|Last Days, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 30 November 1999|
When Steven Spielberg, executive producer of this film, made SCHINDLER'S LIST, he was plunged into the history of the Nazi extermination camps, and the Holocaust. He established the Shoah Foundation, set up to collect on video interviews with as many survivors of the camps as possible. This work continues, and thousands of interviews have been conducted. This remarkable documentary, which won the Oscar for best documentary feature of its year, is the first public result of this work.
At times, it seems as though there's little more to be said about the horrendous concentration camps and death camps that the Nazis established during World War II, few broad questions left to answer. But it's really a matter of perspective; the history of the camps, why they were built, what they did at them, and the effect on Europe -- all these create a dark but many-faceted jewel of history, and those with imagination can turn the crystal a new way, and the Holocaust comes to appalling life again.
There have been many excellent films on the Holocaust and similar tales of World War II, from NIGHT AND FOG through THE SORROW AND THE PITY, and on to SHOAH itself -- but THE LAST DAYS is one of the best, because it concentrates on just five people from one country, Hungary: Irine Zisblatt, Reneé Firestone, Alice Lok Cahana, Bill Basch and Tom Lantos. Others are interviewed, but these five remain the core of the film.
Near the end of the war, even though their backs were to the wall, the Nazis still sent rounded up thousands more Jews and other "undesirables," still sent them to the camps, still killed them in the gas chambers. The Nazi leaders used resources that were better applied to defense, and killed, and killed, and killed. THE LAST DAYS shows us five people they tried, but failed, to kill.
The advertising for the film insisted it was the story of the triumph of the human spirit, but it's nothing of the sort. Instead, it deals with the harsh realities of survival; one of the women continually swallowed, and re-swallowed, diamonds her mother had insisted she save. A true story, that also is such a stunning, shocking metaphor that it's hard to believe -- but she still has the diamonds.
Director James Moll has beautifully structured the film. We are introduced to each of the five in quiet, beautiful surroundings as they tell us of their lives before the Nazis came. All regarded themselves as Hungarians more than as Jews, and all were stunned by the reactions of their countrymen even more than by the Nazis themselves. The movie smoothly, fluidly cuts from one of the speakers to another, advancing through their histories -- before the war, when the Nazis came, what happened in the camps, occasionally supporting or enhancing their narratives with archival footage, and interviews with other people.
Among the most moving scenes are when the interview subjects return, usually with family members, to the towns where they grew up, and also to the concentration camps. Some of these scenes are almost unbearable to watch, but it's hard to look away. A lot of tears are shed on screen, and audiences responded, too; it's hard not to be deeply moved when Tom Lantos proudly announces that he is the only survivor of the Holocaust to be elected to Congress -- but it's even more moving, immensely so, when we learn of the incredible gift his two daughters gave him. It's one of the most remarkable things I have ever heard.
One of the main points the film makes is that these people have lived their entire lives in the shadow of the Holocaust; they were not brought down by it, but it has shaped their personal histories. Alice Lok Cahana, for example, is an artist specializing in palimpsets that depict the Holocaust. And two of her sons are rabbis.
Through the interviews with these people, who mostly look so ordinary, but who had such extraordinary experiences, the monstrous past of the Holocaust comes very personally to life. Other documentaries have ranged over the whole history of the Nazi death camps; THE LAST DAYS, by focussing on just five stories, makes the unthinkable events real and immediate.
Among the other people interviewed are Dr. Hans MÜnch, who was a doctor at one of the camps, performing experiments on prisoners. Even though he tried to save some people this way, it's hard to view him as anything other than a monster, even if a lesser one. Dario Gabbai, a Greek Jew, was a Sonderkommando at Birkenau, and hauled the bodies of his friends out of the ovens. Warren Dunn, Dr. Paul Parks and Katsugo Miho were American soldiers who were among the first to enter the camps, and to see what had gone on in them.
This is a superb documentary, a powerful, personal view of history, something every parent should show their children at some point in their lives. If this is the level of effort we can expect from the Shoah Foundation, I look forward to what they produce next.