The Last Days is the first film to arise from the archival work of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an organisation kick-started by Steven Spielberg in the wake of Schindler's List (1993).
James Moll's carefully assembled documentary (helped immeasurably by a superb Hans Zimmer musical score) concentrates on a particular piece of Holocaust history: the savage persecution of Hungarian Jews in the final phase of the Second World War.
Time and again, the five survivors of this period chosen by the filmmakers wonder aloud why, even when the Nazis were clearly losing the war, they decided to accelerate their policy of anti-Semitic extermination.
Beyond the often moving interviews, each of these survivors takes a trip with a family member back to the camps or the residences of their pre-war youth. One participant longs for closure through this act, but instead finds herself facing only renewed memories of horror and loss.
The Last Days is not in the class of Claude Lanzmann's epic testament Shoah (1987) or Alain Resnais' severely poetic Night and Fog (1955). Moll unearths some rare and startling footage of the camps, but most of the images serve merely to underscore the verbal accounts of the contributors.
This is not a film interested in the politics of Nazism, or the bureaucratic functioning of the camps. The oft-repeated refrain is "man's inhumanity to man" – a brute evil left as an inexplicable mystery.
Only a scene that draws together a survivor in search of traces of her mother, and a doctor who saved lives through his strategic use of "harmless experiments", probes lingering questions in a more investigative manner.
Moll is more attracted to the humanistic dimensions of this historical episode. On the one hand, we witness the difficult legacy of survivor guilt – the tendency of those who lived to feel they scraped through unfairly, while their loved ones died before their eyes.
On the other hand, there is some emotional compensation for these survivors in the large numbers of children and grandchildren that now surround them – a renewal of family ties once cut, and an ever-present reminder of the preciousness and fragility of life.
© Adrian Martin July 1999