“The Last Happy Day” is a stunningly beautiful essay film by Lynne Sachs, in which she uses the remarkable story of her distant cousin Sandor Lenard, a Jewish Hungarian doctor who survives two world wars, as a lens for her meditations on trauma, survival, history, and healing.
The outline of Lenard’s story is fascinating by itself: he hides his Jewishness from his first wife and children, and mysteriously disappears as the Nazis come to power. He turns up in Rome, where he works for the American army, grimly handling corpses and reconstructing the remains of American soldiers. He later moves to Brazil, where his knowledge of Baroque music wins him quick cash on a TV quiz show, enabling him to retire to a quiet life in the countryside, where he becomes famous for his translation of the book “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin.
The film, however, rather than simply telling his story, is a complex and exquisitely constructed film essay, in which the elements of Lenard’s story (told through his letters) are interwoven with archival footage and stills, ambient sounds, and interviews with family members. Impressionistic montages of images and sounds create a meditative and melancholy atmosphere, while superimposed text is used to reinforce key phrases from the letters. Sachs interweaves these elements into an elegiac counterpoint, much like Lenard’s beloved Bach, music which figures prominently in the soundtrack. (This soundtrack is notable for its subtle blend of historical sounds, such as radio war reports in Italian and airplanes, with music and narration.) Film footage about the war is projected onto ordinary household objects and medical equipment, an effective image of the superimposition of war memories onto daily life. The result is a double portrait, capturing Lenord’s sense of displacement, but also capturing the filmmaker’s own mind, as she investigates the story and learns more about Lenard’s life, and contemplates the variety of human responses to the devastation of war.
One of the film’s strongest and most original strategies is the use of four children as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the film throughout in a variety of ways. These children at times narrate the story, act it out, provide the music (pantomiming a string quartet playing Bach), and perform the story of Winnie the Pooh. The kids do not function merely as a screen onto which Sachs projects her ideas; they become as genuinely obsessed with Lenard’s story as the filmmaker herself is. (Two of them are Sachs’ daughters.) They sift through Lenard’s letters together, searching for clues to his story. Although, as children who have grown up in peaceful, prosperous America, it must be difficult for them to imagine Lenard’s experiences, they comment on them with great sophistication and empathy. (Sachs juxtaposes the kids’ scenes with contrasting images of children in fascist uniforms in Italy.) The children are always shown working as a group. Images of collaborative work, especially the collaborative work of a group investigating archival texts, are an important theme running through many of Sachs’ recent films, such as “The Task of the Translator” and “Wind in our Hair.”
Lenard’s Latin version of “Winnie the Pooh” is not merely a whimsical side project. The story itself is not fluff: the quoted texts acted out by the children deal with death and violence, and Lenard’s translation, as Sachs explains to the kids, consciously cites Latin poems about war. It almost seems as if, for Lenard, the study of Latin represented a civilized, educated world, the world which was utterly destroyed by two world wars, and which he never ceases to long for. As the language of science and Linnaean classifications, Latin is also part of the comforting process of ordering and containing the world, of turning the unspeakable horrors of the war into safely intellectual experiences. (Many educated people seemed to find the book appealing; my parents had a copy.) One begins to see how the same man who picked up bodies from the chaotic scenes of battlefields and methodically reconstructed them also translated a children’s book into Latin.
Lenard’s basic approach to the presence of war, violence, and trouble is an approach that has been central to Jewish life for thousands of years: run as far away from it as possible. The result is living in a condition of permanent spiritual exile. Like many American Jews, even before the war he found it more convenient to elaborately erase any evidence of his Jewishness. (His family name was originally Levy.) Lying, hiding, and escape become lifelong habits, making it especially challenging for Sachs to try to find out details about his story. (He hides the fact that his own father died in a concentration camp.) The images of the interviews with Lenard’s relatives are punctuated with frequent gaps in the image and sound, like the gaps in the story. This condition of uncertainty about the facts becomes a permanent part of the film, as it was a part of Lenard’s life. Like many Holocaust survivors, he becomes bitterly disillusioned when he observes that the racist ideology of Nazism, far from being discredited after the war, seems stronger than ever. His escape to Brazil seems motivated as much as anything by a disgust with Europe.
This is a man who develops a sophisticated and profound understanding of the art of healing, both for himself and for others. He surrounds his house in Brazil with healing plants, and writes that he rarely prescribes medicine for patients, instead, advising them to climb a mountain and look at the sky. The Brazilian sections of the film, near the end, are filled with entrancing tropical birdsong.
Sachs has reached a new height in her exploration of the personal essay film in “The Last Happy Day.” The viewer can feel the hunger for meaning and connection which drives her through her investigation, sending her to Europe and Brazil in search of clues. Her sophisticated gift for montage, which balances sounds with images in an elegantly musical form, turns her curiosity into a thing of beauty.