The Last Letter


Review by Willard Manus

Based on a chapter in Vasili Grossman’s LIFE AND FATE, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, THE LAST LETTER is a 60-minute film that can stand alongside Grossman’s monumental achievement. Directed by Frederic Wiseman, the film was shot in France in 2002 under the title of LA DERNIERE LETTRE, but a subtitled DVD version is available in the USA from Zipporah Films ( Starring is the French actress, Catherine Samie, whose solo performance is nothing short of astounding. Her aged, weathered face is shot in black and white by Wiseman (and his Greek cinematographer, George Arvanitis), but it never loses expressiveness. The love, fear, courage, intelligence, sadness and dignity of Anna Semyonova, the doomed woman portrayed by Samie, come through clearly and unforgettably as she recites her lines. THE LAST LETTER is set in 1941 in a Ukranian town which has just been invaded by the Nazis. Anna, a Jewish ophthalmologist, writes to her absent son, describing the first anti-Semitic actions taken by the Germans (with the complicity of the local police). Anna not only loses her hospital job and her house (which is immediately plundered by neighbors), but is told she must wear a yellow star and is forbidden to walk on the sidewalks, buy fresh food, or go to the cinema.

Soon Anna is banished to the Old Ghetto, along with all the other Jews. There, crowded together like cattle behind barbed wire, these victims of Naziism try and lead something of a normal life. A school is started, a medical clinic is set up, tailors mend clothes, cobblers fix shoes. There is even a wedding! But then the Nazis begin killing off the Jews and Anna comes to the realization that no one in the ghetto will be spared. Death will be their common fate. Somehow this gentle, sensitive woman finds the strength to keep writing her last letter, keep telling the truth about her plight. She is also able to open up to her son, confess her fears and flaws, and to communicate her love for him. It is this exploration of the depths of maternal love that gives THE LAST LETTER its power and poignancy.