In August 2018, Jakiw Palij — a former concentration camp guard identified as “the last known World War II Nazi living in the U.S.” — was deported to his homeland, fully 15 years after a federal court had stripped him of his citizenship. No country, not even Germany, wanted to accept him, and so he remained in America until Trump booted him out last year.
But was Palij, who died in January, really the last of his kind? What if there were others? What if it turned out that there was a Nazi living undetected in your own family? These are but some of the head-scratching questions in Jeff Lipsky’s “The Last,” the latest wall-to-wall talkathon from the hyper-literate writer-director, a former independent film distributor who began his career as an advocate for other tough-sell voices and has become somewhat prolific making a frustratingly amateurish kind of low-budget feature.
Like a highbrow John Waters or an aspiring Todd Solondz, Lipsky privileges provocation over polish in his work — of which “Flannel Pajamas” and “Twelve Thirty” are arguably the most effective — bringing subjects such as incest and abortion into the living room in unapologetic, even confrontational ways. Now, with “The Last,” Lipsky stirs up an examination of not only anti-Semitism but also philo-Semitism, or Judeophilia — reflected in a lapsed-Catholic woman’s eagerness to adopt her Jewish fiancé’s faith (the attractive young couple, Olivia and Josh, are played by Jill Durso and A J Cedeño) — with a matter-of-fact euthanasia subplot thrown in for good measure.
The movie opens with a Jewish family observing the first day of Rosh Hashanah and swiftly turns to long, dense discussions about Olivia’s decision to convert to Judaism. Strange time jumps follow, skipping over her bat mitzvah and wedding to pick up at another family gathering, where three generations are represented. The faith-based conversations continue, though the characters are so hazy at this point, it can be a challenge for audiences to engage. (A second viewing reveals the sly way Lipsky introduces certain ideas, as in the words of prayer: “Let us cast away the sin of deception, so we will mislead no one in word or deed, or pretend to be what we are not.”)
During these early scenes, Josh’s 92-year-old great-grandmother Claire (Rebecca Schull), or Nana, beams warmly, almost invisibly, from the edge of the frame. She’s the least conspicuous character at first, but will come to take the spotlight when she shows up to visit the couple at the beach, where idle remembrances of her family history take an unexpected turn. Over the course of a nearly 45-minute, narcolepsy-tempting stretch on the sand, Nana drops at least three bombshells. (Technically, Lipsky spreads them out across several dialogue scenes, clumsily staged in four locations along the beach with a shocking disregard for either dramatic tension or cinematic composition.)
Be warned: This paragraph contains spoilers, though some viewers may be grateful to see the three points explained. After a long-winded lead-up in which she summarizes her mother’s diary, Nana confesses that she is not Jewish but was in fact a Nazi nurse who assisted at Auschwitz, and later emigrated to the U.S., posing as a Jewish refugee of the war. Second, she explains that her husband, “Papa Moishe,” was also a Nazi and not the biological father of her child (Josh’s grandmother Rosalie, now deceased), meaning that the family’s entire Jewish lineage is a lie. And finally, Nana shares that she has been diagnosed with cancer and intends to take her own life, rather than wait for the disease to claim it.
These are heavy revelations, complicated by Schull’s chipper delivery. She speaks with an almost mischievous smile, eyes sparkling, her feet giddily shaping the wet sand beneath her rosy pink toenails, but as the conversation turns darker, so too does her sensibility, to the point that she’s rejecting the word “Holocaust” and blaming Jews for controlling the narrative of WWII. It’s an ugly spectacle but also an acting tour de force for this longtime Lipsky collaborator, weirdly enhanced by the film’s biggest plot hole: that this unrepentant anti-Semite has spent more than 70 years pretending to be the very thing she claims to hate.
Evidently, Nana shared the same news with her granddaughter (Julie Fain Lawrence) and her husband (Reed Birney) the night before, which might have supported a more dramatic reaction among more interesting actors — or possibly even a dynamic one in which multiple generations were present, as opposed to this oddly blocked beachfront scene, with its tight framing and ill-timed reverse shots, in which we see Josh processing the news like some unpleasant bout of gas.
There’s something undeniably fearless in Lipsky’s filmmaking, which makes virtually no concessions to his audience. Still, he seems to have chosen the wrong medium to express himself, and it’s becoming all too clear that he’s not improving with practice. Lipsky places the camera in strange places, blocks his actors in illogical and distracting ways, and makes choices that undermine our dramatic engagement at every turn.
Would a script as talky as “The Last” work better as a play? Perhaps, but it would still need massive restructuring to engage an audience. Who is he making these films for? Compared with Lipsky’s last few films, the subject matter here seems more likely to draw art-house patrons to its unconventional Holocaust-themed narrative. But “The Last” isn’t grounded in anything truthful, making it a strange kind of exploitation film: one that poses elaborate rhetorical questions of little real-world relevance. Is the characters’ Judaism really destabilized in any way by Nana’s past?
Compared with “Us,” also in theaters now, the movie feels benign, almost polite — which can’t possibly be what Lipsky had in mind. No, he seems determined to shock, but his films are like those proverbial trees, falling noisily in empty forests. That’s not to say Lipsky should stop making movies — one hopes “The Last” won’t be his last — but that it might be a good time to take a serious look at what he’s trying to achieve, if hardly anyone’s paying attention.