Although he was born two decades after the Holocaust and now stands at the ripe old age of 35, James Moll has dedicated his professional livelihood documenting the extermination of European Jews during World War II.
His passion is so genuine, in fact, that Moll has directed the haunting documentary “The Last Days,” focusing on five Hungarian Jews sent to concentration camps in the final stages of the war. The film is being talked about as a possible Oscar contender.
“The Last Days,” which debuted at the Intl. Documentary Assn. Festival last fall making it eligible for Oscar consideration, will be released by October Films on Feb. 5 in New York and Los Angeles, with a wide release soon thereafter.
Moll has a history with the subject matter, acting as producer of “Survivors of the Holocaust” and “The Lost Children of Berlin” for the Survivors of Shoah Visual History Foundation, for which he is founding executive director.
Since the Holocaust and the killing of 6 million Jews is so incomprehensible, Moll has brought to life stories of five particular lives to a very personal level, and takes the audience on a trip back to Auschwitz, along with the survivors.
“My life has been consumed by the Holocaust,” says Moll, who began Shoah with founder and chairman Steven Spielberg. “The film was one of the projects Steven had an idea for. At the end of ’93, he had seen some of the work I had done on promotional and educational films.”
Taking a skeleton crew for two weeks back to Europe to the exact sight of such horrific world events, Moll became even more enveloped in the stories that survivors told.
“To be there with the people who were there at the time was scary. Our cameras were always rolling, and there was one situation where I was going to touch a barbed-wire fence and one of the women told me not to do it, thinking it was electric and that if you touched it you would be killed,” Moll recalls. “For the rest of the day, none of the crew was allowed to touch the fence.”
On being at the grounds at Auschwitz, Moll says, “I really felt as I was standing in the most evil place on Earth.”
What was also frightening to the survivors was sitting down in an interview setting with an elderly German doctor who had done experiments on Jews during the war. He has previously stated that he falsified German medical records to help Jewish women avoid going through unnecessary surgeries. Moll doesn’t hesitate in saying that he’s not sure the doctor isn’t lying, just trying to avoid prosecution.
“I don’t think it’s true,” says Moll, a native of Allentown, Pa., who grew up in L.A. and went to the USC School of Cinema while working in feature-film development for producer Lauren Shuler-Donner. “I don’t know what he has to reconcile in his mind. He worked closely with Dr. Mengele and I understand he participated in the selection process (where certain Jews were chosen for slave labor and others were sent directly to the gas chamber). It was a difficult day to be in the home of this sweet little old man and to know of his past. I could see the day was taking a toll on everybody.”
As for what’s next on his docket, Moll is mulling over several scripts but is ready to step away from docs for the right project.
“It’s going to be hard to go from something that I’m so passionate about to something completely frivolous. I’m looking for a project that has some integrity. I want to move to dramatic filmmaking. I would certainly like to do commercial films that appeal to a wide audience.”June Beallor, who produced “The Last Days” and first worked with Moll 11 years ago when he helmed “Just for the Summer,” an educational film about Alzheimer’s disease starring “Cheers” regular George Wendt, says what separates Moll from other directors is his ability to share his passion with the audience.
“I think he’s going to be a tremendously successful feature director,” says Beallor. “He has excellent taste and will not just work on any project. It has to have meaning to him. He’s amazing with people. He’s able to get people to do things that they wouldn’t normally do. He has such integrity as a filmmaker. He won’t take any shortcuts.”