NEW YORK — If you don’t quite remember if you saw the 1998 documentary “The Last Days,” here’s the trick: It’s the one with the diamonds.
If that rings an immediate bell, good news. The Academy Award-winning documentary, produced by the Steven Spielberg-launched Shoah Foundation, has been remastered and is currently streaming on Netflix throughout the world. If it doesn’t ring a bell, even better. Now you get to see one of the most gripping (although upsetting) documentaries about the Holocaust told from the perspective of five survivors for the first time.
In the film, one of those survivors, Irene Zisblatt (still with us at age 91!), recalls with crystalline detail how her mother sewed diamonds into her dress as they were being deported to Auschwitz, and how she swallowed, then passed them, again and again, evading extermination and surviving medical tests by Dr. Josef Mengele.
Zisblatt and the four other witnesses, which include artist Alice Lok Cahana and US Congressman Tom Lantos, were all originally from Hungary. The “last days” of the title reflect how the Nazis were well aware that they were losing the war, but still pressed on with their plan to eliminate Europe’s Jews, and that Hungary’s Nazi-controlled puppet government under the Arrow Cross Party was all too eager to help.
“The Last Days” was directed by James Moll and produced by June Beallor and Ken Lipper. Moll and Beallor were also the founding executive directors of what is now called the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education. The project speedily recorded 56,000 testimonies in 44 languages from 66 countries, starting in the mid-1990s, now boasting an unequaled trove of readily available material.
“350 testimonies a week,” as Beallor says, almost unable to believe it now. It was a race against the clock with an aging population, born from a much-discussed moment when Steven Spielberg was shooting “Schindler’s List” in Poland. He’d met survivors eager to tell their tale, and wished he had some way of filming everyone.
As James Moll tells me, the early days of the Foundation were “the cart and the horse simultaneously.” He had worked on smaller behind-the-scenes videos in Spielberg’s orbit, then was asked to “look into” videotaping survivors. Soon thereafter he was one of the leaders of this extraordinary project.
The Foundation’s archive has since expanded to include testimonies concerning other mass atrocities.
Below is a transcript of a conversation with Moll and Beallor after rewatching the film so many years later.
The Times of Israel: I remember this film coming out in 1998, but if I wanted to rewatch it, could I have done so prior to this remastering?
James Moll: There was a DVD transfer with early technology. We’ve been wanting to do it for a few years, but you move on and do other projects. Then I watched it again recently, because a friend had never seen it, and I realized these five people and their stories are too important. Especially with where we are in history right now. So I bugged June, and in typical June fashion, she sprinted into action.
June Beallor: The older version was basically obsolete. The home entertainment people at Universal were like “this is dead,” which was heartbreaking.
This was the third film that the USC Shoah Foundation (formerly the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation) made, but the first in theaters. Was it always intended to go that route?
JM: Yes, always, which is why we shot it on 35mm.
It does make a noticeable difference, but I know it makes production difficult.
JB: I would not want to do that again, let’s put it that way.
Obviously it was extremely well-received. Here is what Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times:
[The film] offers a ghastly, inverse kind of reassurance. It reminds us that yes, there are still images and stories of human cruelty and degradation that we can never get used to, that we shouldn’t get used to, no matter how intensely the mass media have flooded us with pictures of human nature, at its vilest.
This, for me, is a key point. This movie is very hard to watch. At home, you can hit pause, take a breather and collect yourself — which I did more than once. What’s the discussion internally about how far to go with the footage, and how much to include of the survivors describing it?
JM: There definitely were conversations about the graphic images, and putting those in theaters. We wanted to make a film that could be seen by younger people. [Author’s note: “The Last Days” is rated PG-13 by the MPAA.]
My fear was that people would do what you did, and take that five-minute break, but not come back into the theater. So the goal is not to hammer the audience to the point where you lose them. Use the graphic images judiciously and when they come up in the story, organically.
JB: That’s the important thing. Not to use it in an exploitative way. It’s a fine line, and I did have a great many emotions about it at the time.
JM: In watching it today, I can see the restraint. But it’s interesting you mentioned the graphic nature of the survivor testimony. That never really occurred to me. At the time, I remember feeling like this is their moment. This is their testimony, they say it in their words, this is where I’ve got to get out of the way. There really wasn’t a lot of editing or making it palatable for the audience.
There is something of a “hook” to this film, which makes it different from all other Shoah documentaries, by focusing on Hungary. I have been aware of the zealous attitude there towards deportation at the end of the war, but it’s something else to see it. The fact that the Nazis knew they weren’t going to win, but were siphoning energy and manpower from other aspects of the war for the express purpose of murdering Jews. Now, prior to this film you were knee-deep in recording testimony from survivors for the Shoah Foundation. Was there an “aha” moment of pattern recognition?
JM: It was Ken Lipper, one of the financial supporters of the Foundation and a producer of this film. He brought the idea. “Think about this, the last days of the war, and the Nazis have devoted their resources for this.” One of the survivors, Bill Basch, in his interview, addresses it, too. It makes for a really… interesting insight. The movie goes into much more depth, and it isn’t just about this, but it’s our way in.
