The Last Happy Day by Lynne Sachs
Essay on film by Genna Cherichello
Topics in Rhetorical Theory: Visual Culture – Haverford College
In her experimental essay film The Last Happy Day, Lynne Sachs uses a variety of film types (super 8 home video, stock footage, still photographs), narrative content (interviews, letters, acted scenes) and other components to build her depiction of Sandor Lenard. A distant cousin of Sachs, Sandor was a medical doctor who worked for the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service, reconstructing skeletons out of the bones of dead American soldiers from World War II. After this position, he moved to Brazil where he lived reclusively and translated “Winnie the Pooh” into Latin. The concept of distance, made apparent by Sandor’s purposeful distancing from the realities of the Holocaust, is vital to the film. The various applications and iterations of distance shape the filmic language and afford the viewer an avenue of access to what the film says about war, the Holocaust, and how we see.
The eye as a mediator is only able to focus on one thing at a time, with everything around that point of focus being lost to obscurity; this forces a piecemeal understanding of one’s environment. The filmic eye in The Last Happy Day, too, is an obscuring and complicating force, which helps to form the film’s language. Sachs manipulates her camera very deliberately, employing the difference between sharp-focus and soft-focus. Her camera is dizzying. It sees through things: focuses on one and alters its focus to another, all within the same line of sight. The constant focus adjustments during the scenes of “Winnie the Pooh” rehearsal create a distance between the viewer and the subject, one maintained by the filmmaker’s hand. The camera sometimes focuses on objects in the periphery instead of the person in the shot, such as the scene where the purple flowers and candles are clear, and clearly disabling focused sight of the scene’s human subjects. Sachs manipulates the fluidity of the focus, often shifted in a choppy, unnatural way, reminiscent of being submitted to a prescription exam at the eye doctor. This, coupled with the tendency of heavy background light to darken heavily the foreground, add to the camera’s role in distancing the viewer from the filmic subjects.
Not only does Sachs’s particular camera technique create a distance within the film’s rhetoric, but Sandor’s intentional distancing from the war does so within the narrative. Sandor distances himself emotionally and physically from the war, but he also denies his distancing. The film separates the viewer from the reality of the mass grave by including abstracted, duo-toned stock footage of war with Sandor’s words about the bones. These words, even, were in a letter to someone who is neither the director nor the viewer, and the voice is obviously not Sandor’s. These are two additional layers of distance between perceiving what is presented and attempting to understand it.
Eventually, the film’s distancing procedures end up illuminating the narrative, perhaps more than if the story that develops through the experimental techniques was told in an actual narrative-style film. This is seen particularly strongly in the scene where the young girl who plays Christopher Robin is describing death after being introduced to the topic through Sandor’s Latin translation of “Winnie the Pooh.” His word choice was colored with sterile negativity, free of emotion and full of fact. It permitted the girl to explore and explain the concepts of depression, death, and the desire for death in a way that would perhaps be impossible without the mediating force of a dead language. The distancing tropes of film overall perform the same type action for the viewer, allowing access to understanding of the premise and the subjects that would have otherwise been impossible.
In an interview with Otherzine experimental fil maker, Lynne Sachs talks about realizing “that there was a pattern emerging in my work, a rhythm between films that were open to changes brought by the times and films that followed a very clearly defined vision or concept. ” Later in the interview she relates what she is trying to do in her films to the avant garde poet, Gertrude Stein’s desire to “create provocative ruptures between the sign and the signifier, between the way we are taught to speak (to communicate) and the way we ultimately choose to express ourselves (art).” Sachs says that her aim is to do the same kind of thing with images and sounds, and one way to do this is to get rid of the traditional chronological narrative and instead tell a personal story through patterned imagery.
What she comes up with is illustrated in her recently released DVD of her 2009 documentary essay, The Last Happy Day, which also includes four of her shorter films as well. The Last Happy Day aims to create a portrait of her distant cousin, Alexander (Sandor) Lenard, a Hungarian doctor who had kept his Jewish identity hidden from his family when he married. With the threat from the Nazis growing, he fled to safety in Rome, helped rescue other refugees and eventually began working for the US Army’s reconstructing bones of dead American soldiers. Later, fearing a WWIII in Europe, he moved to the Brazilian countryside. It was there that he turned out his Latin translation of Winnie the Pooh, a somewhat strange undertaking, but one that was to garner him something more than his five minutes of fame.
