The Last Letter

  • 2003
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Drama

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's first fiction feature is a shattering adaptation of one chapter from Life and Fate, Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman's epic WWII novel of Russian lives upended by the Nazi onslaught. The chapter comprises a single letter, written in 1941 by an elderly Ukranian doctor, Anna, to her son, Vitya, who...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's first fiction feature is a shattering adaptation of one chapter from Life and Fate, Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman's epic WWII novel of Russian lives upended by the Nazi onslaught. The chapter comprises a single letter, written in 1941 by an elderly Ukranian doctor, Anna, to her son, Vitya, who now lives safely in another city. Anna's letter has been smuggled out of the ghetto in which Anna and the other Jews of her small town have been imprisoned since Nazi troops seized the town. Rumors are swirling among the village's panicked Jews, and Anna understands that her ghetto, like those of Warsaw and Lodz, will soon be emptied, its inhabitants murdered and dumped into the mass graves already being dug only 4 kilometers away. Looking back over the past few months of her life, Anna's letter is not just a farewell, but a bitter commentary on human behavior. Having lived her entire life as a Russian, Anna had almost forgotten that she was also a Jew. But she was quickly reminded of the fact when she overheard one neighbor express relief over the arrival of the invaders: "We'll finally be rid of the Yids." Anti-Semitism, Anna now understands, has little to do with nationalism. Another neighbor took the opportunity to force Anna out of her own apartment. When it was announced that all Jews were "invited" to either relocate to the town's medieval ghetto or die, two neighbors argued over Anna's possessions in front of her, then bid her a teary goodbye. Now behind the walls of the cramped ghetto, Anna tells Vitya all she's learned among the living dead, about the irrationality of hope, how optimism can breed greed and dishonesty, and how, insanely, life goes on in the face of annihilation. Anna's letter is a harrowing account, laced with a real-life personal tragedy — Grossman lost his own mother to the Holocaust — and Wiseman has chosen to present its contents unadorned. The stage is empty of props, the cinematography somber black-and-white and the soundtrack eerily silent. The single focus of the film is renowned actress Catherine Samie of the Comedie-Francaise, who first appeared in Wiseman's one-act stage version of the piece in 2001, and who reads Grossman's words with extraordinary power. Dressed in a simple black tunic emblazoned with a luminous Star of David, Samie casts ghostly shadows as her restless hands comb the air, ordering the beads of history, as her incredible face expresses all the fear and understanding that comes with impending destruction. (In French, with English subtitles.)

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  • Released: 2003
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's first fiction feature is a shattering adaptation of one chapter from Life and Fate, Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman's epic WWII novel of Russian lives upended by the Nazi onslaught. The chapter c… (more)

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