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Shoah's 'The Last Days':
Failing the Memory

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 1999

  Movie Critic

'The Last Days'
James Moll directs this documentary on the Holocaust in "The Last Days." (October Films)

James Moll
Bill Basch;
Alice Lok Cahana;
Renee Firestone;
Dario Gabbai;
Tom Lantos;
Irene Zisblatt
Running Time:
1 hour, 29 minutes
Contains disturbing footage and testimony from the Holocaust
The first words on the screen in this Holocaust movie are "Steven Spielberg." But this is no "Schindler's List."

"The Last Days" is a documentary, a product of the Shoah Foundation, the ambitious attempt to record on videotape the recollections of 50,000 survivors of the Holocaust. Seed money for the project came from Spielberg's profits from "Schindler," and the foundation has, through the power of Spielberg's name and cash and the drive of a global army of volunteers, managed to preserve forever the voices and stories of ordinary people who lived through the horror against which all others are measured.

From the start, the Shoah Foundation has been a strange bird, an amalgam of academic pursuit and Hollywood project. This movie, the foundation's first product to gain theatrical release, is a serious attempt to create something emotionally powerful and commercially viable out of material that might otherwise be used mostly by students and researchers.

"The Last Days" tells the story of the final months of the Holocaust through the eyes and voices of five survivors. It has shattering moments, but it is a confused jumble of characters and stories. It is too slick, too quick – in the end, it fails to trust in the survivors' ability to tell their own stories. And if there is one thing we have learned about survivors, it is that while they may have refused to saddle their own families with the burden of what they lived through, a great many of them are remarkably capable of capturing the horror of the Holocaust in simple words, at their own pace.

Ninety minutes spent in the theater at the end of the permanent exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington proves the point: Here, the survivors are given the respect and time they need to speak, or to be silent, or simply to let us see the truths their eyes express.

"The Last Days" provides bits of historical context – a few newsreel clips, some helpful comments by a single historian. But the framework of the five survivors' stories is never made clear – where they came from, how they were deported, what happened to them after the war. This is the Holocaust done California casual – the survivors, who are old people and deserve some deference, are generally referred to by first name. And they are escorted back to their home towns or back to Auschwitz for the apparent purpose of having an emotional moment that can be caught on film.

There is even a sequence in which one of the survivors, Renee Firestone, is shown in a staged meeting with a Nazi physician, Hans Muench, who conducted medical experiments on Jewish prisoners. This confrontation, a Jerry Springer Goes Holocaust scene, consists of Firestone gently asking the doctor about her sister, who was lost at Auschwitz.

In broken German, which she speaks out of politeness to the doctor, Firestone asks, "Why did she die?"

"How long was she there?" responds Muench in broken English, and it's hard to say whether he's being polite or playing a linguistic power game.

"Six months."

"That is a normal period," says Muench. "You were in Auschwitz?"

Firestone nods.

"Well, then, you should know."

The scene reads as if it has power, as if it reveals the routine degradation of the Nazi-Jewish relationship. But Firestone and Muench sit in front of what looks like a photo studio backdrop, dressed in their finest, clearly affected by the staging of this meeting. There's a crippling phoniness to the whole thing.

To be sure, there are passages in "The Last Days" that transcend director James Moll's heavy-handed manner. When Rep. Tom Lantos, the California congressman who is the only Holocaust survivor serving on Capitol Hill, describes the time his two daughters came to him and told him they wanted to give him the gift of a large family, the weight of the survivors' loss bears down on you.

But for the most part, "The Last Days" fails to play as a document of the survivors' lives, or even as their memory of that time. Rather, it feels removed, distant, a document of an attempt to re-create a memory.

The real thing is available on videotape. It is called "Shoah," and it is a 1985 film by Claude Lanzmann, a nine-hour masterpiece that includes no newsreel clips, no interviews with survivors, no blathering historians. It is a relentless search for eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. Lanzmann spent six years finding and when necessary confronting witnesses – Jews, Nazis, bystanders. He asks not for emotional catharsis, not for summations of why and where, but simply and incessantly for facts. He finds the barber who cut the Jews' hair before they were gassed, and he asks about every minute aspect of the work – the scissors, the mirrors.

And they all get to tell their stories, in their own time. If you're short on time, any single hour of the epic will do. His characters breathe, and in their breath we hear, feel, see the loss, the pain, the evil.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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