February 18, 2020

A Nazi Woman Lives as a Jew in ‘The Last’

Jill Durso and Rebecca Schull in “The Last.” Photo courtesy of CAVU Pictures

Writer-director Jeff Lipsky knows that some audiences may view him as an apologist for Nazis. Indeed, in his film “The Last,” the central character, Claire (Rebecca Schull) is its spokesperson. She is a 92-year-old unrepentant German-born Nazi, defending herself with conviction. She is also terminally ill and plans to take her own life, but does not want to die without revealing the truth. The twist here is that she has lived her life as a Jew.

“My challenge was to give her a backstory that was unimpeachable, so that any question an audience might have, she has answered,” Lipsky told the Journal in a phone interview. “I am not trying to make a Nazi sympathetic, but rather I’m asking audiences to put themselves in her shoes. Given her circumstances, I defy anyone who is being honest with themselves to say they would have behaved differently.”

“The Last,” Lipsky’s seventh indie film, is a multigenerational Jewish family drama awash in theological and philosophical discussions that explore how each member of the family responds to Claire’s shocking confession. There’s her great-grandson Josh (AJ Cedeño), a modern Orthodox Jew; Josh’s Catholic-born wife, Olivia (Jill Durso), a Jewish convert; Claire’s nominally observant granddaughter Melody (Julie Fain Lawrence); and Melody’s husband, Harry (Reed Birney), an agnostic.

Lipsky, whose films frequently focus on families in crisis, said “The Last” was a departure in its autobiographical inspiration: Lipsky’s nephew, like Josh, is a modern Orthodox Jew, and his Catholic wife is a convert to Judaism and a more committed Jew than virtually anyone else in the family. Lipsky felt there was a story there that cried out to be told.

He also wanted to chronicle a family dating back to the Holocaust. After reading a feature in the paper about someone discovering that his grandfather was a Nazi, Lipsky found his narrative linchpin.

They later admitted it was disturbing for them to see a sympathetic character voicing such terrible thoughts. I hope audiences can see Claire’s irrational, virulent anti-Semitism for what it is. And maybe it could even help inform them on what’s going on now.” — Rebecca Schull

Lipsky also decided to incorporate historical figures into his chronicle, which led him to Dr. Carl Clauberg, a German gynecologist who conducted medical experiments on Jewish women at Auschwitz. In the film, Clauberg becomes Claire’s mentor, lover and savior. 

“For her to reverse her philosophy, even decades later, would represent a rejection of Carl [and her] mother,” Lipsky said. “She’d view it as an act of cowardice. She is no more able to abandon them than she is her new family, whom she has raised as Jews and loves just as much.”

Still, the question remains: Why did she pose as a Jew to begin with and maintain the disguise for more than half a century?

“Survival,” Lipsky said. “It was the only way she could get into America, and then she assimilated herself into a New York community of Jews.”

Schull, 90, told the Journal in an interview at her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that she might have hesitated about tackling the role more than she did if Lipsky weren’t Jewish.

Best known for her seven-year stint (1990-97) as Fay Cochran, the genial ticket agent on the sitcom “Wings,” Schull said, “I might have been suspicious that [Lipsky] was expressing some deep-seated feelings he couldn’t express otherwise. Jeffrey’s intention was certainly not to stir up anti-Semitism.”

Nonetheless, as a Jew who hailed from a fervently Zionist home and raised her three children Jewish, she was conflicted.

“There was some kind of leap that I had to make,” she said. “Claire is horrible, but she is a demanding role and I was intrigued. It’s my profession.”

In learning her lines, Schull said she found a way to make Claire sound intelligent, reasonable and spontaneous. “She tells her life’s story, and if you just keep repeating what she’s saying, her thinking becomes part of you,” she said.

At a recent screening of “The Last” at the Jewish Community Center in New York, responses were generally positive, with audience members citing the film’s risk-taking originality and Schull’s extraordinary performance.

Still, Schull recalled a couple of friends who remained silent. “I can take criticism,” she said, “but to say nothing, is wrong. They later admitted it was disturbing for them to see a sympathetic character voicing such terrible thoughts. I hope audiences can see Claire’s irrational, virulent anti-Semitism for what it is. And maybe it could even help inform them on what’s going on now.”

Said Lipsky: “You can love the film or hate it, but if it challenges audiences to discuss it and ideally never forget it, then it has done what it’s supposed to do. I’d like moviegoers to leave the theater believing that even when things seem clearly black and white, there are shades of gray.”  

“The Last” opens April 26 at the Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; and the Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Lipsky and Schull will participate in Q&A’s after the 4 p.m. and 7:10 p.m. screenings on April 26 at the Royal, and after the 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. screenings on April 27 at the Town Center 5.

Simi Horwitz is a New York-based feature writer and film reviewer.