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Steven Spielberg has grasped something profound about the righteous use of film. Long after ET and Jaws have blended into the stacks of oldies at Blockbuster, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation—which Spielberg himself conceived while working on Schindler's List—will leave an enduring record to stand with such classics as Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the Shoah Foundation will endow posterity with a record that no book can match. It will have preserved for the ages the personal testimonies of survivors and perpetrators of the ultimate failure of Western civilization. Drawing on this unparalleled archive, The Last Days chronicles the lives of five Hungarian Jews. Directed by James Moll, it is one film in a projected series of documentaries from the Shoah Foundation.
A great failure of traditional histories is their overwhelming focus on generals, despots, and tyrants. We meet the Borgias, the popes, the monarchs, and all the other larger-than-life players, but we do not meet ordinary people like ourselves. We do not encounter everyday citizens, driven into Faustian bargains that will alter not only history, but themselves. It is this deficit that The Last Days powerfully corrects.
In one of the most exquisitely agonizing moments ever filmed, Auchwitz survivor Renee Firestone sits in a charmingly appointed Bavarian den. Beside her is a soft-spoken, kindly looking gentleman who calls to mind the late Francis Schaeffer. This is a wretched moment for Firestone; the gentleman is Dr. Hans Munch, who conducted medical experiments at Auchwitz under the direction of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. Firestone's sister, Klara, was selected for experimentation at Auchwitz because of her smooth skin. The Nazi doctors cut her up like a dog, and when she was of no further use as a specimen, she was dispatched, perhaps with a lethal injection, perhaps to the gas chambers. Or maybe she died from the experiments. This ...