The Last Days (1998) ****
Directed and edited by James Moll. Produced by June Beallor and Ken Lipper. Photography, Harris Done. Music, Hans Zimmer; P; presented by Steven Spielberg and Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. An October Films release. 88 minutes. PG-13.
The Witnesses: Congressman Tom Lantos, Alice Lok Cahana, Renee Firestone, Bill Basch, Irene Zisblatt. Ordinary --or even extraordinary--standards, criteria and judgments cannot apply to documentaries, especially those on the Holocaust. The most valid and obvious thing one can say about "The Last Days" is that it belongs to that handful of life-and-death documents which are indispensable viewing by all humans.
Put it this way. Whenever I am asked to name my favorite movie, or my Best 10 or 100, I reply that I cannot do it unless it is a list of the 1, 000 Best. On the other hand, if all films were to disappear, except for a few that could be saved, I would begin that very small list with "Night and Fog, " the 1955, 32-minute documentary on extermination camps. It was made by Alain Resnais who is French but not Jewish. And the most recent film in that to-be-rescued group would be "The Last Days. "
It is about the Jews of Hungary, one of the largest groups in Europe. In the mid-1930s the population of that country was about 8. 5 million. The ruler (as Regent) was the pro-fascist, antisemitic Admiral (in a landlocked country!) Horty. In June 1941 Hungary joined the Axis war on the USSR. By then the country's population had increased through Hitler's "gifts, " annexations of areas in neighboring lands, These also has Jewish populations.
Like the Jews of Germany, those of Hungary were and felt assimilated in every way. They co-existed well with their Gentile friends and neighbors, although, to their bewilderment, when persecution later came full force, antisemitism often showed its hidden face, especially in provincial towns and rural areas.
By 1941 there were about 825, 000 Jews in Hungary, many of them in Budapest. By and large they felt safe. After all, they were "true" Magyars! They had no knowledge of Nazi atrocities elsewhere. This "ignorance, " though hard to believe today, was quite common among both Jews and Gentiles all over the world. .
By the end of World War II, 620, 000 Hungarian Jews had been exterminated. The horror began systematically when, on March 19 1944, Hitler, by now mistrustful of his ally, invaded the country. As it is often said, although he did not admit -- even to himself-- that after the rout at Stalingrad the Germans had already lost the war, he was more hell-bent than ever on winning his war against the Jews and making the Final Solution really final.
The title "The Last Days" stands both for the last days of the war and the last days in the lives of Hungarian Jews. The film focuses on five Shoah survivors, each of whom tells his/her story to the camera in something like a historical stream of conscioussness. No interviewers are seen or heard. Nor is there the usual narrator. The survivors themselves (who, coming to America after the war created families, professions and occupations) are the ones who narrate their past in bits, pieces, scenes or sequences. They are also shown visiting, decades later, their old Hungarian haunts and the scenes of the Nazi crimes.
Thie tragic tales are edited and blended superlatively well, in criss-cross fashion. Intercut are period, family, and other photographs, as well as documentary footage of the war, the camps, the killers and the killed. Much of this was shot by German soldiers. Every sight and sound shakes you to your foundations. A great deal of the footage is new or rare or recently discovered.
It is not possible for me to find the right words that would characterize the skill, effectiveness, lucidity, and emotions of the process. Adjectives such as "superb, " "magnificent, " or "astounding" imply esthetic or showmanship values, all of which make those terms inappropriate. The witnesses are tremendously moved and moving.
All five witnesses are most likable. Opening the film is Tom Lantos, the 10-times elected Congressman from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress. He often adds striking notes of black humor which reinforce the horrors. He is the only Budapester of the group, the son of patrician parents, both killed in camps. Highly educated, handsome, elegant and calmly eloquent, he points out that he would not be here today without Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic Swede who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews --and later vanished in Soviet hands. Mr. Lantos came to the United States in 1947 on a Hillel scholarship--with no money but with a big Hungarian salami which was confiscated by customs.
Without duplicating the film in writing one cannot describe or characterize each participant, especially since their own descriptions of facts, events, thoughts and feelings are stunning, rich in variety yet similar in pain. Each time I have seen this film something special has jumped out and struck me. At the latest screening one of those moments was a witness, recounting her low point in the camp, says "that's when I stopped talking to God. " And every time I am dumbfounded by the matter-of-factness of a German, Hans Munch, head doctor of a camp where experiments were made on humans. This chill-making is balanced by the warm scene where a black G. I. , now a doctor, is brought an astonishing gift, the legacy to him by a man he and other soldiers had liberated from slavery.
The witnesses were all teen-agers then. They grew up fast, and grew older with admirable faith, in their beliefs, and in the positive side of humanity.
There is more suspense in the film than in fictional thrillers, stunning absurdism and surrealism (among the Nazis), a depth of feeling and pain that no fictional melodrama can approach. One can hardly think of 88 screen minutes as packed as these.
Director Moll and co-producer Beallor had previously made for TV the prize-winning "Survivors of the Holocaust" and "The Lost Children of Berlin. " They bring hearts, minds and expertise to "The Last Days" which won the Oscar for Best Documentary.
It also has won the highest possible ratings from all film critics, more praise than for any film I can remember in the last many years.