The Last Days
1999, NR, 88 min. Directed by James Moll. Starring Irene Zisblatt, Tom Lantos, Dario Gabbai, Renee Firestone, Alice Lok Cahana.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 5, 1999
Co-produced by Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, this documentary speaks with five survivors of the Holocaust, all of them originally from Hungary, and all of them present at the end as Hitler's war machine shuddered to a listless halt. Unlike the burgeoning cottage industry that documentaries about the Nazis and their crimes sometimes seem to have become, The Last Days doesn't end with a shot of the camp's dead occupants lying about like so much jackstraw cordwood, grim and sorrowful. Instead, Moll somehow manages to find some small scrap of good to use as closure -- I won't give that away but I will say that it involves Rep. Tom Lantos, D-California, one of the more remarkable interviewees. Lantos and the other four were corralled late in the war by the Nazi SS. It was 1945 -- a full six years into the blitzkrieg and well after the point of no return for the Fuhrer's tactical fortunes -- that the Nazis came for the Jews of Hungary. One of the most frequently asked questions regarding Hitler's bizarre machinations -- one asked again in this film -- is why Hitler expended so much time and so many resources trying to blot out those last few handfuls of European Jewry when, by virtue of allowing them to remain unmolested, he could have marshaled his strength elsewhere and almost certainly caused the war to slog on another six months if not longer. Why waste precious personnel on the Final Solution? There is, of course, no easy answer to that one, and the film, thankfully, doesn't dip into the pedantic, clumsily trying to offer one final answer. Instead, Moll takes us through those last days of the war with newsreel footage, German camp footage, and most affectingly, newly discovered color footage shot by American GIs after the liberation of the camps. Moll briefly interviews a trio of these grunts, as well, but it's the five survivors who are his main focus. Hesitantly, sometimes frail with age but clearly very much alive, they recount their stories: lost parents, brothers, sisters, things, and events we've all heard somewhere before, but personalized in an alarming and urgent fashion. Moll takes his camera along to interview Dr. Hans Munch, the only surviving Nazi doctor who worked alongside the infamous Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz's sister camp, Birkenau. Cleared at Nuremberg, Munch declares his innocence, saying that he actually helped save Jews by experimenting on them and then keeping them inside the hospital where they could not be shot. Later in the film, Munch is introduced -- face to face -- with one of the five profiled survivors who prods him for answers about her sister. At once, Munch becomes vague and uncommunicative -- a grim turtle pulling back into his carapace at the first hint of trouble. Moll's film is a far cry from the elegiac poetry of, say, Night and Fog; it's a document more than an examination, and its power of record is inarguable and incorruptible. And then, at the end, somehow you find yourself with that least likely of expressions on your face, a smile, courtesy of Representative Lantos.