A malnourished, Polish prisoner waits in a well-appointed room. A cart with a shaving brush, foam and a razor blade stands nearby, ready to be used.
Then an official enters the room. Without a word, the man seats himself, and then the prisoner begins to groom him with meticulous care despite his nerves — and the razor blade closely shaving the hairs on the official’s neck. One slip and the prisoner could kill him — but he also may be killed before he even gets the chance.
Writer-director Ben Price’s powerful short drama gives away very little at the beginning of its storytelling. There is no real dialogue and no background information except what discerning viewers can glean from the sets and costumes.
The sound is minimal and yet unnervingly prominent, as each bristle and scrape of the razor against the skin registers with import. The editing and camera are restricted to the prisoner, as the audience never really sees the full face of the official. The approach of the craftsmanship is masterfully economical, and while it’s pared-down, every sound and frame carry import and weight.
Without much narrative detail to lean upon, the film, therefore, generates tension through a compelling lead performance that registers with acuity and precision the emotional stakes for the prisoner. Actor Tarek Slater as the prisoner telegraphs the struggle to both express and hide every competing impulse and emotion, ranging from raw terror to covert temptation. Through taut, judicious editing, the audience stays focused on the prisoner’s inner experience, wondering too if the prisoner will make it through this day — or if he’ll take drastic action to free himself from his predicament.
Academy-qualified for the 2017 best live-action short Oscar and a BAFTA qualifier as well, “Hope Dies Last” keeps its proverbial cards close to its chest until the very end, when it reveals just who the characters are and where the film takes place. Jozef Paczynski was a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz who became the personal barber to camp commander Rudolf Hoss — the man who introduced the use of a pesticide to the murder process at the camp, allowing the Nazis to kill 2,000 people every hour. Hoss never spoke to Paczynski the entire four years he served the Auschwitz commander.
The historical reveal packs a wallop, and what initially appears to be a narrative elucidating a small moment of decision for a character gains an intense weight and resonance, causing viewers to reframe what they’ve just seen. What if Paczynski had killed Hoss? And ultimately, would it have affected anything? Did the possibility of changing his fate — even if he never took it — enable him to hold on? Such enormous questions are unanswerable, but they haunt nevertheless — much like this remarkably lucid, powerful short film.