned and the Saved.

Murmelstein is the subject of the 2013 film The Last of the UnjustIf the film about Alice Herz-Sommer promises to center around a simple love of music and a joy-filled woman, Claude Lanzmann’s film about Murmelstein is troubling and complex — the gray zone appears very dark indeed. Murmelstein’s irony verges upon abstract diffidence (he is Sancho Panza, Orpheus, Scheherazade…). We can condemn him, he says, but until we share his perspective, we cannot judge him. 

After watching The Last of the Unjust, I especially look forward to seeing The Lady in Number 6. How can such light have the courage to shine through the gray zone?

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