Unspeakable Memory

Five Holocaust survivors return to the scene of their suffering.

DURING THE LAST YEAR of World War II, as the Nazi military offensive in Europe was clearly failing, Hitler’s Germany stepped up its war on Jews. The invasion of Hungary in March 1944 was the fastest and possibly the most brutal campaign of the “Final Solution”; more than 30,000 Jews were rounded up in a matter of 12 weeks.

Director James Moll (Survivors of the Holocaust) and producer Steven Spielberg take us back to this era with The Last Days, a documentary that traces the lives of five Holocaust survivors as they travel back to Hungary and recall their experiences in the concentration camps.

The Last Days

directed by James Moll

Seattle Jewish Film Festival

King Cat Theater, March 14 at 7:30

Cutting back and forth between seated interviews, archival footage, and on-location footage (shot on 35mm—a precarious undertaking in certain areas of what is now the Ukraine), The Last Days achieves a kind of circularity, a sense of private memory and public history trying to come to terms with each other and never quite succeeding. For some, the return to the camps fails to deliver hoped-for closure. That the film is willing to explore that incompleteness is one of its many graces.

Interviews include one with an eerily detached German doctor, who oversaw experiments at Auschwitz (and was pardoned due to his effort to save certain inmates by performing “harmless experiments” on them, thus keeping them alive); three American soldiers who were among the first troops arriving at Auschwitz; and a Greek man who unwittingly became a worker in a camp crematorium. These, along with the story of Raoul Wallenberg (who issued fake Swedish passports to Jews and ran safehouses for Jews in Budapest), add rings to the series of concentric stories that the film, through terse editing, constructs around the Holocaust.

Neither as epic and grandiloquent as Schindler’s List nor as idiosyncratic as Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory (about the Japanese-American internment camps in the US), The Last Days strikes a moving balance between the proven pathos of its historical subject matter and the vividly remembered particulars of its human subjects. We learn how Irene Zisblatt found a way to keep three diamonds her mother had sewn into her dress, first swallowing them, then cycling them back through her body to keep them from the guards; how Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the US Congress, came to Seattle to attend the University of Washington after the war; how Bill Basch was forced to break the pact he made with two friends to die for each other if need be.

The musical score by Hans Zimmer (who also scored The Lion King) is intrusive at times, as if it does not trust us to come up with the appropriate emotional response on our own. But this is a minor annoyance; for the most part it doesn’t try to match or interfere with the intensity of the film’s visuals. And some of The Last Days‘ most powerful moments happen when Moll allows a series of images to stand out against a silenced backdrop, speaking, for themselves, the unspeakable.