Shot luminously in black and white, The Last Letter (at Film Forum) consists only of a performerCatherine Samie, the legendary French stage actress and doyenne of the Comédie-Françaiseand a bare stage; no props, no score. And yet Samie is such an extraordinary camera subject, and her visual evocations are so rich, that the film seems densely inhabited. It’s an epic of the imaginationa 61-minute, subtitled monologue derived from a passage in Vasily Grossman’s socialist-realist novel Life and Fate and directed by the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman in his first dramatic foray. I think it will move audiences in a way few films ever have.
Samie is in deep communion with the camera. Her most fragile and nuanced emotions have a grave ferocity. Her hands have the lyric, spidery expressiveness that one often sees with great mimes or deaf performers, and she has the rare ability, through some mysterious inner transmutation, to make herself look ancient one moment and maidenly the next. Dressed simply in black, a Jewish star stitched to her dress, Samie is laying herself bare, and the effect is like watching one long catharsis of pain and woe and benediction. I felt like I was holding my breath from the film’s first frame to its last.
Samie plays Anna Semionovna, a physician interned in 1941 in a Ukrainian ghetto that is about to be liquidated by the Nazis. Her monologue is a spoken letter to her scientist son, Vitya, who is safe outside enemy lines. (Grossman, who suffered under Stalin and worked as a mining engineer before becoming a writer, lost his mother to the Germans.) Anna knows she will never see Vitya again, and so this letter, which she intends to smuggle out of the camp, is her way of setting down how she would like to be remembered. It is also a way for her to comprehend her life and bear witness to it; a way to prepare herself, and her son, for her death. She talks about the small, incremental horrors that led to her internment and how even now, when all hope is lost, there is hope. She describes the ragged, despicable behavior of the neighbors she thought were her friends but also mentions the rare, revivifying acts of astounding kindness. A recognition of her own mortality has sharpened her senses; whereas before she would look into the eyes of her patients and see cataracts, now she sees souls.
Wiseman had previously directed The Last Letter at the Comédie-Française and at the American Repertory Theatre, and he uses the camera to deepen the chiaroscuro effects he achieved onstage. The close-ups of Samie, with her helmet of thin white hair, are always held for precisely the right number of beats. Wiseman understands the phosphorescent power of her face and how, in intervals, we must turn away from it or be blinded. He has always had an unerringly musical sense of how to pace a sequence. The periodic shots of Anna fragmented in shadow against bare walls are like gentle punctuation. They are also metaphors: This woman, with her formidable, almost sculptural presence, is fading before our eyes. Anna is aware of her evanescence. As one who always identified herself much more as a Russian than as a Jew, she speaks of her sudden, startling love for “this world of proverbs and Sabbaths” that will soon disappear. She links her newfound tenderness for the Jewish people with Vitya; it is a reminder of her love for him.
Anna talks about how a son should always tell the truth to his mother, and now it is her turn to speak with ravishing honesty to her son. Her truth is her final gift to him. She asks his forgiveness for leaving his father; she confesses her fear of pain and of the panic that chills the heart. She wants her son’s help and yet rejoices that he is safe and will not meet her fate. Before the war, Anna had consoled herself with the thought that one day she would tell Vitya of her life and all her mistakes and longings. Now she must die alone, and her words to her son are like a soft sacrament: “Be happy with those you love, those around you, those who have become more dear to you than your mother.” The Last Letter is the saddest and most beautiful of lullabies.