German film evokes intimate perspective on Holocaust

Sunday afternoon, Der Letzte Zug, translated as “The Last Train,” was shown at Images Cinema in conjunction with the Jewish Studies program at the College. Following the screening, the screenwriter Stephen Glanz answered questions from students, faculty and community members at the Log about the writing process and his personal choices in crafting Der Letzte Zug.
Der Letzte Zug, a German film released in 2006, presents the story of a theoretical last train to Auschwitz, Poland during the Holocaust with graphic detail. The film unfolds as 688 individuals board this final train, recognizing that their only way to survive would be to escape. Narrowing its focus even further, Der Letzte Zug tells the story of the individuals in one particular car in this last train. In the opening scene, a mass grave indicates this story will not have a happy ending. Instead, the audience is led to go along for the suspenseful ride, knowing the final stop for most will be the death camps at Auschwitz.

During the Holocaust, approximately 1.1 million Jews were sent to Auschwitz, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Out of that number, at least 960,000 were killed. Additionally, approximately 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 10,000 to 15,000 others were victims of the Nazis at Auschwitz.

Like Auschwitz, few escaped from Der Letzte Zug and the audience is left trying to grapple with the violence and legacy of the Holocaust through this medium. The film is unsparing in its depiction of violence, but it leaves the audience with a glimmer of hope in its final scenes. Instead of revealing a spoiler about the film’s ending, I’ll fully recommend Der Letzte Zug for viewers to assess for themselves.
The film came to fruition as the work of producer Artur Brauner, who based Der Letzte Zug’s characters off individuals he knew during the Holocaust. Brauner, a survivor of the Holocaust who is now 92 years old, has worked with Glanz on several of his films. They’ve developed a productive, bickering friendship throughout the years that has only served to enhance the quality of their work. In his talks with Brauner, Glanz recognized that Brauner used the film as a “living monument to people that meant something to him at some point in his life.”

Glanz noted that the Holocaust in its own right is an “intimidating” subject matter to deal with effectively: He and Brauner hoped to create something new in a field that is already quite well exposed to a general film audience. In their approach, developing an appropriate – and historically feasible and respectable – story was an ongoing process.

While Der Letzte Zug is not a documentary, it still depicts its subject matter with strikingly uninhibited cinematography. “Nobody knows what exactly happened on the last train, but everything that happens on this train happened on a train [during the Holocaust],” Glanz said. The film’s production team “tried to pick out little bits of what happened to somebody and make it into a story,” he added.

The film actively engages its characters as individuals, a feat that is not easily done in a story of such mass tragedy. As a historical film, Glanz argued that Der Letzte Zug was intended to “make people not a statistic.” By immersing the audience in the nuances of the train’s characters, the film certainly accomplishes this difficult task. Glanz’s inclusion of flashback episodes throughout the train ride reminds the film’s viewers of the lives these characters led prior to the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Der Letzte Zug focuses specifically on the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, which was a carefully considered and debated component of the film’s composition. The characters’ religion is expressed throughout the film, generally through inclusion of prayer. In order for the film to serve a more proactive role in society in addition to a historical analysis, Glanz argues that the film’s implications must be broadened to recognize that atrocities still occur in various corners of the world. “At the end of the day, the film isn’t just about Germans or Jews,” Glanz said. “It’s about people in a horrible situation.”

While Der Letzte Zug will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside, it nonetheless provokes visceral reactions that need to be explored. Glanz’s work to construct a story that delicately reflects the consequences of Auschwitz in a responsible, personal manner should be commended. Der Letzte Zug complements existing filmography on the Holocaust by telling a unique story, encouraging reflection and reexamination of the atrocities of World War II.

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