by George Robinson
It would be tempting but altogether too glib to make a similar comparison between recent American documentaries and Lynne Sachs’ fascinating 38-minute film “The Last Happy Day.” Sachs takes a very unconventional approach to the Holocaust-related story of her distant cousin, a Jewish-Hungarian doctor named Sandor Lenard. Lenard fled Germany shortly before the war broke out, abandoning his medical practice and his non-Jewish first wife and son. He turned up in the unlikely haven of Fascist Italy, where he hid escaped POWs in his attic apartment in Rome. Eventually, he worked as a forensic anthropologist helping the American army’s Graves Registry unit in identifying the remains of GIs.
Finally, the pressures of the Cold War, with the threat of renewed and even more cataclysmic violence sent him in search of “a quiet, green, safe place,” which he eventually found on a mountaintop in Brazil. There he embarked on a quixotic project, translating “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin, one of the 13 languages Lenard spoke and wrote. The resulting book, “Winnie Ille Pu,” became an unexpected international bestseller, bringing him a brief taste of fame.
Sachs’ previous work (“States of unBelonging,” “A Biography of Lilith” among others) has frequently been reviewed in these pages. Her approach to documentary is experimental and unconventional. In her new film, which is playing as part of the Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” program, she offers seemingly unrelated images of a quartet of children, two of them her daughters. They are playing at and reading from the Milne books about Pooh, one of them occasionally adding narration of Lenard’s story. But juxtaposed with this cheerful scene are tinted and otherwise altered newsreel footage from WWII, clips from “Open City” and readings from cousin Sandor’s letters to another American relative who, like Sachs, lived in Memphis, Tenn.
The result is a frequently charming work that makes no effort to disguise an underlying melancholy. Lenard says in one letter, “Wars have decided my life,” and admits that “the only medicine against world events is distance — safe distance.”
“Lebanon” and “Views from the Avant-Garde,” which includes “The Last Happy Day,” are part of this year’s New York Film Festival, which runs through Oct. 11 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center. For more information, go to www.filmlinc.com.