Sachs’ documentary rejects the normal grammar of the genre. The Last Happy Day uses some historical war footage, sometimes straight, sometimes in negative, sometimes superimposed over other images. There are no expert talking heads. There are two family members who speak, Lenhart’s son and his second wife, but their commentary is limited, and the wife an elderly woman points out that what she says may well be untrue. Memory, she adds, often betrays us. She can’t always tell truth from fantasy. Instead most of the information comes from Lenhart’s letters read as voiceovers. There are shots of contemporary children playacting the Pooh stories, and one of them does some of the background narration as well. All this has the effect of downplaying the narrative and foregrounding the visual imagery.
altogether, substituting a completely visual syntax instead. A Georgic for a Forgotten Planet is a visual homage to Virgil’s poem using settings from New York City, juxtaposing images of typical city life with less typical flowers and gardens. One comes away from the film with telling images embedded in the imagination. The enigmatically titled Sound of a Shadow, a collaboration with her husband, takes a similar look at Japan, creating what Sachs calls a “visual haiku.” The visual image is the language of both films. It is a language both highly personal and open ended. It is language that can be fraught with meaning for some, meaningless for others.
And therein lies the rub, indeed the rub for much of such experimental work in art. There are those audiences that will have no truck with Gertrude Stein’s “ruptures.” They want things to maintain their meaning. These are audiences that will have trouble with some of Sachs’ work as well. For them a random collection of images will simply be a random collection of images, and nothing else.
That’s the nice thing about The Last Happy Day, while it makes its points with arresting images, it gives the viewer a narrative hook to help navigate through them. Everything in the film from the Bach score, to the horror of collecting human bones, to the beauty of the Brazilian countryside, everything is there in support of a personal vision. Nothing seems random
The ongoing film series American Originals Now offers an opportunity for discussion with internationally recognized American filmmakers and a chance to share in their artistic practice through special screenings and conversations about their works in progress. Since the mid-1980s, Lynne Sachs has developed an impressive catalogue of essay films that draw on her interests in sound design, collage, and personal recollection. She investigates war-torn regions such as Israel, Bosnia, and Vietnam, always striving to work in the space between a community’s collective memory and her own subjective perceptions. Sachs teaches experimental film and video at New York University and her films have screened at the Museum of Modern Art and the Buenos Aires, New York, and Sundance Film Festivals. Her work was recently the subject of a major retrospective at the San Francisco Cinemathèque.
Three short films exemplify Sachs’ unique approach to nonfiction filmmaking and to the empathetic process of imagining other people’s motivations. Photograph of Wind (2001, 16 mm, 4 minutes) is a portrait of the artist’s daughter as witnessed by the eye of the storm; The Last Happy Day (2009, 37 minutes) uses personal letters, abstracted images of war, home movies, and a performance by children to understand the complex story of Sachs’ distant cousin, Sandor Lenard, a Hungarian medical doctor who fled the Nazis and reconstructed the bones of American dead; and Wind in Our Hair (2010, 42 minutes) is a bilingual narrative inspired by the stories of Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. (Total running time approximately 83 minutes)
The Task of the Translator (2010, video, 10 minutes) and Sound of a Shadow (2011, Beta SP, 10 minutes), two recently completed shorts, precede a screening of Sachs’ current work in progress, Your Day Is My Night: “…a collective of Chinese and Puerto Rican performers living in New York explores the history and meaning of ‘shiftbeds’ through verité conversations, character-driven fictions, and integrated movement pieces. A shiftbed is shared by people who are neither in the same family nor in a relationship. Looking at issues of privacy, intimacy, privilege, and ownership in relationship to this familiar item of furniture…I have conducted numerous performance workshops centered around the bed—experienced, remembered, and imagined from profoundly different viewpoints.”—Lynne Sachs. (Total running time approximately 60 minutes)
The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden are at all times free to the public. They are located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW.
For over seventy years, a steady stream of letters was exchanged between Alexander Lenard and members of my family in Memphis, Tennessee. Most of these reflections on everything from stock market prices to family trips, to the legacy of war to the cost of cranberry seeds, were exchanged between Sandor (he was called in the family by his Hungarian first name, without the accent) and my great-uncle William (a.k.a. Bill) Goodman. Luckily for me, my prescient uncle had a heart-felt, insightful appreciation for the epistolary vision he saw in his cousin Sandor’s missives. He kept every letter that he received from Lenard, as well as copies of his own correspondence.
