'I can't say I didn't feel ambivalent in taking on the role'

NY Jewish family learns its beloved bubbe is really a Nazi nurse, in new film

In ‘The Last’ opening March 29, veteran actor Rebecca Schull is heart of provocative story about nonagenarian who decides to reveal her true identity to her progeny before she dies

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Rebecca Schull plays a Jewish matriarch with a shocking secret past in 'The Last.' (Plainview Pictures)
    Rebecca Schull plays a Jewish matriarch with a shocking secret past in 'The Last.' (Plainview Pictures)
  • Bombshell photo shared by actress Rebecca Schull's character in 'The Last' (Plainview Pictures)
    Bombshell photo shared by actress Rebecca Schull's character in 'The Last' (Plainview Pictures)
  • Actors Jill Durso and AJ Cedeño play a young Orthodox Jewish couple in 'The Last.' (Plainview Pictures)
    Actors Jill Durso and AJ Cedeño play a young Orthodox Jewish couple in 'The Last.' (Plainview Pictures)
  • Olivia (Jill Durso) comforts great-grandmother Claire (Rebecca Schull) in 'The Last.' (Plainview Pictures)
    Olivia (Jill Durso) comforts great-grandmother Claire (Rebecca Schull) in 'The Last.' (Plainview Pictures)

In the new film “The Last,” the 92-year-old matriarch of a New York Jewish family reveals a secret that shakes its members to their core. Claire, suffering from terminal brain cancer, decides to tell her grandchildren and great-grandchildren the truth — that she is a Gentile German woman who has been posing as a Jew since World War II. Moreover, she was a proud Nazi party member who worked as a nurse, assisting murderous doctors at Auschwitz.

It can be difficult to process any deathbed confession, but this one is a total bombshell — and undoubtedly every Jewish family’s nightmare. The revelation takes place early in this cerebral film. The rest of the dialogue-heavy movie’s plodding two-hour running times deals with the emotional fallout, with each family member reacting in a different way over the course of the ensuing week while Claire prepares to fly to Oregon, where she plans to die by physician assisted suicide.

“The Last,” which opens in New York on March 29,” is independent filmmaker Jeff Lipsky‘s seventh feature. In his opinion, some of the best films ever made have been about the Holocaust (he cited “Schindler’s List” and “Night and Fog” as examples in a recent interview with The Times of Israel). However the genocide was not the initial inspiration for his new film. Rather, Lipsky, 65, was intrigued by the decision of his nephew and his convert wife to become Modern Orthodox Jews.

“That was the spark, but I needed a story, a drama,” Lipsky said about how he came up with film’s provocative premise.

In order to ground Claire’s confessed backstory in real history, Lipsky wove into the fictional narrative actual Nazi figures from Auschwitz, including Dr. Carl Clauberg and Dr. Horst Schumann.

Clauberg was a research gynecologist who had studied progesterone treatments to help infertile women conceive. In Auschwitz in 1943 and 1944, he conducted experiments toward developing a method of mass sterilization by injecting toxins directly into the uteruses of 700 women, causing severe pain or death.

Actress Jill Durso undergoes conversion to Judaism in mikveh scene in ‘The Last’ (Plainview Pictures)

Schumann, who had initially worked on the Nazi euthanasia programs, was transferred to Auschwitz in 1941, where he also conducted horrific medical experimentation aimed at causing sterilization.

These Nazi doctors were recognized as war criminals, but both evaded trial. Clauberg died in 1957, and Schumann in 1983,

As Claire shows her family a cache of old photos, diaries and letters, she tells them that her mother, a pregnant prostitute in danger of losing her baby (Claire) due to illness, sought Clauberg’s help. He was unable to save the mother, but the baby survived. He placed little Claire in a good orphanage in Leipzig and visited her regularly, becoming a father figure and mentor to her. As war approached, Clauberg enrolled 14-year-old Claire in a nursing program, and later brought her with him to Auschwitz.

“It was the safest place I could be,” the unrepentant Claire tells her Modern Orthodox great-grandson Josh and his new wife Olivia.

Bombshell photo shared by actress Rebecca Schull’s character in ‘The Last’ (Plainview Pictures)

Claire, excellently played by veteran actress Rebecca Schull, makes this statement as part of an almost uninterrupted 45-minute monologue. Schull, best known for her role at Fay Cochran on the 1990s NBC sitcom “Wings,” told The Times of Israel she was up for the challenge — even at the age of 90. It is this and the rest of Schull’s performance that makes “The Last” worth watching.

