MEET LEGENDARY INDIE FILMMAKER JEFF LIPSKY
Early in his storied career, Jeff Lipsky was mentored by the “filmmaker’s filmmaker,” John Cassavetes, for whom he distributed the award-winning films A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night.
Lipsky went on to release such iconic movies as Hester Street, My Dinner With Andre, My Life As A Dog, Stranger Than Paradise, Sid & Nancy, and Life Is Sweet.
He made his directorial debut with Childhood’s End) in 1997, followed by Flannel Pajamas in 2006 (Official Selection, Dramatic Competition, Sundance Film Festival), Once More With Feeling (Official Selection, Sundance Film Festival) in 2009, Twelve Thirty in 2011, Molly’s Theory of Relativity (Opening Night Selection, USA Film Festival) in 2013 and Mad Women in 2015.
The Last is the seventh feature film Jeff has directed. His next film, I Think of Leonard Cohen, will begin production in early 2020.
Josh and his fiancé Olivia, followers of Modern Orthodox Judaism (she is a recent convert from Catholicism), meet their beloved 92-year-old great-grandmother Claire for a beach outing. After lunch, Claire makes a shattering confession to the two people she most adores:
she is not Jewish.
NOT A SPOILER:
Claire reveals that she was not a concentration camp inmate at Auschwitz, she was a Nazi nurse! Her only regret is that Hitler did not win
Jeff, what Inspired you to write and direct THE LAST?
I have a niece and a nephew, my niece came first so my nephew always got sloppy seconds. I loved him but, in a way, he was a cypher to me. In writing the script for my newly-released film, The Last (screening exclusively at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas from June 13-June 16),I finally got to know him.
He’s a terrific young man. He excelled in school, he graduated from college, he went and got his Masters and his teaching degree, and he became a teacher of special needs kids in Connecticut. I am immensely proud of him. What was interesting was…he grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, as did I, but he tended to take religious studies and traditions a little more to heart, a little more seriously, a little more piously than any of us, and yet in a revolutionary fashion. He somewhat surprised the family – at least me – when seven years or so ago he merged or morphed, he shifted, from Conservative Judaism to Modern Orthodox Judaism. He found it much more relevant than Conservative Judaism in general, much more essential for Jewish connectivity, much more inclusive.
Around that same time, he was fixed up with a young woman by his best friend and she’s terrific. She was Catholic, yet, even as a young girl, expressed an avowed interest in Judaism. She and my nephew seemed to click as a couple. She expanded her knowledge of Judaism, immersed herself in study about Modern Orthodox Judaism. They began living together. She decided to convert, a plunge she had always been considering making anyway. My nephew was the final catalyst. Then they decided to marry. For me the single most compelling facet, and most fascinating contradiction in their partnership was that my nephew, this Modern Orthodox Jew, who grew up in a centuries old Jewish family, did not believe in a deity. He didn’t believe inGo-d. She believed in G-d. A perfect couple! I thought they are the basis for two wonderful characters in a movie. A movie that could be shot in New York, set in New York, not Texas.
But I needed a story. I needed drama, I needed tension, I needed a through line, I needed a fiction to complement their fact. How could I incorporate something that happened eighty years ago into this contemporary story about two very contemporary Modern Orthodox Jews? My previous films had always been about family. They’d always been about multiple generations of family. So, this time I thought that if I add one more generation, I’ve arrived at the Holocaust. That’s when it hit me: We weren’t approaching the centennial of the Holocaust, rather, we were approaching the centennial of the Nazis rise to power. And given the virulent anti-Semitism in the world, and in this country in particular…I wanted to do something interesting and provocative, with a twist yet utterly believable.
That’s when the character of Claire came to me – a Holocaust survivor, somebody who everybody in this extended family knows as an escapee from Germany during World War II, who makes a life in New York as a Jewish woman, marries a Jewish man (we think!), and raises three generations of a Jewish family. But I created a provocative, relevant, shockingly plausible twist that would make this a searing drama with an ethics question at its core.
Ultimately, what began as a film inspired by my nephew became the story of a Holocaust survivor who has, in fact, been prevaricating, in a most shocking manner, about her entire life, and was, in fact, a member of the Nazi party. Someone who had the audacity to believe that any Jew, any person, should understand that if you put yourself in her position…wouldn’t you have also followed your literal savior to work at Auschwitz?
THE LAST is really haunting, quite disturbing, and very deeply affecting, but it does not operate in the way we have come to expect Holocaust films to move us. What were you getting at with this, Jeff?
Do I think it might provoke? Yes. Our copy line is “What would you do?” I suppose the copy line could’ve been “What would you have done?” That’s what Claire is asking. What would you have done in my position? That’s the question I would like all audiences to ask themselves, and I don’t think that question is answerable, which is probably going to frustrate people. But I think it’ll frustrate them in a way that will keep them thinking about the film, discussing it with their friends and families, at length, for days, and for weeks, and for months after seeing the movie.
Another question this film triggers is “how would you react if this happened in your family?” Is it possible to turn almost a century of abject love into rejection and hate virtually overnight?
You have painted your very nice characters into some ethically, practically, philosophically, religiously, legally, and theologically challenging corners in this film. It turns out that Josh, who has been practicing as a Modern Orthodox Jew even though he does not believe in G-d, is not Jewish…but his newly converted wife is! Um, Jeff? What did your nephew and his wife think of this?!
Come to the Angelika on Thursday evening, June 13, and discuss the film with me and Nils Roemer! Hopefully, there will be a rabbi or two in the audience!