In the mid-1980s, I became fascinated with Alexander Lenard’s story, wondering to what extent it could give me insight into our family’s heritage in Europe before and after the horrors of WWII. Aunt Hallie Goodman, Uncle Bill’s wife, and later Eleanor, their daughter, knew that I had chosen filmmaking as my life’s work. They appreciated my curiosity about and commitment to Sandor’s story and eventually offered me the entire archive to fathom what I could of this rich and troubling tale of hardship and survival. In 2009, I completed The Last Happy Day, an experimental documentary film inspired by the life of my distant cousin.
By interweaving excerpts from these letters into the visual and aural fabric of my film, I embrace the whimsy and the pathos that was Sandor Lenard. Always an exile, a victim of a kind of human “continental drift”, my cousin never felt “at home” in the synthesized post-war euro-culture he found in Brazil. Building a harpsichord on which to play Bach, reading thirteen languages and translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin allowed him to stay connected to an old-world life to which he would never return. The two decades I spent researching, traveling, shooting and editing my movie allowed me to explore the implicit paradoxes of a life both thwarted and nourished by the contradictions of a troubled time.
Interestingly enough, the Lenards were the only branch of our extended family that remained in Europe during World War II. In 2003, I travelled to Düsseldorf, Germany to meet Sandor’s son, Hansgerd Lenard, then in his late sixties. As I stood with my camera, he uncovered a trove of family diaries, letters and inscribed books from the 1920’s and 30’s. Inside each book, Sandor and his parents had meticulously transformed their obviously Jewish surname LEVY to a more Hungarian LENARD. Rather than destroying this direct reference to their hidden family identity, Sandor’s family, my sole remaining European relatives, meticulously erased. In their minds, the key to survival in early twentieth century Hungary would be pristine assimilation.
My own family, during that time, also refused to grasp fully the catastrophe that was Europe. With far less to lose, their methods of confronting imminent danger were similarly subtle. The earliest letters of our family correspondence begin around the turn of the century, but for our purposes, I will start with a letter between William’s father Abe offering help to Sandor’s father Eugene, a polyglot just like his son, in post-World-War I Hungary:
June 17, 1920, Dear Eugene: Our oldest son, William will graduate tomorrow at the University of Pennsylvania, the second is in military camp in Kentucky, the third is too small and is at home. Acting on your suggestion I am herewith enclosing you New York Exchange for $1,000.00 which from the figures that you gave me in your letter you can use to a very much better advantage in Budapest, than having this amount converted into Kronen in this country. I am sending this to you to use or invest, returnable in two or three years without interest.
Sincerely, Abe Goodman
For the next 28 years, there did not appear to be a great deal of cross-Atlantic letter writing between the families, not until the end of World War II when William Goodman, now a successful Memphis attorney with four children, traveled with his wife Hallie to Rome where he made some remarkable discoveries about his cousin. During World War II, Sandor , a struggling doctor with Jewish lineage, had found refuge in Rome and had devised his own unique way to survive the traumatic world of occupied Italy. By 1948 he worked for the United States Army’s Graves Registration Service reconstructing the bodies of American soldiers killed in combat.
In a letter dated September 26, 1948, William and Hallie Goodman have just met Lenard for the first time. Together, they write to William’s mother Bobye Wolf who was directly related to the Lenard family through her mother Wilhelmina Levy, born in Worms, Germany in 1840. Here you will see Hallie refer to Lenard’s first son whom Lenard left in Germany with his German, Aryan, mother. She also refers to Lenarad’s second, Italian wife, Andrietta.
(Hallie) We went to Alexander’s home to see him, his wife and child. He’s a very intelligent man, but I am afraid not too practical. He doesn’t seem very anxious to come to the US even though they are destitute, and can barely manage to get along. Bill gave him a suit of clothes, and we took his wife Andrietta all our extra soap, a few pairs of hose, and a five-pound box of candy. Lenard says his son, Hansgerd, is almost starving in Germany and we promised to ask you to continue sending him boxes.
(William) Lenard was very easy to get along with –didn’t ask for a thing, which made me all the more anxious to try to help him. I arranged for the manager of Paramount in Italy to give him some translating work on subtitles.”
