THE LAST LETTERNR
Anna Semionovna speaks to us from the grave, a mass grave. She gives voice to a diaspora. Her last letter, written to her only son, is the diary of her final days. Anna is a Jew in Nazi-occupied Russia, but she could be an Albanian woman or a Rwandan. Her description of people desperate to recreate the life being taken from them--a neighbor who insists on establishing a school in the Jewish ghetto, or one father's wish to have his child continue her French lessons--illustrates how inestimable quotidian habits are when the world stretches only to the boundary of a fence, and the one gate is an exit to death. Anna is a fictional character, a doctor who writes in French, the invention of novelist Vasily Grossman, and now documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman in his first narrative film. However, through Catherine Samie's extraordinary performance--she's an actress with the Comdie-Fran‡aise--Wiseman seems to conjure the ghost of a living being, and then to record her stalking.
Anna and her letter (which constitutes the entire screenplay) is inspired by a chapter from Grossman's novel Life and Fate, the story of a Russian family from the fall of that country's monarchy to the pivotal Battle of Stalingrad over 20 years later. Grossman's manuscript was confiscated by the KGB, but miraculously resurfaced in Switzerland, where it was later published. A war correspondent during World War II, the author was born in Berdichev, where the Nazis massacred all but a few of the town's 30,000 Jewish inhabitants, hurling them into mass graves. His mother, Ekaterina Savelievna, a French teacher, was among the dead.
Wiseman shoots his one-woman encomium to holocaust victims in a dark, empty studio, with Samie his umbra. Wearing a simple black dress with a Jewish star, Samie walks outside the frame and re-enters it, her shadow multiplying, a reminder of the others who accompanied her to the pit. Her fingers are in constant motion, like those of a blind woman feeling her way through an unfamiliar place. That place is a twilight zone, a purgatory, the space between life and death in which Anna can enter and exit at will, her missive the source of her immortality.
The Last Letter lacks the profound insights you might imagine such a film would embrace. It is simply written, a testament to banality, a berceuse to lull one into the notion that life must go on, that it was perfectly natural for Anna's neighbors, knowing of her imminent move to the ghetto, to claim her apartment for their own, to haggle over her belongings. That is the sort of thing Wiseman might have filmed if he had been in Cracow during World War II or Srebenica in 1995--a woman sifting through a linen closet, or a man rummaging in a toolbox, in the home of a murdered family.
In filming the seemingly innocuous, Wiseman has always gotten to the heart of the matter. In The Last Letter, his documentary style is reflected in the details Anna remembers, especially her account of the day when two of her non-Jewish neighbors argued, as though she were not there, over who should get her writing desk. Had he been in Anna's room, Wiseman would have shot that scene, and it would have come to define forevermore the true measure of "crimes committed against humanity."