“I found the script very shocking, but I agreed to do it because it’s an interesting story, and I have enjoyed working on several films with Jeff before. I can’t say I didn’t feel somewhat ambivalent about taking on the role. My sympathies are not with this woman,” Schull said.

Veteran actress Rebecca Schull plays Claire in ‘The Last.’ (Plainview Pictures)

The New York-born Schull dedicated a summer to memorizing her long monologue, delivering it and all her other lines with a convincing Middle-European accent. She said she was pleased to take on the challenge of conveying Claire’s story, the heart of the film.

“It was interesting to figure out who this woman is. To her credit, she is the matriarch of a fine, Jewish family. This, of course, is a sharp contrast to the background she reveals,” Schull said.

Schull’s own background is very different from her character’s. She hails from a prominent Zionist Jewish family. Her maternal grandfather was the Odessa-born Simcha Alter Gutmann, a leading Hebrew writer and editor known by the pen name  S. Ben-Zion. He founded the Moriah publishing house together with H.N. Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitzki, and was among the earliest settlers of Tel Aviv. Schull’s maternal uncle was the famous Israeli artist Nahum Gutman.

Schull’s mother moved from British Mandate Palestine to New York to pursue a teaching degree, and there she met Schull’s father. He, too, was from Palestine, and had come to the US to study law. The young couple stayed in New York and made their life there. Schull had a younger brother, the late writer, political operative, and demographer Ben J. Wattenberg.

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem. ( Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

“My parents and others in our Jewish community were traumatized when they learned about the Holocaust,” recalled Schull, who was a young teenager at the war’s end.

In “The Last,” Claire, who becomes pregnant by Clauberg at Auschwitz, makes it to the US during the later years of the war posing as a Jewish refugee. Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center casts doubt on this part of the narrative. Zuroff has not seen the film, but after being told its plot by this reporter, he said that it would have been impossible for Claire to have entered the US as a Jewish refugee.

“Jews could leave Germany up to 1941 and Poland up to 1942, not after that. But this is beside the point, because the US was not letting Jews in,” Zuroff said.

‘The Last’ filmmaker Jeff Lipsky (Plainview Pictures)

Lipsky said he stands by the way he wrote this plot twist. As Claire explains it to Josh and Olivia, Clauberg arranged fraudulent papers for her through old contacts he had at the Nazis’ Central Agency for Jewish Emigration in Vienna, and used gold stolen from Jewish victims at Auschwitz to pay bribes. Claire’s unconsummated marriage to the family patriarch, Papa Moishe, was a pre-arranged sham. He, too, was a Nazi fugitive pretending to be a Jewish immigrant.

There are other parts of “The Last” that don’t ring true for viewers knowledgeable about Jewish history and life, including incorrect references to Conservative Judaism. Also, Josh and Olivia do not follow the Modern Orthodox dress code. Josh does not wear kippa all the time, and Olivia appears with uncovered hair and wearing immodest clothing and swimwear.

Again, Lipsky stood by his choices, saying they represented his experiences growing up in a Conservative Jewish household, as well as the experiences of his nephew and his wife as Modern Orthodox Jews.

A page from the graphic novel penned by Claire’s grandson-in-law Harry after she reveals her true identity. (Plainview Pictures)

These details aside, the film’s big picture is that of a devastated family grappling with its matriarch’s shocking confession. Melody, Claire’s granddaughter, is furious with her deceased mother — who knew Claire’s true identity — for not revealing it to her. Melody’s husband Harry, a graphic novelist, plans to publish a book inspired by Claire’s story and cash in on her sins for the financial good of his family.

Josh undergoes an existential crisis when he realizes that he is not actually Jewish according to the law of matrilineal descent. He immediately makes plans to undergo conversion, and suggests without conviction that the family hand Claire over to face the justice system. (Zuroff said that looking into a background story such as Claire’s would be possible, but that it would be easier to confirm that someone had been a camp guard than a nurse.)

Olivia (Jill Durso) comforts great-grandmother Claire (Rebecca Schull) in ‘The Last.’ (Plainview Pictures)

Only Olivia, who has so joyfully embraced Judaism as a convert, seems willing to try to understand Claire. It is she who insists on accompanying Claire to Oregon.

We are left wondering why Claire would choose to inflict such pain on her beloved descendants. It was apparently important for her to reveal her secret before she died as a way of preserving the memory of the mother she never met. But was it really worth it?

Claire claims she acted out of love — or was it really out of perverse cruelty? That’s one secret she will take to her grave.

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