Courtesy: David Finkle (N.Y.)

Kathleen Chalfant in The Last Letter
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)

Vasily Grossman was a leading Russian war correspondent during World War II. His dispatches from the front, particularly his reporting on the Battle of Stalingrad, were highly regarded. Because he later fell from favor, his name has been removed from that coverage, nor does it appear below lines he wrote that are inscribed in the dome of what is now the Stalingrad battle war memorial. But, apparently, Grossman is still well recalled in his native country. A fiction writer championed early in his career by Maxim Gorki, Grossman wrote his masterwork, Life and Fate, to commemorate the war and to describe conditions among the Russians during the ordeal. However, he dared not submit his work for publication until after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. Even then, the cultural powers that were denied him that right. So it was only in the 1980s that the 800-plus-page novel was published and impressed the literati with its panoramic depiction of the USSR’s wartime rigors.
Since Grossman was born in the small Ukraine city Berdichev, he set much of the action in the novel there. That was also where his mother, a schoolteacher, remained until she was killed in a German massacre. And it’s where a female doctor, a character in the novel obviously based on his mother, writes a last letter to her son the night before she is murdered. That poignant goodbye comprises the 18th chapter of Life and Fate, which was translated into English by Robert Chandler. Now that chapter has been adapted as The Last Letter by documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who clearly regards the excerpt as having the weight of a documentary even though it’s actually Grossman imagining what his mother might have written him had she composed a letter before being marched by the German occupiers to a mass grave. That is to say, the letter is the most poignant sort of wishful thinking.

Wiseman, who has repeatedly fulfilled the promise of his surname throughout an impressive career, understands that the fictional situation is powerful enough not to call for anything beyond simply being set forth. And so he’s called on Kathleen Chalfant, who only recently vivified one of Alan Bennett’s talking heads and who specializes in unaffected, elegant characterizations, to impersonate the doomed doctor. As always, Chalfant succeeds in what is far from an easy assignment. Wearing a black dress with a yellow star on it (Miranda Hoffman is the designer), she commands an empty stage (set designer Douglas Stern is responsible for the gray walls that are the only features of the stark environment.) Pacing this space as the bereft optician, Chalfant talks of how life deteriorated in the town where once she was respected and where she now overhears neighbors saying what a relief it is to be rid of the Jews. As the doctor is about to leave for the old-town ghetto to which she’s been sent, she listens to two women arguing about which will get her furniture and then is astonished when, as she walks off, both women begin to cry. “I felt as if I were in a foreign country — alone and lost,” she says.

Trying to explain to her absent boy what has transpired, the doctor describes the arrival of the Germans; what happened during the removal of Jews from their homes to their new but temporary homes; what books she carried with her (tomes by Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and Alphonse Daudet); how surprised she was that living in a ghetto turned out to be a relief for her since she no longer encountered disapproving stares; how pleased she is with the unexpected kindnesses tendered by a former patient; what it was like to see children, one of whom she was teaching French, have their future being ripped from them; and how she had to revise her view of herself (“I never used to think of myself as a Jew,” she blurts). She mentions the barbarous behavior she has witnessed and how she realized what was really happening when 80 young men were taken away, supposedly to dig for potatoes. As she draws her long letter to a close, she asks, “What can I say to you in farewell — eternal farewell?” It’s heartbreaking moment, one of many in the piece.

Kathleen Chalfant in The Last Letter
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)

Throughout, Chalfant maintains an elegiac tone. Only infrequently does she allow herself to laugh at some amusing moment she remembers; often, she looks around furtively, as if worried she’s being watched. She gesticulates frequently (too frequently?) as if it’s only by way of movement that the doctor can convince herself she’s still alive. At one extraordinary moment, the character mentions the road down which she’s certain her grave awaits: Chalfant raises her arm to point and holds it there in inconsolable accusation. (It was by the side of that very road where Grossman’s mother was interred along with 30,000 others.) Perhaps needless to say, the doctor’s story is familiar for it’s the story of the six million but, of course, it’s never become a tale that falls comfortably on the ear; likewise, it has to be a complex burden to enact, for which thanks to Chalfant and her continued determination to put herself at the artistic service of large issues.