While making my films, I travelled to Sao Paolo, Brazil to film Sandor’s eighty-five-year-old wife, Andrietta. She described in vivid, almost dreamy, detail her husband’s macabre, medical work. I listened to her recounting his daily contact with the detritus of war, wondering to myself why we so rarely think about who is responsible for “cleaning up” the dead. In The Last Happy Day her graphic, realistic recollections stir visual ruminations on her husband’s futile act of posthumous, cosmetic surgery.
By the early 1950s, Sandor reaches out to William with a kind of forlorn intimacy one might not expect between two men who have only met once in their lives
March 25, 1950. Dear Cousin Bill, My conscience is the worst: I have still not completed the research (on our family), which is after all even more interesting for myself than for you… The fact is that after four years as a civil employee of the US Army I had to build a new base for my existence in medical writing. I wrote and published a book on children’s diseases and started one on painless childbirth. ….It’s the depressing present that renders looking into the past such a sorrowful undertaking. One hoped during the war that there would be a better world. It is hard to realize that the victims died so uselessly. Race hatred not only survived, but also came out stronger than ever. Europe and the world found a new and holy pretext for hate. I really hope that I am mistaken when I think the United States is becoming a dangerous place to live.
As Sandor’s world fell into a wartime state of hunger and decay, he delighted in the absurd and the arcane. His love of literature and language was his life raft, his potent means of resistance. Speaking, reading and writing Latin kept him from what Natalie Ginzburg, another writer trapped in occupied Italy, called “the fury of the waters and the corrosion of (our) time.”
Soon afterward, Sandor left for South America, never to return to the Europe that had so fed his imagination and his mind. In my film, I contrast the haunting confinement and violence Sandor experienced in Rome during the Nazi occupation with the verdant emptiness of his later life in remotest Brazil. I juxtapose Sandor’s fearless introspection in his unpublished letters with my imagined visualization of his idyllic life in his house in the woods. The geography of his NOW simultaneously saddens and protects him from the threats he fears are still percolating on the other side of the Atlantic.
Correspondence with my family does not resume again until a decade later in 1961, when Lenard publishes Winnie Ille Pu, his Latin translation of Winnie the Pooh, and enjoys surprising worldwide success. Goodman gets word of the publication and brazenly takes things into his own hands by writing this Feb. 6, 1961 letter to the Editor of Time Magazine in the Time and Life Building in New York City. Clearly, Goodman sees the story of his cousin as an intriguing mix of quixotic impulses and stubborn intellectualism.
In the spring of 1961, the two cousins finally make contact once again. Sandor writes a letter to Memphis, explaining his disappearance and his unexpected literary glory. Clearly, Lenard does not yet know that Goodman is not only well aware of his cousin’s publication but may also be responsible for the press coverage.
Dear Cousin William, ….On the long way from Rome into the forest of Santa Catarina, Brazil I had lost your home address and I had abandoned all hope of tracing you again. Now, by the strangest chance of the world, I have become a best-selling author – or at least translator. Thanks to Winnie Ille Pu. LIFE magazine has published an article about my life and work. A reporter visited me and sent notes to the USA. They wrote the piece as an editorial, a success story and the result is a hopeless mess of misunderstandings, half-truths and outright inventions. On the other hand, more than 100 papers have published reviews about my Bear – which seems on the way to relieve American children of the menace of irregular verbs and defective nouns. For the first time since 1938, I dream about a settled life. At present, this is only a dream, because even after the publication of 84,000 copies in the USA, I have not received a contract for the book, let alone a cent. Please let me know how you are getting on! I remember you had twins. They must be beyond Winnie the Pooh age by now! With love, your Sandor
Thrilled by his rejuvenated contact with his Hungarian distant cousin relocated to the forests of Brazil, my Uncle Bill responds immediately and practically to Sandor’s concerns about money. In addition, he describes his travels to Berlin, Moscow, Leningrad, Helsinki, Amsterdam, London and Paris with the family, giving Sandor a window into a wealthy American’s “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Moscow” itinerary.
