In James Moll's documentary The Last Days, the third film the young producer/director has created for Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, five Hungarian Jews who lived through the horrors of the Nazi death camps and eventually immigrated to the United States describe their experiences before, during and after World War II. This is not the first example of heart-wrenching Holocaust testimony, of course, and it won't be the last: The Shoah Foundation's purpose is to interview as many survivors and witnesses of Hitler's profound evil as possible to establish a record of the grim truth. It's a high calling, mandated by the conscience of history.
The survivors we meet now tell their harrowing stories without interruptions from a narrator or much stylistic intrusion from Moll. Instead, we have their words and their haunted memories, underscored here and there by an old photograph of a mustached father or a pretty teenage sister, both long dead; by a scrap of archival footage from the death camps or present-day views of the interviewees revisiting Buchenwald or Dachau or Auschwitz.
The simplicity of Moll's approach intensifies the power and dignity of the individual testimonies, but the film also sheds light on one of the most despicable episodes of the entire war--the Nazi SS's irrational campaign to continue exterminating Europe's Jews even after Germany knew the war was lost. Hungary's experience was particularly cruel: In 1944, when the Nazis took Hungary's "Final Solution" into their own hands, nearly half a million Hungarian Jews were deported to the camps in less than two months, an urgency that testifies to the single-minded insanity of their captors. All told, Holocaust historians say, some 620,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered.
For Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the U.S. Congress, more than half a century has passed since he hid from the Nazis in Budapest, but neither his memories nor his bafflement have faded. "I wasn't young anymore," he tells us. "I was sixteen, but I was very old." Renee Firestone, who spent the last year of the war in Auschwitz, finds no "closure" in returning to the scene of her ordeal 53 years later. "Just new questions and new doubts," she laments. When, thanks to an astonishing coincidence growing out of the filmmakers' research, Mrs. Firestone gets the opportunity to interview a former Nazi doctor (acquitted at Nuremberg) who may literally have had a hand in the death of her sister, Klara, the old man is not a source of truth but of indifference and evasion.
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Alice Lok Cahana, incarcerated at Bergen-Belsen, constantly revisits her darkest memories in her paintings. Irene Zisblatt, born Irene Zeigelstein in the Czech town of Poleno, later annexed to Hungary, tells of the anti-Semitism she suffered in her youth and of the two SS motorcyclists who one bleak day oversaw the deportation of the Jews to the Munkacs ghetto. She also tells us the story of her mother's diamonds, the only symbol of hope to which she could cling in the death camp, although she had to keep swallowing and retrieving the gems until Allied liberators arrived in 1945.
We hear firsthand of the "selections" at the Auschwitz railhead, of Dr. Mengele's infamous eye-color experiments, of the moment that one of the witnesses, having seen a Nazi guard dash a child against the side of a truck, makes a fateful decision: "That's when I stopped talking to God," she says. Now, she reveals, she blames not God but men for the horrors of the war.
Among documentaries, the bedrock work of Holocaust testimony is, of course, Claude Landesmann's remarkable, 503-minute Shoah, in which relentless interviewers and pitiless cameras build such a mountain of horrifying detail and personal tragedy that we are, as we must be, morally overwhelmed. Of the dramatic films about the camps, Spielberg's Schindler's List will surely endure. But The Last Days, less than a hundred minutes in length and grimly familiar in content, is no less an achievement--because its purposes and its meanings are no less profound. As the work of the Shoah Foundation itself demonstrates, the Holocaust is a horror story that will always bear retelling--lest humankind forget.
The Last Days.
Documentary directed and edited by James Moll. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg.