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 camp footage.

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.