THE LAST LETTER
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Written by Vasily Grossman
With Catherine Samie
Distributed by Zipporah Films
For many people, documentaries like Alain Resnais’ NIGHT AND FOG and Claude
Lanzmann’s SHOAH are the only ethical means of portraying the Holocaust.
For others, Steven Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST settled the question. Both
Roman Polanski’s THE PIANIST and Frederick Wiseman’s THE LAST LETTER disprove
the attitude that it’s impossible to do justice to the Holocaust with fiction,
but where Polanski’s approach is relatively matter-of-fact (at least until
his film’s final third), Wiseman’s is rigorously experimental. THE
LAST LETTER, veteran documentarian Wiseman’s first fiction film,
premiered alongside THE PIANIST at Cannes last year. While THE PIANIST won
the Palme d’Or, THE LAST LETTER received little attention, but it’s now
opening in New York about a month after the former and alongside two other
films about the Holocaust.
Based on a chapter from Russian novelist Vasily Grossman’s LIFE AND FATE,
THE LAST LETTER turns it into a monologue read by an elderly Russian-Jewish
doctor (Catherine Samie) as a letter to her son. Living in a Ukranian village
that has fallen to the Nazis, she knows that she will die in a few days.
Her son works as a physicist well within the safer boundaries of the Soviet
Union. Urging him to “live! live, live, live!,” she describes the constriction
of her life: Vividly describing the struggles of day-to-day life amongst
her neighbors, she also reminisces about her love for her son, student days
in Paris and unhappy marriage. Most memorably, she chronicles the way her
Judaism was treated as if it was her only attribute: she’s no longer considered
a real Russian, despite her love for UNCLE VANYA and Pushkin.
To emphasize the loss expressed in THE LAST LETTER, Film Forum has programmed
the short JEWISH LIFE IN CRACOW before it. Made in 1939 by an anonymous director,
it’s an innocuous tourist’s eye view of Cracow. Beginning with the city’s
general attractions, it moves onto its booming and diverse Jewish community.
(At the time, 60,000 Jews lived there.) Yitzhak Goskind’s Sektor Films
produced it as part of a travelogue series geared to invite Diaspora
Jews to come back and visit their ancestral homeland. Shot on the cusp of
World War II, its ironies could hardly be more blatant now, not least
its depiction of a city where Jews and Gentiles share the same bustling public
spaces. In its own way, JEWISH LIFE IN CRACOW is as disturbing as concentration
Wiseman’s films have been most powerful when dealing with harrowing
subjects: life in a hospital, the bustle of a welfare agency. With sympathy
for people on both sides of the counter, he nevertheless documents institutions
that somehow function just above the brink of collapse. In seemingly artless
pieces of cinema verite, one has to wonder if the surprising lack of self-consciousness
shown by his subjects is really testimony to his skill at getting sterling
performances from non-actors. Astonishingly, Wiseman has also directed theater
and adapted his documentary WELFARE into an opera.
In any case, his direction of Samie is impeccable. Her performance escalates
into a dynamic series of peaks and valleys. As verbal as THE LAST LETTER
is, it sometimes feels like a silent film. Samie’s face is so expressive
that it speaks louder than her text.
Light and shadows are her costars. Wiseman opens up the text by stylizing
Samie’s performance rather than dramatizing her story. Cinematographer Yorgos
Arvantos gives THE LAST LETTER an unusual look. In close-up, her face is
framed against a deep black background, while 45-degree angle shots of her
silhouette punctuate her reading. In fact, silhouettes figure
prominently in the whole film: at times, her body is multiplied by
4 or 5 silhouettes.
What do these lighting choices mean? Well, they often - and appropriately
- make her look like a ghost. The images of her body against a white
blackground recall the shadows burned into stone during the bombing of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. They definitively break with the naturalism of other films
about the Holocaust, including most documentaries and the first half of THE
PIANIST. Yet they also give Samie a real dignity, suggesting that her
body could take on a life of its own.
Unfortunately, they also make THE LAST LETTER into two films. Instead of
being tightly focused on the letter, it splits into an experimental,
sometimes pretentious game with light and shadow and a document of a performance.
At best, these two come together brilliantly; at worst, they don’t gel at
all. However, most of the time, THE LAST LETTER offers an innovative look
at the Holocaust.