Frustrating History

The Last Days

The Last Days begins with a statement from a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust: As World War II began to slip away from Hitler, the German führer chose to kill Jews with renewed urgency instead of fortifying his battle troops with death-camp soldiers.

Why? This documentary, from director-editor James Moll and executive producer Steven Spielberg, never tries to explain. Implicitly, the movie says Hitler hated Jews more than he cared about winning the war. Perhaps that’s the only possible answer. But as glibly as it’s offered here, it’s deeply unsatisfying.

The movie, which in 1999 won the Academy Award for best documentary, tells the story of five Hungarian Jews, people who lost their families but not their lives in Hitler’s final purge. Four were sent to concentration camps, while one stayed in Budapest, where Jews had a small measure of protection.

Historical footage and pilgrimages strongly complement the survivor interviews and help tell the greatest horror story of our time simply and effectively. Moll has structured the collective story chronologically, so the movie begins with descriptions of home life and then moves to the Nazi invasion, to the camps, to liberation, and finally to the present day. One of the subjects is now a painter, another an outreach specialist for a Holocaust museum, and one is U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress.

Their stories are intercut with each other, and their experiences are largely shared, so only after they begin to build new lives do they emerge as individuals. The effect — a function of structure — works against the obvious goal of humanizing the Holocaust.

And then there’s Nazi death-camp doctor Hans Munch, the most compelling figure in the movie. He was acquitted of war crimes and on-screen shows not the slightest hint of emotion or remorse. He clinically describes what he did at the camps and, when visited by one of the movie’s subjects, doesn’t offer a word of apology or condolence, even though he probably killed her sister. The audience is given only a short taste of the conversation, and has no idea if the doctor was asked the big questions: How did you feel? How do you feel? The frustration of Moll’s failure to even address the question that opens the movie is compounded by the tantalizing presence of Munch.

The Last Days is without question an important document, a widely distributed companion piece to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. It’s powerfully sad, disturbing, and — in the end — touching, as we see these five survivors with their spouses, children, and grandchildren, seemingly healing right on the screen.

But creating sympathy for Holocaust survivors doesn’t take much work. Moll’s movie is largely rudimentary and obvious, made without imagination and unwilling to even try to answer its most difficult questions.

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