Review: The Last Dialogue (2021)

Diagonale Audience Award

Courtesy of Diagonale

The permanent Austrian exhibition in the former concentration camp Birkenau was established in 1978. At its entrance, there was a huge panel proclaiming that Austria was the first victim of National-Socialism. In 2009, the exhibition was dismantled and removed and the huge public discussion ensued about what should be the contemporary (and more truthful) narrative about what was Austria’s role in the WWII and the Holocaust, since the old one was used and re-used as an alibi for the country’s incapability of dealing with its Nazi past. There is still no consensus between the relevant public factors (politicians, artists, historians, civil sector representatives) what the new exhibition should look like and what should be its narrative.

That is the starting point of Fabian Eder’s documentary The Last Dialogue and one of its central topics. The film was in production since 2017 and it premiered at Diagonale in Graz, where we were able to see it.

One smaller part of the film is centred around the exhibition and the search for the universally accepted new narrative. The opening scene is actually the dismantling of the panel, with Hitler’s Anschluss speech as the auditive background. That segment is realized by the means of pretty standard interviews where each side gets its chance to present its case. The fact is that the old narrative does not work any more, as it relies on the culture of forgetfulness instead the culture of memory. The narrative itself might not be created in Austria, actually it was a part of the Allies’ Moscow Declaration from 1943, but it was used to keep the (former) Nazis in the positions of power. On the other hand, it is hard to decide what part of guilt for the atrocities is collective, and what individual.

The larger part of the film is set where the narratives and historical memories are, or at least should be, created. The people who survived the war and the Holocaust are talking to their grandchildren about their personal memories from their childhood and youth years during the war. A Viennese lady lost her love for Hitler when he disregarded the protocol she was a part of, and later on witnessed her Jewish neighbours being evicted from their flats and businesses. An elderly gentleman talks about being a refugee in then-Palestine and having to fight legal battles about his inheritance. Another old lady talks about exchanging letters with soldiers, later marrying one, and having to escape her home town of Bresslau (Wroclaw in Poland) when the Red Army arrived. The most moving and upsetting is the testimony of a Jewish man who survived the Krakow ghetto and Matthausen concentration camp as a boy, while taking care of his father and brother, but who also faced the hardships after the liberation that left him, his family and his friends with virtually nothing.

Those conversations are set in trains, which feels more than a bit staged, but it carries a certain symbolism. In quite a few WWII- and Holocaust-themed documentaries and fiction features from recent years, the trains and the tracks are used as symbol of the road to deathcamps, especially underlined with the showing of the final destination, the train station in Auschwitz. The Last Dialogue is no exception in that department.

Finally, we also get to see the very spots of the suffering and death the subjects are talking about and what they look like now. They are nowadays used as the places of memory and piety to the dead and the places where people gather to proclaim their loyalty to the Anti-Fascist idea which is still alive, but it needs to be reminded of.

Execution-wise, The Last Dialogue is a competent cinematic work, adeptly shot by three cinematographers, edited in such a way to keep the clarity of the message and the dynamism to hold the viewer’s attention for 112 minutes, and directed in a seamless, almost invisible way by Fabian Eder. It could and should find its place on television, where it can reach as many people, and potentially ignite a needed public discussion.

Courtesy of Diagonale

Original title: Der schönste Tag
Year: 2021
Runtime: 112’
Country: Austria
Language: German
Directed by: Fabian Eder
Written by: Fabian Eder
With: Aba Lewit, Heinz Krausz, Theo Krausz, Edith Walter, Valerie Schieder, Ines Kluger, Adrian Kluger, Hannah Lessing, Doron Rabinovici, Hannes Sulzenbacher
Cinematography by: Astrid Heubrandtner, Richi Wagner, Carlo Hofmann
Editing by: Esther Fischer
Sound by: Stefan Rosensprung
Production design by: Rudolf Czettel
Produced by: Fabian Eder, Katharina Stemberger
Production company: Backyard – Manufaktur für Film