In Jeff Lipsky’s film Last, Joshua, a modern Orthodox Jew, and his recently converted wife, Olivia, are sitting in beach chairs, having what started as a pleasant conversation with Joshua’s 92-year-old maternal great grandmother, Claire, about her early life.
However, they soon learned that Josh’s family history was not as he had imagined. Claire (Rebecca Schull) confided that her mother was a prostitute who died when Claire was fairly young. Left alone, Claire was taken to an orphanage by Carl Clausberg, who continued to look after her as she grew up. In her early teens, Clausberg, who would become a notorious doctor experimenting on inmates at Auschwitz, had fathered her child – Josh’s grandmother.
No, he hadn’t raped her. In fact, she loved him, and followed him to Auschwitz where she worked as a nurse. Nor was she at all repentant. Jews, she said, were the enemy; in wars, people kill their enemies. Great-grandmother Claire may well be the last unrepentant Nazi.
Watching the movie, you can feel the blood of Josh (A. J. Cedeno) running cold. He had grown up thinking he was Jewish. Now, he realized, he was not Jewish at all because one’s born religion follows that of one’s mother. Ironically, his recently converted wife Olivia (Jull Durso) was more Jewish than he. He vowed to have another brit milah as soon as possible. As he already was circumcised as a baby, this would involve extracting a drop of blood from his penis.
Great-grandmother Claire had other news. She had terminal cancer and was expected to die within six months. Wanting to avoid pain, she had decided to fly within a short time from New York to Oregon, where she would engage a medical professional to help her with an assisted suicide.
Josh didn’t want her to do that; he wanted her to go on trial in Germany or in Israel for crimes against humanity. Olivia, on the other hand, offered to accompany Claire to Oregon.
The news was not only devastating for Josh and Olivia; it also had a terrible impact on Josh’s mother Melody (Julie Fain Lawrence), who was Claire’s granddaughter. She always had suspected that her own mother (Claire’s daughter) had died not from breast cancer but from the stress of carrying some dark secret. On finally hearing what that dark secret was, she immediately took to bed, until one day, she went to her mother’s grave to confront her with the news.
Josh’s father Harry (Reed Birney) coped with the news another way: he tried to develop a graphic novel based on Claire’s life. Whether he would publish it was another story; but in bitterly drawing the characters, it seemed therapeutic.
Questioned intensely by her great-grandson, Claire blamed the Jews for much of Germany’s troubles. She accused the Jews of deserting Germany during World War I – a ridiculous charge as many Jews fought and won Iron Crosses from the Kaiser during World War I, compiling far more distinguished records during that war than corporal Adolf Hitler had. She also repeated familiar canards about the Jews knowing more about money, and science, than other Germans.
Asked about the Holocaust, she angrily replied that many people, not just Jews, lost their lives in World War II. And she said she wished that Germany had won, so that she and her Carl might have been together again.
A fascinating aspect of this movie is the fact that a Jew played a Nazi, and a Christian played a Jew.
Schull, who is Jewish, plays the role convincingly of Claire, who had pretended to be a Jewish refugee in order to get into the United States, and then kept up the disguise, along the way learning much about the Jewish religion, but still reviling the people (except her descendants) who practice it.
Josh’s sudden hatred for his great-grandmother and everything she stood for is palpable; Cedeno, who is Roman Catholic, was able to portray what I believe would be the revulsion felt by any self-respecting Jew to his great-grandmother’s outrages.
You can anticipate that this film will create controversy wherever it is shown. In San Diego, it has been scheduled to open July 12 at Reading Cinemas Town Square at 4665 Clairemont Drive.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World