The Year of Dying Dangerously
In Hungary, the Holocaust lasted only for a year. But the word only is deceptive in this context. The Nazis, who entered the country in March of 1944, had been in the genocide business for a few years by then, and they'd gotten good at it. They were efficient, and they were determined. By the time Hungary was liberated early the following year, well more than half a million Hungarian Jews had died at the Nazis' hands, many after deportation to concentration camps. It was a long year.
During the same period, the Nazis were growing increasingly aware that they were losing the war. The resources that were devoted, with frantic obsessiveness, to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry were much needed elsewhere in the German war effort. That's the historical point of director James Moll's documentary The Last Days: that the real war, as far as the Nazis were concerned, was always against the Jews--that when the Germans knew they were on the verge of defeat, it was against this enemy that they redoubled their efforts, as if in obedience to some horrid sense of obligation, a vision of a Jew-free world as their legacy.
The dramatic point of the film, however--the human point--is to defiantly demonstrate the failure of that insane vision. The Last Days focuses on five survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust, three women and two men who came to the U.S. after the war and led distinguished careers, raised families, flourished and thrived. As sad and horrifying a chronicle as the film is, it nonetheless leaves behind a sort of angry exhilaration and joy. You want to shout backward through time at the Nazis, "Well, here are five you bastards didn't destroy, and they're still with us."
The five survivors are Tom Lantos, Alice Lok Cahana, Renee Firestone, Bill Basch and Irene Zisblatt. Lantos, now the representative from California's 12th Congressional District, was a Budapest native sent to a forced-labor camp as a teenager; he worked repairing a railroad trestle after it was bombed by British and American planes. He escaped, entered the underground back in Budapest, and avoided the concentration camps by taking refuge in one of the safehouses maintained by Raoul Wallenberg.
The other four were less fortunate. Cahana, now a respected artist, spent time in both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Firestone, now an outreach teacher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, was also deported to Auschwitz, where her sister died after being subjected to scientific experimentation. Zisblatt survived appalling experiments in the same camp. Basch, a small-town boy, was arrested while sneaking through the Budapest sewers to deliver Swedish passports to Hungarian Jews from Wallenberg, and ended up in Buchenwald.
We see the five revisit the scenes of their experiences, and they tell their stories, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes with intense emotion, but always in great detail, as if the memory were very fresh. Those details are the strategies they used to survive hell on Earth: the secreting of a bathing suit under one's clothes as a reminder of happy times; how to hang on to the diamonds your mother has given you by repeatedly swallowing them and then retrieving them from your bowel movements. The Last Days employs no voice-over narration, with the accounts of the five survivors supported by amazing testimony from three American liberators, and, unnervingly, from Dr. Hans Munch, one of the Nazi "researchers" at Auschwitz.
That in-the-flesh testimony of survivors won't be available forever is, presumably, another aspect of the film's title's meaning--every year fewer firsthand accounts of the Holocaust exist. This film was produced, in part, by Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an organization devoted to stemming this loss to the historical record; Moll worked there for several years, compiling a video archive of interviews with Holocaust survivors from around the world. Although the foundation has produced two TV documentaries and a CD-ROM, The Last Days marks both its and Moll's feature debut.
Somehow such movie-business terminology as "feature debut" rings hollow here, but it probably shouldn't. Moll and cinematographer Harris Done have found potent images, Hans Zimmer's solemn score doesn't commit the grotesque insult--so common now in TV news--of pushing emotion on us, and the various stories flow to overwhelming parallel conclusions. If you're thinking about what you're watching, there isn't a minute of The Last Days that doesn't hold you like a vise, a tribute to Moll's nearly invisible technique.
There are always a few critics who express unease when movies such as Schindler's List (1993), among others, dramatize true stories from the Holocaust and use them to generate ordinary dramatic effects like suspense, terror, poignancy, and occasionally even comic relief. That unease increases with a work like last year's Life Is Beautiful, which uses the Holocaust as the setting for a fable that defends its title's assertion.
A film like The Last Days has its status as nonfiction to help buffer it from the charge of show-biz frivolity; we aren't haunted by visions of costume assistants sewing on yellow stars or of makeup artists applying emaciated faces and numbered tattoos to extras. But the visions that do haunt us, including many unwatchable ones from the stock footage included in the film, take us out of the realm of aesthetic ethics. The unstaged history in The Last Days makes distaste regarding staged history seem like a meaningless worry.
"A triumph of the human spirit" is the phrase that's often affixed to stories such as the ones told in The Last Days, and while it's apt, it has also become a cliche with overuse. Indeed, many of the adjectives used to describe a meaningful movie experience--touching, gripping, powerful, wrenching--seem both feeble and irrelevant here. Necessary might be the most appropriate word.
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