Life Is Beautiful

The Last Days
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Featuring on-camera interviews with Holocaust survivors, The Last Days embraces the documentary's most profound challenge: to bridge the gap between witnesses to history and beholders of it. Moreover, the film dramatizes the ultimate paradox of the documentary form: To preserve memory, filmmakers must edit it. (For example, Claude Lanzmann assembled his nine-hour account of the Holocaust, Shoah, from some 350 hours of filmed interviews.) This is merely to say that even historical documentary can prove nearly as malleable as fiction.

Of course, in the case of The Last Days, the basic facts are beyond dispute. Focusing on the Nazis' destruction of Hungary's Jewish community during the last year of the war, the film shows how the Nazis, in the face of imminent defeat, dedicated their dwindling resources to rounding up and killing as many Jews as possible (an estimated 437,000 from Hungary). The Last Days documents this episode through the testimony of five survivors--grandmother Irene Zisblatt, Holocaust educator Renee Firestone, artist Alice Lok Cahana, businessman Bill Basch, and U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos--as they return to the death camps and recount their ordeals. Editor-director James Moll expertly weaves their accounts together with stunning archival footage, including color film shot by a U.S. soldier arriving at Dachau and Buchenwald. Moll has also shot present-day scenes that seamlessly dissolve into views from the '40s, almost making it seem as if we're seeing these places through the eyes of the witnesses themselves.

Almost. Considering the behind-the-scenes presence of the most powerful filmmaker on the planet (Steven Spielberg), it seems fair to ask whose vision this Oscar-winning documentary ultimately represents. Not only was exec-producer Spielberg "instrumental" during the editing (according to Moll), but the interviews themselves were culled from the controversial Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, founded and funded by Spielberg. (Is it any wonder that NBC's recent broadcast of Schindler's List appeared exactly one week before The Last Days--not to mention Saving Private Ryan--competed at the Oscars?) To date, Spielberg's historical archive/production company has recorded over 50,000 "eyewitness" accounts of the Holocaust, garnering criticism not only for its commercial ties to the mogul but for its methodological m.o. Some have questioned the potentially slapdash training of some 5,000 interviewers, and the rigid structure of interviews that designates "20 percent to life before the Holocaust, 60 percent to experiences during the war, 20 percent to life after Liberation." Memory, after all, doesn't operate according to percentages.

Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer, for one, questions the foundation's policy of inviting survivors' family members on camera at the close of interviews--a strategy that in many cases reflects Spielberg's optimistic be-fruitful-and-multiply family ideology more than the fractured realities of survivors. "Having the family in the video creates the impression that the Holocaust is an event people recover from and get over," Langer explained in a scathing Village Voice critique of the foundation published in 1996. "It's a Hollywood spin."

Per this philosophy, The Last Days does not include testimonies in which survivors describe the paralyzing loneliness they continue to experience--often on the very occasion of family celebrations. Nor does it feature those searing moments when communication and memory collapse, when faltering witnesses are reduced to distressed near-silence, whispering conclusions such as, "Nothing to say. Sad." (See Langer's Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory for accounts of this sort.) Indeed, The Last Days cuts away pretty quickly from such scenes, as when educator Firestone visits her now-neglected girlhood home, finds the gate stuck, and panics, repeating, "It just doesn't open. It doesn't open. It doesn't open."

I wish I could report that the survivors' own stories transcend their celluloid packaging. And to be fair, the obviously empathetic Moll did offer participants the opportunity to edit their own segments (before creating the final cut, that is). But I fear that for many viewers the cumulative Spielberg effect will overwhelm the participants' testimony. Perhaps that's why at least three reviews I read egregiously misattributed the women survivors' stories. (One of them identified Irene Zisblatt as "Irene Zeigelstein.") Other critics, apparently seeking catharsis in lieu of communication, extolled what Roger Ebert called the film's "emotional uplift."

Ultimately, as this Spielberg production dissolves into didactic pieties intoned by an unidentified (and hence omniscient) narrator, The Last Days' last word threatens to grossly diminish the complexity of the survivors' own testimonies. In real life, such unruly memories as these defy reassuring resolutions.

 
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