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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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In ‘The Last Days’ of the war, the speed and brutality with which the Nazis went about collecting, transporting and exterminating the Jews from Hungary was unparalleled. Five survivors tell their stories to filmmaker James Moll, who tells ANDREW L. URBAN why the film is so tragically timely.

James Moll grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania and later in Los Angeles, without any personal connection to the Holocaust. But since working with Steven Spielberg for the Spielberg-established Shoah Foundation, Moll has made three significant documentaries on the subject, The Last Days being the latest. In this 90 minute documentary feature (Best Documentary, 1999 Academy Awards), Moll lets the five men and women recount their lives before, during and after the Holocaust, without a narrator’s voice. Sometimes, the subjects are standing at the very spot where incidents occurred – whether their home town or the ghostly ruins of a concentration camp latrine, or gas chamber.

"Ethnic cleansing - an unfortunate and stupid term which implies there is some sort of ethnic dirt to be cleared up"

There are images we have never seen before, unearthed from hardly known archives or even neighbours back home. There are also images of frightful familiarity from the concentration camps.

Shortly after completing the film, Moll was speaking about it at Yale University with one of the survivors, Renee Forestone. While waiting in the Green Room, they were watching a news report on television. "It was showing Americans demonstrating against the war in Kosovo. Very sadly, Renee turned to me and said, ‘Why is nobody demonstrating about that holocaust?"

Well, of course these days genocide, or the mass extermination of a racial or ethnic group is called ethnic cleansing, an unfortunate and stupid term which implies there is some sort of ethnic dirt to be cleared up. Anaesthetic and euphamistic, it should never be used and never regurgitated by thoughtless commentators, politicians, academics, journalists, editors and sub-editors.

"Clearly, the world has learnt very little"

"It’s tragic that a term like ‘ethnic cleansing’ could be coined 50 years after the Holocaust," says Moll. "Clearly, the world has learnt very little. The images on that news report looked just like the images I had been editing for The Last Days – except in colour."

The decision to go back to the actual sites of events in their lives was left to each of the survivors. It was emotionally demanding, to say the least, and we see the effect on them all in the film. "This was a key," says Moll, "because it makes it easier for us to relate it to our world today. It shows how recently it happened. I felt it was important to have the survivors there, not just talking from an armchair somewhere in America. And I also felt it would be more effective if they were telling their stories and memories to their children and grandchildren, not to me, an off-camera, unseen and unknown entity."

Moll shot over 50 hours of footage, all on 35 mm film, and faced a monumental task in editing the material into a structured 90 minutes. "There were a lot of stories I’d have liked to have kept in the film, but I began to feel that the audience might shut down emotionally when confronted with so much traumatic material. So 90 minutes is the appropriate length, I think."

The rest of the footage will not be lost, however, as it is in the archives of the Shoah Foundation, which exists to disseminate its collection (now over 50,000 personal interviews with survivors) in multiple venues to reach the widest possible audience. Established by Spielberg in 1994, the Shoah Foundation (Shoah is Hebrew for Holocaust) took up the best part of two years of Spielberg’s life while he brought the project into existence. Moll pays him tribute for his energy and passion – and thanks him for introducing him to the subject.

"The Holocaust effects us all"

"When I started work on these documentaries and heard the personal stories of the survivors," he says, "I realised how the Holocaust effects us all and all our histories – and how relevant it is."

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‘Ethnic cleansing’ is a term coined to describe what we used to call extermination; the phrase is dangerously numbing at the very least, and callous, almost implying consent at worst. It cloaks ethnically or racially inspired mass murder with some sort of clinical justification, ‘cleansing’ what would otherwise remain ‘dirty’.

Oscar winning documentary, The Last Days is the story of a part of the Holocaust – can you imagine calling the Nazis ethnic cleansers?


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