Best known for her role as Fay Cochran from “Wings,” actress Rebecca Schull, 90, is in a new movie with a Holocaust narrative that turns expected tropes upside down, to chilling effect.
Written and directed by Jeff Lipsky (“Twelve Thirty,” “Flannel Pajamas” and “Childhood’s End”), the film initially presents 92-year-old Claire (Schull) as a sweet great-grandmother who partakes in Jewish traditions with her extended family, including her grandson Josh and his recently-converted wife Olivia.
But the family’s world is soon rocked when (not a spoiler, we promise) Claire reveals her past as a Nazi nurse at Auschwitz. Though Claire is vehemently anti-Semitic, she also deeply loves her offspring, who have been raised Jewish.
It is “the central mystery of this character,” said Schull.
“I believe, in the life she lived — which was based on a lie — she was in fact very loving and very devoted to this family. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” she said. “At the same time, in her own mind, she didn’t give up these beliefs. I suspect there are people who live with this dichotomy within themselves, and they split themselves.”
Ironically, Schull is the only Jewish actress among the five main cast members.
Schull said she was taken aback at first when she read the script. “The whole idea of somebody saying things like she says in the film … it’s horrible and I hate it,” she said. “But you separate yourself from that, as the person, separate yourself from the character.”
Lipsky previously worked with Shull and actor Reed Birney, and wanted them for “The Last.”
“[Rebecca] is a force of nature. I hope to live to 90 and remember what my name is,” Lipsky said. “I think a lot of what I asked her to do, taking on this role — she carries the film to a large extent — was sadistic of me to ask her to do.”
The movie was shot in only 12 days, with Claire’s long monologue about her life taking a day and a half to film. Lipsky said the camerawork made a big impact on the final look of the arduous scene, though it’s subtle: Over time, the camera inches ever closer to Claire, her family and the audience drawn deeper into her story and its implications on the past and present.
“I had to make sure that that monologue in particular, that every line could flow from her in a way that actually made it sound like her character knew this and that there was a comfort level in conveying these thoughts and sentences,” said Lipsky.
Lipsky, who is also Jewish, said he normally writes family movies, but this time wanted to tell a unique story. Aside from Claire, most of the characters in “The Last” were inspired by people in his life.
“I realized if I went back one generation [further] than I normally do, I would be at the Holocaust,” he said. “Given the vehement anti-Semitism in the world, and in this country today, I thought it would be a great opportunity to challenge myself, my characters, and audiences.”
Schull hopes that watching her character say such anti-Semitic things may have “some kind of beneficial effect … that you just see how bizarre and insane it is,” she said.
Schull grew up in New York during World War II. Though she was “quite young” at the time, Schull recalled seeing photos of the concentration camps after liberation. “Those images were so awful and they just really became indelible for all of us, and the horror of it as it was exposed little by little,” she said.
It’s not often that 90-year-olds headline movies, and Lipsky said he was happy to be able to create the role.
“I can’t even think of where I’ve seen any kind of a role of an old woman that’s so complex,” Schull added, noting that it can be hard to find roles as an actress of her age.
Both are excited to show the film in Bethesda. Schull’s late brother’s children live in the Washington area, and her son will accompany her from New York to see the movie for the first time.
Lipsky said he enjoys getting feedback from audiences. “It doesn’t matter as much to me whether they love the movie or hate the movie,” he said. “I want them to be haunted by the film, I want them to think about the film, I want it to resonate with them.”
The movie’s world premiere was March 1 at the Chicago Jewish Film Festival. “The Last” will be playing at Arclight Bethesda beginning Aug. 23.