Executive produced by Steven Spielberg as the first theatrical release affiliated with his survivor-testimony-archiving Shoah Foundation, "The Last Days" is a hard-hitting, well-organized documentary grounded in the stories of five Hungarian Jews who lived through the Holocaust.

Executive produced by Steven Spielberg as the first theatrical release affiliated with his survivor-testimony-archiving Shoah Foundation, “The Last Days” is a hard-hitting, well-organized documentary grounded in the stories of five Hungarian Jews who lived through the Holocaust. While feature breaks no new ground (apart from airing some newly found concentration camp footage), it provides a powerful, compact overview of both representative human experiences and larger historical events. Clearly blessed with production resources well above docu average, pic looks likely to reap awards and decent specialized biz when October rolls it out in early ’99; long broadcast and educational shelf lives will follow.

The now-elderly but quite hale survivors here are all current U.S. citizens originally born in prewar Hungary, which, pic claims, had one of the most assimilated and patriotic Jewish populations in Europe. So the subjects, who were then in their teens or early adulthood, were amazed when their homeland began aping Germany’s anti-Semitic restriction laws and creating its own Nazi-allied movement (the Aerocross) while facing a flood of Jewish refugees from other European countries who told “impossible” stories about massacres and death camps.

Still, the fervent general belief was that this bizarre turnabout would pass. When Hungary finally fell to Nazi occupation, however, those hopes were dashed. Yellow stars were required for I.D., homes were forcibly evacuated and cattle-car “deportation” trains commenced. The three women whose stories are told here were sent to the “madman’s hell” of concentration camps, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. One man, current ninth-term U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, managed to stay in Budapest by hiding at one of the famed Swedish “safe houses;” the other man, Bill Basch, worked with the Zionist underground to save Jews by delivering Wallenberg’s life-saving fake passports before he was caught and sent to Buchenwald.

All participants have heart-rending personal stories or observations to offer , from being “sorted” at camp entrances (older parents or younger sibs sent “to the left” were instantly gassed) or enduring Dr. Mengele’s sadistic “medical experiments,” to ingenious survival tactics (Irene Zisblatt swallowed her mother’s diamonds before every inspection, then retrieved them from her waste). After speaking of witnessing a particularly ghastly children’s beating, another woman tersely notes “That’s when I stopped believing in God.”

Nonetheless, all five endured to face the further post-war chaos and to learn their loved ones’ (generally grim) fates. Some uncover pieces of the latter only now, as they return with the filmmakers to their concentration camp sites and Hungarian hometowns — most for the first time since the 1940s.

This produces many highly emotional moments, none more startling, though, than Renee Firestone’s face-to-face conversation with a former Mengele associate who remains slick and evasive as he insists some “experiments” allowed camp prisoners to avoid the gas chambers longer.

Despite the initial suggestion that docu will have a unique angle — the Hungarian Jewish experience — it does not capitalize much on that theme, using individual stories that might have originated in any occupied European country. More insight from non-Semitic Hungarians about their culpability would have been useful. So would much more detail about the two men’s experiences “underground” in Budapest, which curiously get little play here.

Director-editor James Moll no doubt faced difficult decisions in whittling down miles of footage but, despite inevitable resulting gaps, “The Last Days” emerges as a well-paced, engrossing chronicle that carefully contextualizes each individual saga amid larger historical events. Tech package is tops, with new footage smoothly lensed in Euro and U.S. locales. Archival stills and film footage (latter including some recently found color sequences of corpses and cadaverous survivors at a just-liberated camp) appear newly restored.

The Last Days

Production

An October Films release of a Steven Spielberg presentation in association with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Produced by June Beallor, Ken Lipper. Executive producer, Spielberg. Directed by James Moll.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Harris Done; editor, Moll; music, Hans Zimmer; orchestrations, additional music, Nathan Wang; historians, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, Dr. Randolph Braham; sound recordist, Bill Shotland; production sound mixer, Tim Cooney; associate producers, Elyse Katz, Aaron Zarrow; associate editors, Maja Vrvilo, Richard Kreitman. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 10, 1998. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Bill Basch, Alice Lok Cahana, Renee Firestone, Congressman Tom Lantos, Irene Zisblatt.
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