Dear Sandor, It was shocking to learn that your royalty situation has not yet been straightened out. If I could be of the slightest assistance in working out your difficulties with the publisher, please let me hear from you. Sincerely yours, William
Months later, this letter arrives from Brazil on May 26, 1961, politely spelt in American English by Lenard:
Dear William, Traveling is wonderful if you do it in a voluntary basis. After having been shoved around half the globe, I got allergic to the outdoors. I think a travel agent would have an easier time selling a round trip of the Mediterranean to Odysseus himself than to me. The less I move from my hideout 80 miles inland from Blumenau (the nearest village) in the greenest most peaceful valley in the world, the more I enjoy letters which have traveled a long way. Winnie Ille Pu has brought me in contact with Latinists the world over. I certainly never thought my Bear would reach the best-seller list, where he now enjoys his life for the 12th week running. I still have not received a cent from my publisher. Should I really receive royalties some day, I am going to become a sort of millionaire – or at least return to the middle class our family left in 1938. In 23 years of existence as a “have-not”, I am ready to accept it for the rest of my life.
I have a wooden house, half way between cabin and castle, with such incredible objects as a bathroom and a piano (next bathroom: 20 miles away – next piano: 80 miles). The satellite I see flying occasionally across the evening sky is the only sign of the present. I am sure that you would enjoy the silence and the distance from worldly events. Translating modern books into Latin is not quite paradoxical here. Won’t you come and see for yourself? Your Sandor”
Because William is an attorney and is able to arrange the legal matters pertaining to Sandor’s royalties for his book, his next letter dated June 7, 1961 arrives with exactly the news Sandor wants to hear.
Dear Sandor, Your publisher confirms that you will receive the full 5% royalty and there will be no further arguments. Your valley certainly sounds attractive. As I get harassed by all the hour-to-hour difficulties of so-called civilization, your mode of living really becomes more inviting. Sincerely yours, William
Sandor’s subsequent July 12, 1961 letter, which is included here in its entirety, is a profound meditation on civilization and the ways Sandor has come to understand and perhaps reject it. In the letter he speaks about the joy of living amongst the flora, and his love of cranberries in particular. I remember hearing my Aunt Hallie’s stories about putting packages of these seeds inside a roll of newspaper and sending it off to our distant cousin in the southern hemisphere. How charming and eccentric we all thought this was, at the time, not yet having a sense of our distant cousin’s longings.
The early 1960s mark a time in the cousins’ correspondence in which letters seem to flow almost monthly. Sandor finally receives a check for $8000 and claims that he could now be the richest man in the valley, except for the fact that he cannot cash the check.
Dear William, I thank you very much for the seeds and have sown them with care. I also enjoyed the papers the seeds were wrapped in! It is nice to hear sometimes about the outside world. I love Brazil for all the space and freedom it gives and the more I hear about neutrons and rockets the more I love it, but you can’t ask for the advantages of uncivilization without some drawback. Absolute freedom and good bathrooms, space and chamber music are contradictions. I chose freedom and renounced the pleasures of a country where you pay with checks. Still, let me say to you again how happy I feel knowing that you represent my interests up there (in the U.S.). The bonds between our families outlasted the centuries and are still strong. Gratefully and with good wishes, Sandor
By 1962, life is good for Sandor, his wife and his second son Giovanni.
Dear William, The money arrived safely. Andrietta is refurnishing the house and I am buying a forest. I am busy writing an anti-fascist Roman cookbook, publishing a Latin translation of Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, and writing a novel in a secret almost dead language called Hungarian. So you see, I am happily planning for 1963, as if my coronaries would be fit for long term projects and the world were waiting for humanistic and gastronomical literature. As to the heart, I trust that big doses of silence will have some dilating effects upon the arteries. Very much cannot be achieved by medical means. The fact is that bullets that do not actually touch the body also hurt. The only medicine against world events is distance, safe distance. We are busily typing a list of more seeds we could like, so my ‘castle’ will be surrounded by flowers. My Bach cantatas have already changed the atmosphere of wilderness into something else. Your old Sandor
Sandor comes to live with my Uncle William’s family in Memphis for a few months in 1968, a time of palpable racial tension, street protests and nightly curfew, the same year Martin Luther King was assassinated in a small motel in our downtown. Upon his return to his cabin in Santa Catarina, he begins a correspondence with my cousin Eleanor, Uncle William’s daughter, then a senior in high school. His November 27, 1969 letter to Eleanor (here in its entirety) is an eloquent homage to youth, wonder and discovery.
In 1970, Sandor sends his own teenage son Giovanni to live for a few months with their American relatives in Memphis. Giovanni returns to Brazil relating that William’s own adult children have each begun families in homes near that of their parents.