Although the empty gray set and black costume are minimal by thoughtful design, Donald Holder’s lighting is something else again. It may be the season’s most inspired work for it’s based on shadows — an evocative metaphor if there ever was one. Holder has placed his lights so that, from moment to moment, Chalfant’s shadow is cast against a wall. When different lights are beamed up or down at her, many shadows rise and fall. Sometimes, as when the doctor is confessing how much she misses her son, a lone shadow is thrown like a forlorn silhouette; sometimes when the doctor refers to crowds, as many as 20 shadows of varying sizes join her in solidarity. Occasionally, it seems as if the lighting design is threatening to upstage Chalfant in the way that the shadow(s) sometimes seem to upstage the doctor, but Holder never quite allows this to happen. Instead, he keeps this side of apt while etching his work on a viewer’s mind as indelibly as the contributions of Chalfant and Wiseman.

The Last Letter is about people who faced the likelihood of disappearing forever into history’s shadows. Vasily Grossman dedicated much of his life to making sure that this wouldn’t happen; now Frederick Wiseman, Kathleen Chalfant, and colleagues have allied themselves to that important campaign.

Before We Disappeared: Frederick Wiseman’s The Last Letter

by Steve Vineberg

The Last Letter (La Dernière Lettre), a film by Frederick Wiseman, dramatizes, in the form of a monologue, a deeply affecting chapter from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, an epic 1960 novel of the Second World War. The segment is a letter written from a Jewish ghetto in the Ukraine by a woman to the son she now realizes she’ll never see again, the persistent rumors about the death camps having finally settled into certainty.
Grossman, who lived in Moscow and worked as a war correspondent for the Soviet army newspaper, Red Star, based the character (named Anna Seminovna in the film) on his own mother, a schoolteacher incarcerated in the Berdichev ghetto. In Life and Fate she becomes a doctor who continues to care for patients in pitifully reduced circumstances, a Russian intellectual who packs Chekhov and Maupassant stories in the small bag she’s permitted to take along when she’s exiled from her home in the city. (Perhaps as a touchstone to the model for this character, Grossman gives her teaching duties as well: a ghetto neighbor offers her soup in exchange for teaching his son French.) This fourteen-page chapter, written in that fiercely naturalistic style – relentless in its rendering of emotional detail –that is the legacy of Russian literature, is an altogether extraordinary piece of writing whose power as literature can’t be separated out from its value as a human document. Grossman keeps faith with a dead woman by illuminating her face among the darkened faces of the six million; it’s an act of filial love slipped quietly but unforgettably into a novel of nearly 900 pages.

You can certainly understand why any humanistic filmmaker would be stirred by this story, but in every way the project of putting it on screen seems like a strange one for Wiseman, a documentarian who has previously made only one fiction film. Wiseman came to prominence in the late sixties and early seventies with a series of movies about complex, troubled institutions, two of which, High School and Hospital, became instant classics. In such pictures as Law and Order, Basic Training, Juvenile Court, and Welfare , he took what we might think of as a Chekhovian approach to documentary investigation. Abstaining from voice-over or subtitled commentary, refusing to make easy judgments on his subjects, he permitted the interactions of beleaguered women and men – among them sympathetic, well-intentioned employees of hopelessly tangled and monolithic bureaucratic systems – to speak for themselves. And that ethic has been the hallmark of all his subsequent films, though in recent years his interests have shifted from institutions to communities – in Public Housing, Belfast, Maine, and even his latest, the two-part Domestic Violence, in which the victims of domestic abuse form a kind of community defined by necessity and shared experience. The Last Letter is about a community, too, but since its nature is conveyed to us only through the spoken letter of one of its members, the link to Belfast, Maine or Domestic Violence is superficial. There’s no useful way to talk about in terms of Wiseman’s other work – it’s radically different in genre, style, and subject matter. But it isn’t a surprise to find him capable of filmmaking as supremely elegant as he engages in here, considering his cumulative achievement as a documentarian: his transformation of the documentary form into ensemble drama without his ever imposing his point of view on his subjects.

The Last Letter began as a stage play, a monologue performed in French by the actress Catherine Samie of the Comédie Française. Wiseman directed the theatrical version, too, touring it in selected American and European cities. I saw it in the summer of 2001 when he brought it to the tiny Market Theatre in Harvard Square (Wiseman resides in Cambridge), an oddly shaped space, upstairs from a restaurant, that looked like a converted banquet room. The choice to present the piece in French, in an austere production that suggested a salon performance (Samie wore black and acted in front of a white backdrop), featuring an actress schooled in a highly expressive classical style that most Americans have never seen, is almost bizarrely unorthodox. But Wiseman had a point. What we were watching was so removed from our aesthetic experience that it felt like images from a forgotten world. He was clearly seeking a dramatic metaphor for words that Anna Seminovna writes to her son, Vitya:

I now see that this noisy world – the bearded, busy fathers, the grouchy grandmothers who make honey-cakes and stuffed goose, this world of complex marriage customs, this world of proverbs and Sabbaths – I see that this world will disappear. Life will begin again after the war, but we will have disappeared, just like the Aztecs.

