Stalking Shadows; Frederick Wiseman on “The Last Letter”
by Nick Poppy
Frederick Wiseman’s films don’t always go down easy. From the rubber feeding tube forcibly jammed down a man’s throat in “Titicut Follies” (1967) to the 20-minute scene in “Domestic Violence” (2002), in which women in a shelter recount their experiences with physical, emotional and sexual abuse, there is some quality in his work that is hard to swallow; heady medicine, and not always enough sugar to go with it. So, too, with Wiseman’s latest offering, “The Last Letter.” Based on a chapter from Russian writer Vasily Grossman’s mid-century novel “Life and Fate,” “The Last Letter” is a staged monologue of a Jewish doctor’s final written words to her son, Vitya. The sole performer, Catherine Samie, haunts a spare, frill-less set as she relates her experiences living in a small Ukrainian city occupied by the Nazis. She is stalked by her shadows, a ghostly and mute chorus that portend her death. Need it be said that “The Last Letter” was shot in black and white? And for that extra punch of existential despair, it is in French.
A departure in form, if not function, from cinema verite, Wiseman first directed a version of “The Last Letter” for Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater in the 1980s. After making his 1996 film, “La Comedie Francaise,” on the famed Parisian theater company, he was invited to direct a play of his choosing for the Comedie. The stage version of “The Last Letter” opened in Paris in the winter of 2000, with Catherine Samie, doyenne of the Comedie-Francaise, as the doomed woman. The play’s success there translated into funding from such sources as Arte and Canal Plus for the film — though Wiseman is quick to note that the screen version is not simply a filmed stage play. New York audiences, at least, may soon be able to judge for themselves; Wiseman has plans to stage the play in this city later this year.
“The Last Letter” is a dark testament to a dark chapter in human history, a living epitaph for the victims of genocide, fashioned by one of cinema’s masters. It is how the dead might speak to us, if they could: with force and no adornment, framed in a flickering half-light, mournful and then gone. See it, then go outside — throw a Frisbee around, or play with a dog, or kiss someone, and damn the cold.
Frederick Wiseman sat down with indieWIRE’s Nick Poppy over hot drinks on a recent bone-chilling evening to talk about “The Last Letter,” fiction vs. documentary, and the Holocaust.
indieWIRE: Your documentaries are usually lush with detail, and this is something that is very spare. It’s so different from what I would expect.
Frederick Wiseman: Well, I wanted to do something different. One of the choices was to do it in a naturalistic way. I could have built a set that resembled a little town in the Ukraine, or I could have gone to the Ukraine and shot it. Since the events that are described in the novel took place 60 years ago, I wanted to use the idea of a phantom appearing from the past. It’s about people, all of whom are dead. With the exception of Vitya, all of them are killed by the Germans. It appealed to me to try and do it in a non-naturalistic way.
iW: Do you think your experience working on this might inform the way you make your next documentary?
Wiseman: No, because I try to find a style in each film that’s appropriate to the subject of the film. I can’t think of a documentary where this same kind of approach would be useful. In the documentaries I always use a lot of close-ups of gestures and hands, but it’s not exactly the same. In a documentary, there’s no lighting. It’s all available light. Here, the light is completely controlled. You can try something, you see it on a video assist, you decide whether it works or not. You can try it six different ways, until you’re satisfied. In documentary, you only get one shot at it.
iW: Did it feel liberating to have so many elements under your control for once?
Wiseman: It’s different. A fiction film, in one sense, is the reverse of a documentary. In fiction film you have to plan. It’s not that you don’t change from what you plan, but you have to plan everything in advance. It is very hard to improvise. Whereas in a documentary, you find the story and themes in the editing. You have 80 or 100 hours of material. It’s completely formless, except insofar as I find and impose a form in the editing. Here, I didn’t know exactly what the form was going to be, but I knew that I wanted to shoot it a certain way. The story was there since I followed the text of the chapter from Grossman’s novel. The big issue in this film was working out the rhythm between Catherine and the shadows. So in shooting it, I gave myself enough latitude so that I had choice in the editing, whether I wanted to use Catherine alone, Catherine and the shadows, or the shadows alone. This was a separate issue from the selection of the type of shot — close-up, wide shot, et cetera.
iW: Did Catherine Samie share your take on the script?