Dear William, My son tells me that you are all living near to one another. Almost all of my life was a series of headaches and the rest was longing and homesickness. My headaches have passed but longing and homesickness are here more than ever and I envy those who can say ‘We are all at home.’ Abrasos, Sandor
To Eleanor, he writes another letter, offering a frank description of his own health.
Dear Eleanor, I am a very bad letter writer now. Though my right eye is far from good, I must finish the translation of my most recent Hungarian book into German. Despairing to get a new heart I’ll certainly try to make the old one function, with all its burdens. As soon as you realize you have a heart, there is something wrong with it. Take care, do not ever realize it! Sandor
On September 25, 1970, Sandor’s own doctor writes a personal letter to the family, stating that for the past few months Sandor’s working capacity has declined, and that he has lost his drive to write, study or read.
Soon afterward, he writes his own obituary and dies.
Lynne Sachs (www.lynnesachs.com)
is a filmmaker making experimental documentary films since the mid-1980s. In the The Last Happy Day she constructed a narrative triangle between Lenard, her Uncle William and herself. While their presence in the film is grounded in a dialogue from the past, her participation is more temporally and geographically fluid, creating an evolving relationship of distance and intimacy through voice and text. The film (available from the New York Film-makers Cooperative at www.film-makerscoop.com) premiered at the New York Film Festival and was shown by Duna Television on March 16, 2010, the 100th anniversary of Lenard’s birth.
When those words appear onscreen during Lynne Sachs’ “The Last Happy Day,” they refer to an aspect of Sachs family history during World War II that had been unknown to the filmmaker. But the question is one that resonates throughout Sachs’ work, as both theme and motivation.
Sachs’ films are searching, inquisitive projects — quests of discovery (and self-discovery) that yield facts and insights that become even more meaningful when they are shared with audiences as art.
And, just so you won’t be intimidated, we might add: All this, and Winnie-the-Pooh, too.
A native Memphian who now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, filmmaker Mark Street, and two teenage daughters, Sachs returns to her hometown next week for a mini-retrospective at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art titled “I Am Not a War Photographer: A Film Series by Lynne Sachs.”
Four films — ranging from 33 to 63 minutes in length — will be screened, two per day, at 7 p.m. Thursday and 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20.
The “I Am Not a War Photographer” title connects the screenings to the “Picturing America” exhibitions now at the Brooks, which include Civil War engravings by Winslow Homer and photographs of Civil War re-enactors by Robert King. The title also acknowledges that the films selected for this series all deal with war, albeit in an indirect if extremely personal way.
For example, 1996’s “Which Way Is East,” which screens Nov. 20, is a sort of experimental travel documentary shot by Sachs when she and her sister, Dana Sachs, visited Vietnam. “It’s about how the resonance of the Vietnam War, the dust of it, settled into my consciousness as a child, and then remained there as an adult,” said Sachs, 49, who remembers watching Walter Cronkite’s war reports “lying on the couch, with my head upside-down, so it was sort of abstracted … .”
Perhaps more influential, she said, were the violent depictions of staged combat she encountered in Hollywood war movies when her father, who “despised children’s movies,” took her to see such films as “Patton” at the old Malco Quartet theater at Poplar and Highland. “In a way I think I had more access to ideas about war through those movies than on TV, because they were usually at least subliminally anti-war, through their harshness, even if the depiction of warfare was their calling card.”
Other “war zones” revisited in the Sachs films that will screen at the Brooks include Israel, Hungary and Catonsville, Md., where in 1968 nine war protesters — including celebrity dissident priest Daniel Berrigan — raided a draft board office and burned selective service records with a gooey mixture of homemade napalm contrived from gasoline and Ivory soap.
Constructed from archival materials, newsreel footage, re-enactments, films of children at play and more, “The Last Happy Day,” the most recent work in the series, is a sort of Holocaust story about Sachs’ cousin, Alexander Lenard, a Hungarian doctor who fled the Nazis but later was hired by the U.S. Army to reconstruct the bones of dead American soldiers for funeral and identification purposes. Years after this ghoulish if necessary job, Lenard was associated with an icon of cuteness and innocence when he achieved a certain celebrity as the author of the surprise best-seller “Winnie Ille Pu,” a Latin translation of “Winnie-the-Pooh.”
