The Last Days

on February 05, 1999 by Mike Kerrigan
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   It may seem odd attaching a PG-13 rating to a film that contains more horror, more graphic violence, more sheer inhumanity than any R-rated slasher movies. But it is the right label. This is a film that should be seen by young people so they can get a reality check on the world in which they live. For while this documentary about the Hungarian Jewish experience deals with a brief period in human history less than a year in length, and having taken place half a century ago<197>it is a lesson for the ages. The soil on the mass graves in Kosovo is still fresh; the genocide in Rwanda was all too recent; people are being slaughtered every day for their beliefs, their color or their nationality. The difference between the faceless dead of these new atrocities and the victims of the Holocaust is that those who died in Hitler's Final Solution have being given a voice.
   And none is more committed to amplifying that voice than Steven Spielberg, who is the executive producer of "The Last Days." His Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, which he started in 1994, has undertaken the awesome task of recording the survivors of the Holocaust--to date, more than 50,000 have been videotaped in 31 languages--and using the archive to educate about the events of those dark days and to teach tolerance.
   He has made many wonderfully entertaining films in his career and some hugely dramatic and moving ones, but this will be his legacy and it is hard to imagine a more important one.
   "The Last Days" is the third documentary and the first theatrical feature. It is particularly powerful because it strips away any grand political design from the Third Reich's plan to exterminate the Jews and exposes it for the sheer brutality it was. By the time the Germans invaded Hungary early in 1944, the end of the war was in sight. But still Hitler demanded that all Hungarian Jews be rounded up and shipped to camps, even if it meant taking resources from other fronts. As a military tactic it made no sense, but it was ruthlessly effective as more than 70 percent of Hungary's one million Jews were murdered in just a few months.
   Director/editor Moll produced the two earlier documentaries by the Foundation, "Survivors of the Holocaust" and "Children of Berlin". His genius is in his getting out of the way and letting the subjects tell the story. There is no commentary, just people speaking about unspeakable acts; kindly grandmothers and grandfathers describing how as teenagers they were taken from their homes, treated inhumanly, and forced to witness families and friends be slaughtered. They question why they survived when so many died. They question their belief in their God.
   There is also archival footage. It is used sparingly and because of that it has all the more impact. Some of the images are the stuff of nightmares and will remain with the viewer for a long time.
   But perhaps the most chilling is the interview with Dr. Hans Munch, who had done experiments on the inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and who proudly explained that he was cleared of war crimes because some of the tests had been benign. One of his subjects was Klara, sister of survivor Renee Firestone. Firestone has the chance to ask the man supposedly dedicated to healing what was done on her sister and why she died. Munch can't remember. Starring Tom Lantos, Alice Lok Cahana, Renee Firestone, Bill Basch and Irene Zisblatt. Directed and edited by James Moll. Produced by June Beallor and Ken Lipper. An October release. Documentary. Rated PG-13 for graphic images and descriptions of Holocaust atrocities. Running time: 87 min
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