JB: Ken was inspired by the book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” by Daniel Goldhagen. He read that, and also had family with Hungarian roots. We got our historians involved, like Michael Berenbaum, then we met our survivors, some of whom were already in our archive.
Many of your subjects stress how well the Jews in the villages and in Budapest got along with everyone else; they were Hungarians first. And then, suddenly, the page is turned, and it’s absolute darkness. It’s unbelievable. I guess my question isn’t “how can this happen?” — I don’t think you can answer that — but if you are working with this material for years, and you are recording testimony from survivors at the Foundation, I’m curious to know how you keep going without succumbing to despair?
JM: It impacted me. I dreamt about it. It permeated everything, even in my safe life in Los Angeles. You become immersed in the subject matter. Eventually, a mental separation has to happen. You hear doctors speak about this; you have to focus on the work, and not think about it from an emotional point of view.
JB: It definitely takes its toll. But what you mentioned before how people were their friends one minute, then the next they were not: This is part of why we’re re-releasing this today. It’s so relevant today with the political situation and antisemitism around the world.
Both of you have continued to work on Holocaust subjects — and June, you are still with the Foundation, yes?
JB: Yes, integrally involved, for over 25 years now, and seeing how the testimonies are used for education is so fulfilling.
Were there other documentaries you looked to, like “Shoah” or “Night and Fog” or any of the other biggies?
JM: No, our style was led strictly by the survivors and their testimony. We didn’t look at other films for a format. We didn’t even have a format. There wasn’t really a “Shoah Foundation approach” for this. It was just about getting out of the way, and that’s been a theme for me in every film I’ve made.
You mentioned the “heaviness” of this. When we were finishing this movie I kept saying “all I want to do next is make a comedy,” but I ended up meeting Stephen Ambrose through Steven Spielberg, next thing you know I am making a film about the war in the Pacific [“Price For Peace”]. Again, I think, no, a comedy next, that’s what I studied in film school, but I end up meeting the daughter of Amon Göth, the character Ralph Fiennes plays in “Schindler’s List,” and she wants to meet a survivor, and I end up making [the Emmy-winning] “Inheritance.” So, yes, I do keep coming back.
But I noticed something weird. Each of you, individually, has taken a breather from Holocaust films by doing a documentary on rock artists. James, with [the Grammy-winning] “Foo Fighters: Back and Forth” and June with a film on Melissa Etheridge.
JM: Huh. You know, we’ve never talked about that before. Have we ever discussed that, June?
JB: No, but last night we were chatting, because we have gone off and done our own things, and were comparing notes like, “Hey, you did something with Tom Hanks? I did something with Tom Hanks, too.”
JM: The Foo Fighters thing for me was when I was in the office of one of the producers on “Inheritance.” We were planning another Holocaust documentary, but I said, “I see you are interested in music,” and he said, “do you like the Foo Fighters?” Next thing I know Dave Grohl is there.
JB: I did a lot of work on packages for awards shows, and some producers wanted to do a special lifetime program on Melissa Etheridge. It was meaningful because she had just gone through her breast cancer journey, and it was very inspiring.
Speaking of awards, “The Last Days” won the Academy Award for best documentary. Did the survivors attend that ceremony?
JB: No, but Renée Firestone hosted everyone at her house. We didn’t have FaceTime then, but we had early cell phones, so we were able to communicate. Afterward, everyone who wanted to was invited to a big party at DreamWorks Studios, which Steven Spielberg hosted.
Which was probably quite something, as he’d just won the best director award for “Saving Private Ryan.” It also happened to be the year Roberto Begnini won for “Life Is Beautiful.” This is a movie, a bittersweet comedy set at a concentration camp, that for some hasn’t exactly aged well. Any thoughts on this one?
JM: It’s always good when a piece of art can bring conversation to a subject as serious as the Holocaust. The downside is the potential for someone to assume it is an accurate portrayal and it becomes a history lesson.
JB: There were discussions at the time, deep discussions among survivors, who thought that movie was troublesome. It was a little painful.
Speaking of painful, the part in your movie that interviews Dr. Hans Münch, and Renée confronts him. It’s flabbergasting enough to see an Auschwitz doctor who did medical experiments, even one who was acquitted of war crimes, but to have someone say “you experimented on my sister, and then she died.”
JM: The meeting was not planned. It was not in the schedule. We were with Renée, filming her going through the archives at Auschwitz, and she came across a card with Münch’s clinic’s name on it. She said, “Aren’t you going to see this man? Well, I’m going with you.”
And initially, I was very hesitant. This means taking her on a plane, going to another country. This is crossing a line, somewhat, between documentarian and actively guiding the story. It made me uncomfortable, but she was insistent. I said to her, “I have not spoken to him about his willingness to do this,” and she said, “I’ll wait in the car.”
JB: And I was having a nervous breakdown. Then when she challenges him and he responds with, “Well, you were there. You know.” There are no words to describe how I felt. It’s a study of human nature, really.
It’s great that Netflix is hosting this, but there is so much material on Netflix. Are they doing any sort of push, to get it on the front page, to make people are aware it is there?
JM: I think the push is up to the three of us, right now. We’re the push.
Okay, I’m pushing.
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