And Samie, as eloquent with her face and her hands and her body as a silent film star, using her training in Racine and Corneille to shape the language of the monologue as Piaf shaped a torch song, was so vivid and poignant on that scrap of a stage that the play (which runs barely an hour) had precisely the effect Wiseman wanted. It was one of the most devastating pieces of theater I’ve ever seen.

You might expect that, adapting this remarkable and offbeat piece to film, Wiseman would shoot it fairly straight, in something like the pared-down style of the Talking Heads monologues Alan Bennett wrote for British television. But his approach to the movie (which is photographed in black and white by Yorgoes Arvanitis) is, again, highly unusual. He alternates close-ups and medium shots – that is, full-body shots – of Samie with silhouettes of her against the grayish-white background. This abstracts her figure and sometimes multiplies it, transforming it into a series of expressionistic images that can be read in a number of ways. On the most basic level, they link Anna Seminovna’s story to the larger one that she’s a part of – the story of the six million. When, relating the expulsion of the Jews to the ghetto, she quotes a neighbor she overheard proclaiming, “Thank God we’ll be rid of the Yids,” the mirror-bank silhouettes suggest the proposed elimination of an entire race, as well as of the hovering ghosts of the murdered Jews. When Wiseman cuts from these spectral forms to the inescapably present actress, he first reminds us of the dehumanizing of the Jews by their oppressors, who reduce them to expendables, and then he undercuts it. The silhouettes are also a strangely communal image. At one point Anna claims that, contrary to what Vitya might be thinking, she has never gone hungry or felt alone in the ghetto (we learn that her ministrations to her patients, like her language lessons, have been repaid with food). Her tone is ferociously insistent, almost offended, a refusal to be pitied or placed in the victim role. When Wiseman cuts from her back to the silhouettes, we get the impression that she’s joined her compatriots, embraced her role as part of a community. Here the image links up with her admission to her son that the experience of being ghettoized has made her acknowledge her Jewish identity, which was always secondary in her mind to her Russian heritage.

Though it sounds like an oxymoron, the filmmaking is fanciful in its austerity, and it’s exquisite; at times it’s reminiscent of painting, at other times of modern dance. But it has the effect that the exoticism of the stage production didn’t have – or rather, that it guided you past: it’s emotionally distancing. Those of us who were lucky enough to see Samie live now have the pleasure of revisiting her phenomenal performance and being able to focus on its individual elements: the sharp, dark eyes with the dancing folds of laugh lines around them; the transported, muse-touched expressions; the voice, often hushed, which begins in deep, craggy canyons and then climbs out; the hands, forever playing some invisible instrument on the air; the arms swung up in a huge arc, as if encompassing the universe. But the self-consciousness of the filmmaking prevents us from sinking into that performance, as we could in the stage version; it’s constantly making points – which is, ironically, exactly what Wiseman never does in his documentaries. And long before the hour is over, you feel the repetitiveness of those points, and of those silhouette images.

We come away from The Last Letter with what Grossman put in his text: the portrait of a woman whose refusal to succumb to self-pity or despair leaves an indelible mark on the world after the Nazis have supposedly obliterated her and whose character as much as her fate confers a tender beauty on her final testimony. Nothing about the conception of Anna Seminovna – or, God knows, about Samie’s depiction of her – is banal or predictable. Her relationship with her son remains somewhat mysterious, complicated, tough, with intimations of resentment mixed in with the love on both sides. (We hear it in the accusation she can’t keep out of her voice when she tells him, close to the conclusion of the letter, to “be happy with those you love, those around you, those who have become more dear to you than your mother.”) We sense that he’s as proud as she is, as independent of spirit. She longs to confide in him, regrets that she won’t get the chance to confess her follies (we know that she and Vitya’s father separated long ago), but she won’t consign those confidences to this letter; at the last minute she restrains herself – even now, at the end of her life, it’s too difficult for her to indulge in some kinds of intimacies with him. Yet she reminds him that his mother’s love is forever with him, indestructible, and as Samie says these words, her gaze becomes strangely interior, as if she were already moving away from her son. Her final word, though, is “maman,” the French diminutive for “mother,” and Samie stretches it into two agonized parts, holding back as long as possible before speaking the last syllable of the last word of the last letter.

Steve Vineberg teaches theater at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. His essays on film and theater appear regularly in Threepenny Review, The New York Times, and elsewhere.