Sachs — the sister of director Ira Sachs (winner of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for his Memphis-made “Forty Shades of Blue”) — credits a teacher at Central High School, the late Lore Hisky, with “turning her head toward the screen.” Hisky organized a student film club that “was very influential to a few of us, because she talked about looking at images in a very sophisticated way. It wasn’t about movie stars. … It was often about political reflections of the day, with a level of thinking that was complex and meaningful.”
Sachs apparently retained those lessons, because the 20-plus more or less avant-garde short films she has made over the past 23 years — typically described in such uncommercial terms as “essay films” and “experimental documentary portraits” — have been movies of ideas, screened primarily at museums, cinematheques and film festivals around the world.
Sachs said her films attempt to “interweave the personal with a shared cultural experience.”
“So much about war has to do with first-person witnessing, and most of us don’t do that, but we still live during a time of war,” she said. “I’m very interested in the way our memory holds onto a crisis, and we try to reckon with it, but then we don’t know where to put it. What I want people to do is think about their own process of looking at crisis in society, and try to figure out where it fits into their own understanding.”
“I Am Not a War Photographer: A Film Series by Lynne Sachs” at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
7 p.m. Thursday
“Investigation of a Flame” (2001, 45 min.), a look at the 1968 Vietnam War protesters — including three priests — known as the “Catonsville Nine,” who burned hundreds of selective service records with homemade napalm in a public act of “civil disobedience.”
“States of UnBelonging” (2006, 63 min.), a portrait of an Israeli filmmaker and mother killed by terrorists on a West Bank-area kibbutz.
Saturday, Nov. 20, 4:30 p.m.
“Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam” (1996, 33 min.), an impressionistic travel diary of Ho Chi Minh City.
“The Last Happy Day” (2009, 38 min.), an “experimental documentary portrait” of Sachs’ cousin, the late Alexander Lenard, a Hungarian Jew who fled the Nazis and later authored “Winnie Ille Pu,” a Latin translation of “Winnie-the-Pooh.”
Admission: $8 per day, or $6 for museum members. Advance tickets: brooksmuseum.org.
“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. Posted on August 20, 2010 in Reviews by David Finkelstein
Published in April 2010
San Francisco Cinematheque’s monograph: Lynne Sachs Retrospective 1986-2010
The Last Happy Day (2009) by Lynne Sachs; digital video, color, sound, 38 minutes
“In 2009, I completed The Last Happy Day, a film that uses both real and imagined stories about Sandor Lenard, a distant cousin of mine and a Hungarian medical doctor. (See text above for description). Several years ago I traveled to Sao Paolo, Brazil to film Sandor’s eighty-five year old wife, Andrietta. She described in vivid, almost dreamy, detail her husband’s macabre work. I listened to her recount his daily contact with the detritus of war, wondering to myself why we so rarely think about who is responsible for “cleaning up” the dead. Later in the film, Andrietta’s graphic, realistic recollections stir visual ruminations on this futile act of posthumous, cosmetic surgery.
“In my previous films, the elusiveness of the biographical impulse pushed me to interweave home-movies, found footage, interviews, and actual letters as a way of exploring the intricacies of my subjects’ lives. Stylistically, I developed a discursive way of working that integrated authentic materials with more artificial, constructed visuals. With The Last Happy Day, I constructed a narrative triangle between Sandor, my Uncle William and myself. While their presence in the film is grounded in a dialogue from the past, my participation is more temporally and geographically fluid, creating an evolving relationship of distance and intimacy through voice and text.
“Early in the film, I jump right into a reverie that introduces Sandor’s strange understanding of the human body—in death and in life. Through an evolving, highly saturated visual language, I contrast the haunting confinement and violence Sandor experienced in Rome during the Nazi occupation with the verdant emptiness of his later life in remotest Brazil. I juxtapose Sandor’s fearless introspection in his unpublished letters with my imagined visualization of his idyllic life in his house in the woods. The geography of his NOW simultaneously saddens and protects him from the threats he fears are still percolating on the other side of the Atlantic. As a way of articulating his longings, I project images from Roberto Rossellini’s hauntingly sad feature film Rome, Open City onto an array of reflective surfaces in Sandor’s vine-covered house in the woods of Brazil.
