The sheer horrific audacity of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe is almost incomprehensible. People may make documentaries about it for another hundred years and still not understand the organized, methodical hatred.
Shoah, 1985, Claude Lanzmann, the 9-hour epic documentary that talks to survivors, former Nazis, and neighbors of the Holocaust.
Five concentration camp survivors from the last days of World War II tell their stories in The Last Days, the first documentary from Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
The five interviewees are linked by their Hungarian ancestry. As the introduction explains, even as Germany started to lose the war, the Nazis stepped up their extermination of the Jews in Europe. In 1944, Hungary had the last big population of Jews within Germany’s reach, and they became the last target of Hitler’s “final solution.”
Each of the five tells his or her story. Their stories are intercut chronologically, starting from normal life in pre-war Hungary. They recall the Nazi invasion of Hungary, being sent to “work” camps and their realization that they were actually in death camps.
They recall their horrible, precarious lives in Auschwitz and Buchenwald; the deaths of their family and friends; their loss of hope. Each recalls his or her unfathomable, eventual liberation. And finally, The Last Days shows their cathartic, pained, modern-day return to their old homes and the camps.
Needless to say, their stories are horrifying, amazing, and emotionally draining. By themselves, the stories would be forceful testaments, but by cutting them in parallel, their impact is multiplied by five.
The Last Days is a talking-heads style documentary — it’s mostly pictures of people telling their stories, intercut with period photographs and newsreel footage. In this kind of movie it’s almost impossible to get archival pictures from the same time and place being discussed on-screen, but director James Moll made a better effort than most at finding specific, or at least relevant, images to go with his subjects’ narration.
The liner notes (one of the many nice features of this DVD) indicate that there is some never-before-seen historical footage in The Last Days. It’s not clear which scene it is. It could be one of two that I hadn’t seen before, both powerful. One is rare color footage, shot by an American, of piles of victims in cattle cars. There is something jarring, something unsettling about seeing the pictures in color, when so much of the footage from World War II is in black and white. Another segment shows walking skeletons; survivors who are so starved that they hardly look human anymore.
There has been a glut of Holocaust movies and I was skeptical that a new documentary would have anything new to say. But by focusing on Hungarian Jews during the last days of the war, Moll told a specific part of the story in a new way, in greater detail. And I’m glad he did because his careful filmmaking stands up well compared to other movies on the same subject.
The transfer to DVD is rich and beautiful. That’s an odd choice of words for a Holocaust documentary, but some of the interviews take place in Europe in late spring, when skies are blue and trees are green. Also, the movie was shot on 35mm film (and not video!), so the richness and detail are impeccable.
The DVD’s features are plentiful and well-chosen. There is a theatrical trailer for the movie, which is a great introduction to the subject matter. There are about fifty still photos, both from the production crew and from the private collections of the survivors. Also, the disc has two complete versions of the movie (widescreen and full screen), both on the same side.
One of the more interesting DVD features is an outtake segment for each of the survivors (plus one for the crew). You’d think outtakes would be inappropriate in a Holocaust documentary, but they’re not bloopers. Instead, they are solid, moving segments that were probably cut from the film only for length.
One of them continues a confrontation that was only touched on lightly in the film. Renee Firestone (one of the five) spoke on camera with Dr. Hans Münch, a German doctor who ran the medical clinic at Auschwitz. Firestone was aggressive, questioning the doctor about what his children thought. The doctor was evasive and clearly uncomfortable. Another of the outtakes showed Bill Basch saying a prayer for his dead friends at Auschwitz. He ends his prayer by saying “... forgive me for surviving.”
It’s ambitious to shoot a documentary on 35mm film. It’s ambitious to make it on a subject that has saturated cable, television, and movies. It’s ambitious to make it 54 years after the events it covers. But The Last Days handles all these potential obstacles very well.
It’s only fitting that the DVD, with its wealth of interesting and relevant features, would also be ambitious and successful.
• Widescreen or Full-screen version
• English subtitles for the hearing impaired
• Photo galleries
• Theatrical trailer
• Introduction by Steven Spielberg
• Filmmaker biographies
• 23 chapter stops
• Printed liner notes inside the inner sleeve.