The October Films release, executive produced by Shoah Foundation founder Steven Spielberg, arrives in theaters just in time to benefit from a possible Oscar nomination. But, like massive project to record the testimonies of thousands of Holocaust survivors, it will be available to present and future generations as an almost unbearably sobering remembrance of this dark chapter in human history.
Directed and edited by James Moll, "The Last Days" focuses on Hungary because it was the last country invaded by Germany and its Jewish population was hurriedly moved to concentration camps in Poland. With the Allies clearly winning the war, the effort to exterminate the Jews was increased. As one participant says, Hitler was determined to not lose the war against the Jews.
We are introduced to five men and women -- U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., artist Alice Lok Cahana, teacher Renee Firestone, businessman Bill Basch and grandmother Irene Zisblatt -- as they recall their country and lives before the war. Although much of Europe was in flames and death camps were already in operation, the suppression of Jews in Hungary came about slowly -- until Germany invaded.
Moll conducts straightforward interviews, utilizes brutally graphic archival footage and shows the five on their painful return visits to hometowns and the camps. Each one of these remarkable individuals has memories that searingly get under one's skin, even after the numerous outstanding works on the subject.
Take, for example, Zisblatt who was born in Poleno, Czechoslovakia (which was annexed to Hungary in the late 1930s and now is part of Ukraine). Initially relocated to the Munkacs Ghetto -- after a terrifying two weeks hiding in their sealed home -- she and her family were herded into cattle cars and told the train would take them to a rural region to make wine.
Sensing that they were headed toward something far worse than forced labor, Zisblatt's mother gave her a few diamonds to use for food should they be separated. Upon their arrival in Auschwitz their worst nightmares were realized. In an initial strip search, she swallowed the diamonds -- and kept on swallowing and recovering them during her long ordeal. Today, they are a family icon to be passed on to the first daughters of future generations.
Zisblatt in the grips of the horror realized "they" wanted something from her. But she vowed they would never have her soul after taking everything else.
THE LAST DAYS
Steven Spielberg and Survivors of the Shoah
Visual History Foundation present
A Ken Lipper/June Beallor production
Director-editor: James Moll
Producers: June Beallor, Ken Lipper
Executive producer"Steven Spielberg
Director of photography: Harris Done
Music: Hans Zimmer
Color, black and white/stereo
With: Congressman Tom Lantos, Alice Lok Cahana, Renee Firestone, Bill Basch, Irene Zisblatt
Running time -- 87 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13