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Film: Packaging the Holocaust

A new documentary about the Holocaust, produced by Spielberg, has infuriated European critics. Why?
There is a deeply unsettling moment mid-way through the new, Spielberg- produced Holocaust-documentary, The Last Days. Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor, comes face-to-face with one of the camp's doctors. Firestone has only recently learned that Dr Munch may have operated on her sister, Klara, who died in Auschwitz. Munch asks her how long Klara was in the camp. He is told, "six months." "That is a normal period," Munch replies in a matter-of-fact way, taking for granted that nobody in Auschwitz could expect to stay alive for more than half a year.

The film chronicles the experiences of five Hungarian Jews in the final year of the Second World War. By the time Hitler had invaded Hungary in 1944, he realized that his defeat was inevitable. As producer Ken Lipper puts it: "Hitler knew he had lost...yet the Nazis didn't surrender and they didn't try to make peace. Their only obsession was to kill as many Jews as possible."

The encounter between Firestone and Munch is at the hub of the documentary. It is the one instant in which Hannah Arendt's weary old saw about the "banality of evil" makes sense. A 92-year-old man sits in a study talking to a woman in her 70s, seemingly oblivious to the historical ties that link them.

James Moll, the young USC-educated film-maker chosen by Spielberg to research and direct The Last Days, characterizes Dr Munch as "a very kind elderly gentleman who welcomed us into his home," but admits that interviewing him was unnerving. Munch claims on camera that he was acquitted of war crimes because he "saved people's lives by conducting harmless medical experiments." He doesn't specify what those experiments were, but we know what other Nazi doctors did. (Amputations, castrations, near-lethal injections.)

"When I was editing, a few people suggested I cut out his claim about saving lives," Moll recalls. "But it would be irresponsible for me to impose such a blatant editorial comment...It was very important for him to make that statement. It's up to audiences to decide whether or not he's telling the truth."

Moll started working with the Spielberg-supported Shoah Foundation in 1994, shortly after the release of Schindler's List. By January of 1995, over 300 testimonies a week were being conducting in different languages."

Thousands of testimonies were gathered. Moll then had to decide which witnesses to use in the documentary: "I wanted to cover the whole spectrum of what happened in that time in Hungary - Wallenberg, forced labour, etc. But I didn't want more than five because it's too hard to follow the stories of more than five people."

When the documentary was complete, he gave the survivors the chance to re-cut any material they were unhappy with. He steered away from voice- over narration so as not to get in the way of their recollections. "If people talk more about the subject matter and overlook the film-making, I've done my job right," he pronounces. The filmmaking, though, was precisely what was on many critics' minds when The Last Days received its European premiere in Berlin this year.

"The screening was very charged because Renee Firestone was there," recalls Edinburgh Film Festival Director Lizzie Francke. "I was very moved by the whole event, especially when she came on stage. But I walked away and I found myself an hour later getting very cross with the film. It is quite manipulative..." She didn't want it for Edinburgh. "It has a certain mawkishness which one associates with entertainment, but this is not entertaining subject matter. It doesn't need to be dressed up."

Veteran film critic Derek Malcolm agrees, "It is moving, but it has a patina of Dreamworks about it which weakens it. That seems to be inevitable with anything produced or executive-produced by Spielberg." For Jim Hamilton, Head of the National Film Theatre in London, The Last Days inevitably seemed lightweight by comparison with Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary Shoah (1985). "If Shoah is the Encyclopaedia Britannica of the subject, this film is just a little summary...the problem is once you've seen Shoah, you don't need anything else."

Despite her misgivings, Francke said she wasn't at all surprised when the film went on to win this year's Best Documentary Academy Award. "This is a classy piece of Hollywood liberalism exactly in the vein of the kind of serious-minded Hollywood movies that win Oscars," she suggests.

The Last Days does indeed follow the same emotional trajectory as films like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Given the subject matter, even the slogan used on the posters, "Everything You're About To See Is True," can't help but seem crass and reductive. Moll uses Hans Zimmer's highly evocative music to underpin the survivors' testimonies. Rather than show unedited interviews, he spins out their horrific stories for dramatic effect. The documentary ends in upbeat fashion, with footage of the survivors, all of whom successfully built new lives in the US, together with their families. America is presented in a roseate light. We see one survivor, Tom Lantos (now a US congressman) relaxing as his grandchildren play touch football. Another, Bill Basch (a successful businessman) enjoys a meal with his many relatives. Alice Lok Cahana, a successful painter, talks about the transcendent power of art. "Spielberg always has to have a coda in which the family is invoked," Francke points out. "He's a supreme film-maker when it comes to pushing the buttons. But if I had programmed The Last Days, I would have shown it alongside Night And Fog."

In stylistic terms, Night And Fog (1955), Alain Resnais' classic 30-minute documentary on the Holocaust, is the antithesis to The Last Days. It eschews survivors' testimony, relying instead on voice-over narration and a dry investigation of the logistics of mass murder.

During a heated press conference in Berlin, Moll was harangued by one angry journalist, upset that The Last Days wasn't more like Night And Fog. As far as he was concerned, it relied too heavily on "supernatural language", like "evil" and "hell". "There were people shouting at each other, venting their emotions. This man raged at us for a few minutes," Moll remembers. "He felt the film lacked statistics and facts and figures. He didn't appreciate that our film dealt with emotion."

Moll went out of his way to maintain strict "historical integrity," only ever using footage and photographs "that truly depict the time and the places." The Last Days is honest, he suggests, in a way that Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful is not. "I think it's unfortunate that (Benigni's) film could potentially allow someone to say, `Oh, see. The concentration camps weren't so bad.' It's a distorted view of history. Most people will understand that it's a fairytale. But there are many people who don't have much education on the Holocaust. This may be their first exposure. In those cases, it will be unfortunate that they have such an unrealistic portrayal of it."

For Moll, The Last Days was always intended as a process of discovery, both for himself and for audiences. As a youngster from a Catholic background, growing up in "a typical American family", he acknowledges that he was not especially well-informed about the Holocaust. "I did know the basic statistics, but it wasn't until I heard the testimony of the survivors that I understood the depth of what took place and began to relate to it on a personal level."

Having spent more than four years making the film, though, he admits that he is still as confused by the inhumanity and irrationality of the Holocaust as he was when he started. "Everything about the Holocaust is baffling. The more I learn, the less I understand."

`The Last Days' screens as the closing film at the London Jewish Film Festival at the Screen On The Hill on Thursday 12 August ahead of its cinema release on October 8