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Hungarian Horror

Talking heads handicap the opening of this Holocaust documentary

The Last Days is the first film released by the Shoah Foundation, created by Steven Spielberg, among others, to document the lives and stories of Holocaust survivors all over the world. This Oscar-nominated documentary examines the German invasion of Hungary, which came near the end of the war. It takes its title from the fact that the Hungarian branch of the great Jewish tragedy began just as the war was winding down.

Despite widespread anti-Semitism in Hungary, officials there resisted German calls for them to implement their part of Hitler's "Final Solution." So, just three months before D-day, the Germans attacked, giving Hungary the dubious distinction of being the last country to be invaded by the Nazis. Once in power there, the SS set the Jews on a frenetic march to destruction. Knowing the end was near, the Nazis very quickly rounded up Jews all around the country and rushed them toward the death camps. As one speaker notes in the press guide, "what took 12 years in the rest of Europe" happened to the Hungarian Jews "in four months."

However, the film itself does not make this clear in the beginning. The opening minutes instead introduce us to the survivors whose tales the film will tell, including Houston artist Alice Lok Cahana and California Congressman Tom Lantos. This approach is a bit of a letdown. Because they do not help us understand what was unique to the Hungarian Jewish experience -- how they almost avoided the entire disaster -- the interviews with the survivors don't distinguish the film from the many similar documentaries that have come before it.

The disconnect -- mild impatience -- also came from its talking-head approach. Archival and other footage taken from across the Hungary of the early to mid '40s gave the film some life, but in the beginning director James Moll leaned a bit too heavily on taped interviews with his subjects. It contrasts with the magisterial Shoah, which was too long and repetitive, perhaps, but still always alive. The filmmaker's camera played a role in that earlier film and became a sort of accusing eye. In contrast, the talkier Last Days feels a little flat at times.

But that's only until the film's subjects get up from their chairs and we are able to follow them back into hell. Some survivors, such as Cahana, are on a very personal quest. She returns to Bergen-Belsen in search of her long-lost sister's final resting place. Along the way she meets Hans Munch, a Nazi doctor who had conducted some experiments on her sister. Munch had apparently retained enough of his humanity in the camps to be spared the hangman's noose in Nuremberg, but his interviews here still seem flat and disconnected, and his talk with Cahana is painfully awkward, as of course it should be, even if he apparently did manage to spare a few Jews' lives along the way.

Listening to him and to a Sonderkommando, a Greek prisoner who as a very young man had been pressed into the infernal duty of cleaning out the gas chambers, the thought emerges that it was really time for the killers to speak. Not to deny the heroic survivors their voices, of course.

As their stories evolve here, and become more individualized, the film becomes absolutely absorbing. But the question of how you survive, and what the flavor of your days is after having committed these crimes -- even if you were forced at gunpoint to commit them -- becomes even more engrossing than the question of survival.

The film has many gripping moments, a beautiful score by Hans Zimmer and some newly unearthed footage depicting Nazi atrocities and the skeletal wretches the American forces found and liberated at Dachau. And some of the interviews have wrenchingly specific detail to them, as when Irene Zisblatt tells the story of her diamonds, the only remaining possession her mother "held in her own hands." In the concentration camp she had to continually eat and then defecate them, and held onto them at an unimaginable cost.

Houstonian Cahana seems the most stunned of the survivors, though perhaps that's because it was only during the filming of The Last Days that she learned exactly what had happened to her sister. She's made a heroic response to the nightmare of genocide which she survived, and she has devoted her life to family and art. She acknowledges that her language is inadequate for describing the Holocaust and says that's why she turned to art. But no one's language is really up to the task. Images take us much farther than words, but art fails too when it comes to the Holocaust.

As the film notes, when the Germans were in a fight for their very lives after D-day, they still dedicated considerable resources to the attempted annihilation of the Jews. This was a madness that no film, no book, no lament, can hope to explain.

The Last Days.
A documentary directed by James Moll.
Unrated.

 
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