During our precious years with the last generation of Holocaust survivors, there has been no shortage of insightful films about these courageous storytellers.
One of the best in recent memory, the 2014 drama The Last Mentsch, will play at the Al Green Theatre in Toronto on Nov. 6, at 4 and 7:30 pm.
The Toronto Jewish Film Society will present the film as part of this year’s Holocaust Education Week. Two guest speakers will accompany the showings: author Bernice Eisenstein at the afternoon show, and Rabbi Elyse Goldstein at the evening show.
The feature stars German screen legend Mario Adorf (best known for The Tin Drum) as Marcus Schwarz, an Auschwitz survivor who has repressed his memories of the Shoah.
In his 80s, Marcus is thinking about his approaching demise and decides he wants to be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Cologne, Germany. However, the man must first prove that he is Jewish, which becomes difficult without any surviving family members and no wife or children of his own.
The drama, punctured with spots of sharp comedy, becomes a road trip between Mario and a young Turkish woman, Gül (Katharina Derr).
Gül has borrowed her boyfriend’s car without his permission, and hopes to make some money escorting Marcus to the Hungarian town of Vác, his birthplace. There, the survivor hopes to find proof of his religious identity – a task that proves harder than Marcus initially expects.
The film’s beginning is a bit bumpy, with one expecting the generational clash between the learned Marcus and the sarcastic Gül to become routine. Thankfully, the actors and writers have great sympathy for these characters, and they resist conventions.
Marcus and Gül’s convoluted adventure yields its share of odd comedic detours and harsh, difficult truths. As the initially apathetic young adult, Derr has an easy chemistry with Adorf, and her character’s shift from prickly to tender is both measured and convincing.
However, it is Adorf’s full-bodied portrayal that makes The Last Mentsch a shattering experience.
The award-winning actor has a contemplative face and the energy of a man half his age, which makes the character’s autonomy refreshing. Although a senior citizen, Marcus defiantly pushes forward on his journey and does not let setbacks alter his course.
Of course, there are requisite moments of wisdom. Director Pierre-Henry Salfati, who also co-wrote the film, keeps the camera fixated on Marcus during quieter, observational moments, letting us drink in his lessons and demeanour without feeling that the story is rushing to the next scene.
Salfati and Almut Getto’s screenplay also reveals Marcus’ personal history gradually, letting the character grapple with his past in a way that is natural to the story’s pace.
Another welcome touch: Adorf and the screenwriters refuse to treat Marcus as a saint, and his stubbornness makes the character’s journey more fascinating.
The challenges Marcus faces in trying to establish his Jewish identity should also give audiences much to think about – especially when one considers how many people like the film’s protagonist hid their religious roots after the Holocaust.
The Last Mentsch, which will be shown with English subtitles, is a moving and thought-provoking drama that benefits from magnificent lead performances.
Tickets for both screenings will be available at the box office, which opens one hour before the 4 p.m show.