“Always an exile, a victim of a kind of human ‘continental drift,’ Sandor never felt ‘at home’ in the synthesized post-war euro-culture he found in Brazil. Building a harpsichord on which to play Bach, reading thirteen languages and translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin allowed him to stay connected to an old-world life to which he would never return. Through the visual texture of this film, I use images of landscapes as proscenium, and even as character. The camera searches for familiar terrain, names, and identifiable landmarks: zones of danger, safety, comfort and despair.
“In all honesty, I’ve wanted to make a film about my distant cousin Sandor for over twenty years. His was the only branch of my family that remained in Europe during World War II. During the production, I traveled to Dusseldorf, Germany to meet Sandor’s son, Hansgerd, now in his late sixties. As I stood with my camera, he uncovered a trove of family diaries, letters and inscribed books from the 1920’s and 30’s. Inside each book, Sandor and his parents had meticulously transformed their obviously Jewish name “Levy” to a more Hungarian “Lenard”. Rather than destroying this direct reference to their hidden family identity, Sandor’s family, my sole remaining European relatives, meticulously erased. In their minds, the key to survival in early twentieth century Hungary would be pristine assimilation. My own southern Jewish family in Memphis also refused to grasp fully the catastrophe that was Europe. With far less to lose, their methods of confronting eminent danger were similarly subtle. Keeping this legacy of detachment in mind, I try to create narrative distinctions between close and remote experiences of war. As Sandor’s world fell into a state of hunger and decay, he delighted in the absurd and the arcane. Humor was his life raft, his potent means of resistance. Speaking, reading and writing Latin kept him from what Natalia Ginzburg, another writer trapped in Occupied Italy, called ‘the fury of the waters and the corrosion of his time.’ Through images and writing, implicit connections to our own wartime situation push their way into the fabric of the film.
“Throughout this episodic story, I also work with a cinema-verité style scene of four children (including my two daughters Maya and Noa) grappling with the challenges of putting on a play of Winnie the Pooh, the book Sandor had, strangely enough, chosen to translate into Latin. The children’s extemporaneous conversations express an awareness of both the English and the Latin versions of Pooh, as well as the philosophical ponderings implicit in the text. In my mind, the inclusion of this quintessential sliver of innocence allows me to explore the implicit paradoxes of a life both thwarted and nourished by the contradictions of a troubled time.” (Lynne Sachs)
Family, history, and oblivion pervade these two short works. With the experimental documentary Last Happy Day (2009, 39 min.) Sachs reconstructs the life of a distant relative, Hungarian doctor Sandor Lenard, who escaped the Holocaust, settled in Brazil, and, among other things, translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin. Sachs’s daughters and their friends read from this text and and recite bits of Lenard’s biography, providing a piquant tonal contrast to the archival footage and the interviews with his son and his second wife. A visit to Buenos Aires and short stories by Julio Cortazar inspired the dreamy narrative Wind in Our Hair (2009, 42 min.), which deals with sisterhood, children’s games, passing trains, and brief encounters.
Introduction by Professor Michele Lowrie, Classics Department
New York filmmaker Lynne Sachs presents The Last Happy Day, an experimental documentary portrait of Sandor (Alexander) Lenard, a Hungarian medical doctor and Sachs’ distant cousin. In 1938 Lenard, a writer with a Jewish background, fled the Nazis to a safe haven in Rome. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service hired Lenard to reconstruct the bones— small and large — of dead American soldiers. Eventually he found himself in remotest Brazil where he embarked on the translation of Winnie the Pooh into Latin. Sachs’ essay film uses personal letters, abstracted war imagery, home movies, interviews, and a children’s performance to create an intimate meditation on the destructive power of war.
In conversation with Classics Professor Michèle Lowrie (who acted as an adviser on the film), Sachs will discuss her cinematic process for making this portrait of a doctor who saw the worst of society and ran. From Lucretius’ sublime but wise “On the Nature of the Universe” to Euripides’ lurid Bacchae to Michael Ondaattje’s harrowing vision of Billy the Kid, Sachs will review the range of literature that fed her creative process. In the same spirit of experimentation, she will screen her companion piece, Cosmetic Surgery for Corpses (10 min., 2010) which witnesses a group of Latin scholars confronted with the haunting yet whimsical task of translating a newspaper article on Iraqi burial rituals into Latin.
(Lynne Sachs, 37 min, DVD, 2009)
Co-sponsored by the Departments of Classics, Rhetoric and Poetics, and Jewish Studies
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.