The Last Mentsch
A question of identity
From the April, 2016 issue
The almost inconceivable magnitude of the Holocaust makes it a very daunting subject for a movie. Filmmakers have necessarily tended to focus on stories of individuals; think Schindler's List, or the recent Son of Saul. Though set in the present, the 2014 German film Der letzte Mentsch (The Last Mentsch) also tells the tale of one man: Marcus Schwarz, an elderly Auschwitz survivor who was born in Hungary but has lived in Germany since the end of the war.
When the film opens, Marcus is attending the funeral of an acquaintance. Confronted with his own mortality, he decides he wants to be buried in a Jewish cemetery--a modest enough desire, but not easily fulfilled. To be buried there, Marcus must prove that he is Jewish, something he's denied and hidden for most of his life.
He is, by circumstance and by choice, completely alone; his entire family was wiped out in the camps, and he never married. He assumed a new name after the war and has no birth certificate or any way to prove his origins. After encountering some initial obstacles and obstinacy, he decides to return to his birthplace to find documents and proof.
That's not simple either. As he casually remarks, "I don't go on trains any more." It's our first hint of his history. A chance meeting with a young woman, Guel, who eventually turns out to have a similarly complicated past, leads him on a classic road trip of discovery. At every turn they encounter blind obedience to the letter, rather than the spirit, of religious law. Marcus responds with sarcasm, "The Nazis were not so picky!" and eventually rage: "The Nazis weren't able to kill me, but you will."
The Last Mentsch is not a great film; the script goes off on too many tangents and leaves too many loose threads. It hurries the development of its characters and muddles their motivations. But it is still worth seeing for a number of reasons. Mario
Adorf, the octogenarian who portrays Marcus, is utterly convincing as a man whose youth was so painful that he's lived the rest of his life trying to pretend it never happened. When he meets a childhood friend, he manages to show us the man he might have become were it not for the Holocaust. Katharina Derr as Guel conveys such a feral ferocity that it's only when she finally smiles that we see her beauty.
The Last Mentsch confronts questions and attitudes about identity and community. It shows how the Holocaust still exerts an incalculably potent pressure on the lives of survivors, their families, and many others. And it can't help but bring to mind Europe's current refugee crisis--which it presciently hints at--and other modern tragedies that will inevitably have far-reaching consequences.
The Last Mentsch will be shown April 11 as part of the 15th Annual Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival, held at the Michigan Theater April 10-14.
[Originally published in April, 2016.]
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