When you hear that another documentary on the Holocaust is being released, you may reasonably ask how many of these pictures are needed. And when you hear that The Last Days was produced by Steven Spielberg through his Shoah Foundation, you might wonder how much integrity the project could have.
My provisional answer to the first question: I suppose people might stop making Holocaust documentaries after there are roughly 6 million of them. As for the second cause for doubt: In The Last Days, the Spielberg touch gives more than it takes away.
Directed and edited by James Moll, The Last Days focuses on the destruction of the Jewish community in Hungary and on the striking fact that the mass murders were carried out at the expense of the Nazis' war effort. The Germans took full control of Hungary in March 1944: before the D-Day landing but well after Stalingrad, the Axis defeat in North Africa and the fall of Mussolini. By this point, Speer and Göbbels had mobilized their home front, fully expecting to have to fight on German soil. And yet the Nazis allocated a significant portion of their dwindling resources to rounding up and killing the last Jewish population that remained in their hands.
The Last Days narrates this episode through the testimony of five survivors--three women and two men--who come from varied places in Hungary, ranging from an isolated village to a bustling town to the capital. Today, in the United States, each of these people leads an individual life: as a visual artist, for example, or a docent at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles or (in the case of Tom Lantos) a member of Congress. But in 1944, when they were teenagers, the Nazis assigned them a common destiny, and a brief one, as they recall through their interviews.
The Last Days benefits from Spielberg's backing in having the services of a director and editor as skilled as Moll, who cuts from interview to interview so expertly that the witnesses wind up completing one another's sentences. Another benefit comes from access to archival material and the resources to pay for its use. I got the impression that Moll had combed through every existing scrap of footage, wherever in the world it was to be found, and had been granted complete freedom to incorporate whatever he might need. Sometimes he could make it function as a time machine. Given a budget that allowed travel, he shot a number of present-day scenes so they'd match the footage he'd found of the same views in the forties. One era dissolves into the other. In other places, the archival material amplifies the testimony on the soundtrack. An ex-GI recalls what he saw when his Army unit arrived at Dachau, and you suddenly see five naked men, little more than skeletons, walking away from the camera. The image seems all the more impossible because the cameraman had color stock, and the sky over the skeletons' heads is a clear blue.
The disadvantage of Spielberg's patronage: In their zeal to meet Hollywood's technical standards, the filmmakers have added a musical soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. When the survivors begin to speak about being shut into cattle cars, I don't think we really need to hear an ominous drone, overlaid with aching little clusters of violins. We ought to be trusted to get the idea on our own--just as we ought to understand that life goes on, without our having to be told so in a wrap-up segment.
So I would say The Last Days is a valuable documentary on the Holocaust but not one of the great films on the subject--for example, Pavel Lozinski's 1994 Birthplace (distributed by New Yorker Films), which follows a survivor back to Poland to inquire about the fate of his father and brother. In its asperity and restraint, Birthplace touches a ground of emotion that can't be approached by more argumentative works like The Last Days (or by films that are so well packaged for the audience). On the other hand: Spielberg has the muscle to get The Last Days distributed in theaters through October Films. That's as much a part of the picture as the film stock itself, and another reason for giving The Last Days your attention. Among the 6 million potential documentaries on the subject, this one happens to be accessible.