The Last Days (1998)

D: James Moll

The project of the Shoah Visual History Foundation to record the first-hand experiences of survivors of the Nazi holocaust is a worthy one without doubt. The most effective moments in this, the first assembled feature result of that project, are those of personal revelation and the raw emotional responses of fellow human beings to external and internal stimuli including visits to the former sites of concentration camps or, in one case, their former home. Centred on the experiences of Hungarian Jews (though also featuring testimony from a former Nazi doctor and a former U.S. soldier), the film charts the final stages of Hitler's 'final solution' in the latter days of the war, making the point from the outset that had Germany directed its energies to winning the war instead of exterminating the Jews, it might have won. There's merit to this, and there is a point in the argument.

Yet there is a disturbing undercurrent of self-satisfied self-glorification here. The constant reference to the importance of the U.S.'s role in the liberation of the camps and the rehabilitation of prisoners after the war smacks of old-fashioned flag waving in a way which is entirely too insular to serve the greater cause of humanity which the Shoah Foundation is presumed to. It makes one wonder about the eventual value of the project itself. Whom does it serve? For whom is it intended? Will those valuable testimonies and the heartbreaking moments of personal self-discovery ultimately prove a worthwhile contribution to our sense of ourselves as a species, or will it merely be turned to sentimental political ends? Is there really any value in retreading the same ground as so many bargain-basement historical dramas when there's material enough here to do so much more?

The Last Days is eventually no more or less remarkable than the majority of holocaust documentaries, and certainly far from the class of Shoah as an evocation of personal memory. It lacks the moral vision of Night & Fog, and the clarity of Alain Resnais' political vision of human society beyond the specifics of Nazism itself. It is too self-contained and easily slotted within a conventional moral viewpoint, fixing blame with evil individuals in an evil system which was an aberration rather than a fundamental part of the nature of even those who view the film. There's a sneaking sense of smugness on the part of the enlightened modern filmmakers who are responsible for this project, when it is evident within society that, as Jean Cayrol warned us in the narration of Night & Fog that the beast does not lie buried in the rubble, and lives within us all. Atrocities since 1945 have proved that no amount of mere information will prevent this from happening again. Only a greater sense of personal and social responsibility can do that, and this is something which The Last Days never achieves. It is too easily convinced by its own documentary evidence and too keen to use emotional manipulation to build a triumphant story of survival which comes uneasily close to catharsis. There is no catharsis in the holocaust. It is happening again and will continue to do so. That is the most sobering lesson we can learn, and The Last Days does not teach it.

Naturally, we can't necessarily criticise a film for what it doesn't do. Within its own frames of reference, it is successful and has moments of pain, grief and loss which are important to see and experience (if only by proxy). It will doubtless find its way into history courses and screenings for special groups. The worry is that viewers will sit and stroke their chins and nod and say 'oh yes, isn't it awful' without sparing a moment of thought for the consequences of what they are seeing and what it calls for from them. Night & Fog remains an infinitely superior document of the human condition and remains the most powerful and affecting holocaust film. We can only hope that in future the Shoah Visual History Foundation will seek out more effective methods of using their footage in the future and really find a way to break through the barrier of passivity which the traditional visual history creates and sustains.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.