"When I was in film school, I was the guy who was gonna resurrect screwball comedy," says filmmaker James Moll.
It was an odd ambition for the man who would go on to make his feature directorial debut with The Last Days, a documentary about five Jewish survivors of the Nazi occupation of Hungary.
"I grew up this all-American Catholic boy," says Moll, who recently visited Phoenix. "I knew a little bit about the Holocaust from reading in high school. But it wasn't until I started to hear testimonies from Holocaust survivors that I really started to understand what the Holocaust was about, and to understand its relevance."
Read the review of The Last Days.
Moll, a soft-spoken 35-year-old, was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Los Angeles. He went to UCLA before graduating from USC School of Cinema-Television. He worked as a director of development and an associate producer on various film projects (Three Fugitives, Out on a Limb) before starting his own educational and promotional film and video firm, Allentown Productions. He eventually became what he calls "the in-house video guy for Steven Spielberg and Amblin."
"He [Spielberg] had this idea after reading and talking to Holocaust survivors on Schindler's List to videotape every Holocaust survivor, as many as possible," Moll recalls. "So June Beallor, my partner at the time, and I had the opportunity to try to figure out a way to make it all happen."
The result was the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which Moll launched and ran for the first few years of its existence. The organization's objective was to create a video library of interviews with "as many Holocaust survivors as possible, all over the world in all different languages, and to make those testimonies available for educational use"--through media ranging from interactive CD-ROMs to television specials and feature-film documentaries. The foundation--which has, by Moll's reckoning, more than 50,000 interviews in its archive--has produced two TV specials, Survivors of the Holocaust and The Lost Children of Berlin, both of which have already been heaped high with Emmys and other prestigious broadcasting awards. The Last Days is its first work for the big screen.
The film originated when producer Ken Lipper, in Moll's words, became "fascinated by the concept that in the last year of the war, when the war was essentially over, the Nazis stepped up their war against the Jews, even though they knew they were gonna lose. So what happened to the Poles over many years happened to the Hungarians in just a few short months--rounding them up and putting them in ghettos and sending them ultimately to concentration camps. It was an accelerated process, and it's a part of the Holocaust that hasn't been explored very much."
"It was a tough film to make," Moll says bluntly. "It was a four-week shooting schedule--two weeks in the U.S., then two weeks when we went to Germany, Hungary, Poland and the Ukraine. It was a lot of traveling, and we shot in 35mm, so we had countless film cases--our film loader's hands were raw from constantly having to reload the cameras."
Aside from these logistical challenges, the film was more emotionally trying than most documentaries. "I remember that the day we shot the interview with the Nazi doctor, the crew was snapping at each other, and very short-tempered, and for no reason. I had to have a sort of a split personality. On the one hand, I had to be there emotionally for the survivors, and on the other hand, I was making a film, and it's a very technical process. But I felt strange being in Auschwitz looking for a good shot, for beautiful images."
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Moll says he followed Spielberg's vision to allow Holocaust survivors to tell their own stories. "We decided to make the film without a narrator," he says. "There's no editorial comment, or historians or anything like that. The one historian that does speak in the film is also a Hungarian survivor. Another focus was to tell the Holocaust from different perspectives. That's why we have the three American liberators. And desperately, so much, I wanted to have a Nazi perpetrator.
"Whether he would defend his position, or what he would say, I had no idea. We had several [interviews] that were about to happen and then fell through, and then Dr. Hans Munch agreed to be interviewed. Apparently, from what I've read, he wasn't necessarily forthcoming with us about everything he participated in at Auschwitz, but what he did say was pretty compelling, historic testimony."
The most remarkable turn of events came when one of the five Hungarian survivors profiled in The Last Days, Renee Firestone, agreed to an on-camera meeting with Munch in hopes of learning the fate of her sister, who had vanished after experiments were conducted on her in Munch's clinic. "It was hard to ask her to meet with him, but she's a strong, courageous woman, and she wanted to meet him, and ask him questions. I think she was disappointed by his responses, or rather by his lack of responses. And think we, as an audience, were disappointed, too." But Firestone's willingness to meet Munch was characteristic of the making of the film.
"It was the survivors who decided how the stories were going to be told, and where they were going to go, and who they were going to be with," Moll notes. "The film was really, in a sense, directed by the survivors.