“Last Journey Into Silence” is a documentary by first-time filmmaker Shosh Shlam which offers two definitions of inhumanity which criss-cross in a double horror: the brutality of the Holocaust and the post-script of families warehousing emotionally-ravaged survivors of the Nazi atrocities in mental hospitals for decades. The tragedy of the elderly Holocaust survivors portrayed in this heartbreaking feature comes from realizing the cruelty which was initially visited upon them in the concentration camps would continue years later in the benign indifference and annoyance of their families who could not or would not help them to find an inner peace, thus sentencing them to life imprisonment in asylums, out of sight and (eventually) out of mind.
“Last Journey Into Silence,” which recently won the Columbine Documentary Award at this year’s Moondance Film Festival, was filmed at Shaar Menashe Hospital in Isræl, which is billed as the first “hostel” for Holocaust survivors who had previously been patients in Isræli mental hospitals for upward of 40 years.
Calling Shaar Menashe a “hostel” takes acute liberties with the concept of hostelry, for the institution looks suspiciously like a nursing home. (The film raises serious questions on the dubious state of health care in Isræl, both past and present.) There is no spontaneity at Shaar Menashe, with all routines performed in cold, sterile clockwork precision. A disturbing recurring image through the film is the setting of the tables for mealtimes: the Shaar Menashe staff serves up plates and bowls packed with less-than-appetizing food while the patients stand impatiently and impotently on the far side of huge locked glass doors, awaiting the moment when they can be allowed into the cafeteria to have their rigidly-scheduled meals.
The film focuses on three patients and their respective daughters, a trio of middle class women who relate (in varying degrees of annoyance and helplessness) how their mothers slowly but inextricably fell away from the world and were abruptly locked away in mental hospitals, gone and virtually forgotten from memory and the daily scheme of things. (One woman sheepishly acknowledges how the Orthodox Jewish faith shuns mental illness, which may explain the virtual abandonment of the Holocaust survivors whose minds began to fray.) The film brings these daughters to visit their mothers, who have been twisted over time into fragile, withered shells whose years have been a victory of existence over living. The reunions leave the viewer with a residue of bitterness rather than bittersweetness, and coming away from this film it is not cynical to wonder whether being alive is the same thing as surviving.
Filmmaker Shosh Shlam (herself the daughter of a Holocaust survivor whose entire family perished in the war) offers a disturbing and harrowing picture of human relations and the endless variations of cruelty. In its silent observations of lost people who suffered injustices on so many levels, “Last Journey Into Silence” presents a horror greater than any Hollywood fright film. This is a work of tragic art.