Jeff Lipsky likes to make films that are different and with his latest, “The Last” he has gone all out. The film is not only unusual but it is likely to rile many viewers even though they may become absorbed in what’s going on. Consider what Lipsky puts forward in his drama.
A 92-year-old woman who came to America supposedly as a Jewish survivor from World War II confesses to a great grandson who has loved her that she is not really Jewish. What’s worse is that her mentor, Carl, a gynecologist to whom she looked up to, asked her to be a nurse at Auschwitz, where she assisted him in experiments on women and where he bore responsibility for many deaths. What’s astounding is that she still considers herself solidly German, refuses to apologize for her past, and even complains about over-emphasis on the Holocaust when so many others died besides Jews.
What’s tricky here is that the woman, Claire, is brilliantly acted by Rebecca Schull, and apart from what she has done—and that’s a big apart—comes across as contrastingly somewhat sympathetic, mainly because of the astute performance. Also, she reports that she has a terminal brain tumor and plans to die with help by going to Oregon, where someone has agreed to assist her.
Backtracking, the film delivers a view of a Jewish family and much discussion of religion with various views. There is Harry Dorman (Reed Birney), an agnostic and an artist, his Conservative wife Melody (Julie Fain Lawrence ), who writes obituaries for a local paper, and their Orthodox son Josh (AJ Cedeño), married to Olivia (Jill Durso), a Catholic who enthusiastically decided to convert to become a Jew.
The essence of what takes place occurs at a beach where Josh and Olivia have gone, and they connect with Claire, who, as they get into conversation, step by step tells of her past, including the sad background involving the death of her mother, and her encountering Carl, who looked after her as she grew up, eventually had sex with her and took her to Auschwitz. She feels justified in doing what she had to do to survive.
Josh is totally shocked. For one thing, he not only learns that he is not Jewish, but that, given the exposed family lineage via the daughter Claire had with Carl, his great grandfather was a Nazi war criminal. So was his beloved great grandmother, whom he would now like to be put on trial in Germany or Israel. The truth, of course, jolts others in the family.
More sympathetic, Olivia decides she wants to travel to Oregon with Claire to help her die there.
I don’t usually like scenes in which people talk aloud to the dead at cemetery graves. There is an overly extended one in which Melody visits the grave of her mother, who it turns out knew about Claire’s back story, and berates her as well as pours out a rush of feelings. Despite the convincing acting by Lawrence, the scene is grating as a device for letting us know her state of mind. Mom can’t hear her.
The saga of Claire isn’t supposed to be based on any real-life person. However, the film notes at the end that there was a real Dr. Carl Clauberg involved in war crimes, which apparently is the reason for the name of Claire’s Carl.
The calmest reaction to Claire’s confession is that of Harry, who decides to make a graphic novel of her story. As for an audience, despite Lipsky’s expertise and boldness in making the film and Schull‘s superb performance, there is basic discomfort in confronting the unrepentant character of Claire that Lipsky has invented and presented to us in another, unusual dimension of dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust. A Glass Half Full Media release. Reviewed March 29, 2019.