Wiseman: Yes. She accepted whatever suggestions I made. She made suggestions, too. It was a complete collaboration.
iW: Are there any formal antecedents to “The Last Letter”?
Wiseman: I’ve seen a lot of movies and many of the classic movies. I didn’t spend any time thinking about the relation of “The Last Letter” to other movies. Actually, the idea of the shadows interested me much more than how shadows were used in other movies. One of the things that interested me about this material was, from a technical point of view, how you can make a movie about a human face and through performance and lighting suggest different aspects of personality and character. The movie, whatever else it may be, is a study of one woman’s face. As it is the study of one woman’s character, and complex personality.
iW: Catherine Samie’s character goes about her daily routine, even with the knowledge that she is doomed. It struck me as a meditation on mortality. Is that something you think about a lot?
Wiseman: Sure. I don’t think I’m unique in thinking about it, but it’s something I think about. Particularly as I’m getting older.
iW: How old are you?
Wiseman: I’m 73. I thought about it when I was young, too. Everybody does. People don’t often talk about it, but I think everybody thinks about their mortality.
iW: Did you use this film to address those concerns?
Wiseman: I don’t know. Probably. I doubt that I would have made the film the same way when I was 25, but I don’t know, there’s no way of knowing that. But I think I’m probably more conscious of my mortality. I also think more about the relationship between parents and children than I did when I was 25. “The Last Letter” is a love letter in two senses. It is a love letter from a mother to a son, but it is also a love letter of a son to a mother, if you accept the premise that Grossman had his mother in mind. “The Last Letter” is also a very complex portrait of a woman, and that’s one of the things that really interested me. The character goes well beyond a flat portrayal. You get a sense of a really complicated, three-dimensional person. Her anger, love, jealousy, competition, perceptions, and awareness.
iW: Was it emotionally difficult to make this film?
Wiseman: No. It was totally involving, but it wasn’t emotionally difficult. I just finished a couple of movies about domestic violence, and that material was emotionally more difficult to deal with. I have been reading and thinking about the Holocaust for a long time.
iW: What was the appeal for you of making a movie about this subject?
Wiseman: I was a teenager during the Second World War, and my father was very involved with the Jewish community in Boston. My father was born in Russia, and came to American in the 1890s. Even as a teenager, I was very aware from my parents of what was going on, not only of the war but the killing of the Jews. The issue was something that was discussed, thought about and lamented in our household. As a child, I was trying to come to terms with what was going on, in the way you do when you’re 13 or 14 years old. When I grew up, as the books began to appear and the movies began to be made about the Holocaust, I read them, I saw them. I’m still innocent enough to be amazed and appalled by the ease with which people can kill.
A lot of great books came out of the Holocaust, and a few good movies, and a lot of terrible movies. When I read “Life and Fate,” I thought it was a great novel. In order to make it into a film, one would have to rent the German and Russian armies, both of which are probably available, but expensive. The chapter [on which “The Last Letter” is based] compresses into 14 pages the experience of millions of people. And not only the Jews who were killed by the Germans. I think it would take half an hour, and I could make this take place in Rwanda. Or Bosnia. You substitute machete for machine gun, you change a couple of place names and a couple of ethnic characteristics, and you could be in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Timor, or the Sudan. I wanted to do this film not only because of my longtime interest in the Holocaust but also because of my continuing amazement at people’s capacity to kill. Whether it is part of an industrialized process or done with a machete is not a significant difference.
iW: It’s interesting that you made this film in France, considering that some of the most striking films about the Holocaust have to do with France’s complicity.
Wiseman: Oh, the French! “The Sorrow and the Pity” got it right — after the Germans, I think the French were the worst, if one can rank order. It was the French police, not the Germans, who rounded up the Jews and sent them to Drancy and then on to Auschwitz. I had an amazing experience at a discussion, about a week or so after the movie opened in Paris. A woman raised her hand and said, “My mother was shipped to Drancy, and from there to Auschwitz, and I never heard from her again. I never had a last letter from her. Now, I have.” That was an extraordinarily moving experience.