Homeward Bound

Futile Dispatches and Illusory Havens

The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut invented the term "Imaginary Jew" to characterize those who, like himself, were born after World War II and drew their Jewish identity from representations of the Holocaust and the vanished world of Eastern Europe: "Jewishness is what I miss, not what defines me."

The nostalgic component of this condition finds its expression in the unthinking phrase "once vibrant." But there is also the painful claim on an impossible citizenship in a destroyed, nearly extinct civilization. It is that sense of loss, call it existential Jewishness, that underscores the making of Frederick Wiseman's tragic poem The Last Letter, Yale Strom's more cheerful documentary L'Chayim Comrade Stalin, and even Israeli director Amos Gitai's fiercely maladroit allegory Kedma.

The Last Letter is unlike any previous Wiseman movie, but it is not a complete departure. The dean of American cinema verité here documents a stage production—his own—which is itself a sort of imaginary document. For just over an hour, a lone actress (Catherine Samie) recites an epistolary chapter from Life and Fate, Soviet writer Vasili Grossman's posthumously published novel of World War II. The letter is sent to the novel's protagonist, a scientist in Moscow, by his aged mother Anna Semionovna, a doctor in German-occupied Berdichev; he receives it presumably after she has already gone to her death.

Through the valley of the shadow: Catherine Samie in Wiseman's The Last Letter
photo: Film Forum
Through the valley of the shadow: Catherine Samie in Wiseman's The Last Letter


The Last Letter
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Adapted by Wiseman and Vronique Aubouy, from Life and Fate by Vasili Grossman
Zipporah Films
Through February 12, at Film Forum

Directed by Amos Gitai
Written by Gitai and Marie-Jos Sanselme
Kino International
Through February 6, at Makor; Opening February 7, at the Quad

L'Chayim Comrade Stalin
Directed by Yale Strom
Written by Elizabeth Schwartz
Cinema Guild
Opening January 31, at the Quad

Grossman's own mother was similarly obliterated when the Nazis swept through Ukraine during the summer of 1941—a disappearance that evidently obsessed the novelist for the rest of his life. Not surprisingly, this fictional letter haunts his massive, self-consciously Tolstoyan book, as well as the suppressed dossier on German atrocities that Grossman compiled after the war. (He continued to write to his mother, years after her presumed death.) The movie The Last Letter is thus an instance of multiple ventriloquism—Wiseman re-creates a performance articulating a voice from the grave that itself emerged from Grossman's own desk drawer 15 years after his own death.

Seen first as a shadow on a scrim, Samie describes the sudden arrival of the German army in Berdichev; the corresponding eruption of previously suppressed anti-Semitism among colleagues and neighbors; and her puzzled self-recognition as a Jew. (The cage has found the bird, to paraphrase the Kafka one-liner—although it was through his mother's fate that Grossman realized his Jewishness.) In short order, the doctor loses her apartment and her hospital job and, along with the rest of the town's Jews, is crammed into the ghetto—a holding pen before they can be shot down en masse by the SS.

The Last Letter reverses the sentimental injunction in which the immigrant child is enjoined to send a brivele der mamen—a little letter to mama. The mother describes her life—or rather Grossman imagines it—in concrete detail. Filled with quick sketch characterizations, the letter is a superb piece of writing, and Samie, the senior member of the Comédie-Française, gives what was surely a mesmerizing reading when The Last Letter was staged in Paris. For the film, Wiseman uses multiple set-ups—alternating close-ups of Samie's face and hands with stagier long shots. Shrouded in black, save for her emblazoned yellow star, the white-haired actress wanders among the shadows. The desire for visual interest is understandable, but one could "watch" The Last Letter with eyes closed. This is very much a radio play—Wiseman's mise-en-scène might be the patterns cast on the ceiling. As the filmmaker is a child of the radio age, perhaps that's what he had in mind; in any case, being a child is partially what The Last Letter is about, both as horrifying bedtime story and overwhelming expression of maternal love.

Samie has a deep, smoky voice and the capacity to fill her wide eyes with un-shed tears. Her performance is austere yet histrionic, aquiver with despairing laughs and wry asides. Still, the text does not precisely speak itself. When the actress smiles sadly or pauses to hum a melody, the effect is more Comédie-Française than Berdichev ghetto. Indeed, it is a bit disconcerting to hear the material recited in French. As rendered in the novel, Grossman's "mother"—with her acute self-analysis, sudden rhapsodies, and sentimental compassion for the little people ("charming, eccentric, sad")—is the voice of 19th-century Russian literature.

Primal in its effect, The Last Letter demonstrates the power of language, performance, and narrative to hold an audience spellbound. The movie has a cumulative effect, building up to the mother's final farewell before she vanishes into the darkness forever. As preparation, it is preceded on the Film Forum bill by another sort of artifact, the 10-minute Jewish Life in Cracow, one of a half-dozen Yiddish newsreels produced in Poland on the eve of World War II and restored to ghostly legibility by the National Center for Jewish Film.

Amos Gitai's Kedma is an account of scarred, traumatized refugees that is something of a scarred, traumatized movie. Gitai's view of Israel is radical and blunt. The Jewish state was founded on calamity and is itself a disaster.

Fashioned largely from a series of extended, ensemble takes, Kedma opens with the image of a woman's naked back and tracks from some not very inspired lovemaking in a ship's berth through the crowded steerage up onto the deck of the decrepit cargo freighter Kedma. The boat is loaded with downcast young refugees from the concentration camps of Europe who, as though addressing an audience of Imaginary Jews, briefly recount their stories.

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