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1999 AcademyAward - Best Documentary
The Last Days is a documentary
about the Holocaust that focuses in particular on the experience of Hungarian Jews who
were herded into the death camps by the Nazis towards the very end of the war years, in
1944. The Nazi focus on the Hungarian Jews at that late date is pointed and ironic; the
irrational pursuit of the Final Solution, the attempt to totally eradicate the
Jewish people, was conducted at the cost of the German war effort, undoubtedly hastening
their own defeat.
The film uses what have become standard techniques of historical documentaries - talking heads, historical footage, contemporary location shots. It is impeccably crafted, seamlessly developing its themes through the remembrances of five survivors. They speak to us through the camera, in turns, recalling in some detail their varying backgrounds, their pride in being Hungarians as well as Jews, their early denials, their horrific experiences in the camps. We view them showing their children and grandchildren the sites where the atrocities of half a century ago took place, seeking elusive closure over this history which has been burned permanently into their emotional memories, more indelibly even than the identification numbers burned into their arms. It would take a more stoic viewer than your critic not to be reduced to tears.
One of the women tells of seeing a child brutally beaten to death by the SS. "That's when I stopped talking to God," she says. The names of the camps have in themselves become synonymous with terror and shame: Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald. One of the five survivors in the film is Tom Lantos, a member of Congress from California since 1980, and an articulate speaker. After all these years, after all the study and reflection on the Holocaust experience, Lantos tells us, with a sense of puzzlement and frustration, that he still is unable to explain those events - intellectually, rationally, or emotionally.
The upbeat ending of the film allows these survivors to express their joy in the gift of life, and, in particular, in the continuance of their families, the multiplication of their numbers, almost like an unconscious genetic response of a people who stood at the edge of annhilation.
There undoubtedly will be those who ask, "Do we need still another film about the Holocaust?" And the only answer can be that every ongoing piece of documentation of the single most horrendous period in the history of mankind is needed, needed by all who survive, by all now and in the future who have yet to learn of it, by all who are still unable to explain.
- Arthur Lazere