Four years ago, Yael Hersonski was struck by an unthinkable concept: In the foreseeable future, there would be no Holocaust survivors left to bear witness to the atrocities they once experienced. So the Israeli filmmaker set out to find the kind of unforgettable footage she might cinematically use to help keep this horrific chapter of history alive. What Hersonski uncovered, with an assist from producer Noemi Schory, was a 62-minute, 35-millimeter rough cut of a never-released 1942 Nazi propaganda film simply labeled "Das Ghetto."
The film, discovered by Schory in a Jerusalem Holocaust museum but first unearthed in an East German film archive in 1954, was particularly curious as it was apparently abandoned after it was shot without evidence of who was behind it, its exact purpose or why it was never completed. More remarkable was the fact that it even still existed, given that a reported 90% of film footage shot by the Nazis was destroyed at the end of World War II. But this one, lost and recovered several times through the decades, had already been examined in the years following the war, its footage thought to be a starkly real depiction of life inside the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of the Jewish ghettos established by the Nazis in occupied Poland.
It was one of many such films produced by the Third Reich to promulgate its policies, help gain and maintain power, vilify the Jews and, in some segments, portray Jews seemingly living the high life under the Nazis' "compassionate" protection.
But what Hersonski came across as she watched four unfolding reels of emaciated captives, corpse-strewn streets and even scenes of the Jewish elite attending posh Champagne balls, was a staggering fifth reel of outtakes that had been discovered in 1998 by a British researcher. In those images could be seen entire scenes being reshot, cameramen in the background and signs of staging. It was proof that the film, while capturing some genuine suffering, was being manipulated by SS cameramen.
This soundtrack-free assemblage so inspired the director it would wind up as the centerpiece of her own unique and gripping Holocaust documentary, "A Film Unfinished," which opens in Los Angeles theaters Friday.
"The footage bears not only historical content, but powerful emotional content," said the visiting Hersonski, 34, in a recent interview at her publicist's Larchmont Village office. "I thought the enormous baggage it carries with it should be exposed to light again, but in a different way than it was during the first decades after the war."
According to Hersonski, many of the images seen in "Das Ghetto," particularly those of poor Jews starving or even dying, were "recycled in bits and pieces" in dozens of documentaries on the Holocaust or the Nazi occupation of Poland. "But, as they have been used — actually, misused — without context, I felt as if that lack of specificity has disabled viewers from fully understanding this exact part of history," she said. "I wanted to change that."
First, though, Hersonski needed to obtain the rights to use "Das Ghetto" from the German Film Archive in Berlin, where the original print is still preserved. After doing so, she worked with a researcher to track down the few Warsaw Ghetto survivors they could find who not only remembered the Nazi propaganda filming but who would agree to actually sit down and watch the haunting, painful footage—while also being captured by Hersonski's cameras.
"Ultimately, I invited only those who thought they couldn't leave this world without having the final word on this silent footage," said the director. "For me, it's like closing a historical circle: They were there; they were hiding from the very same cameramen who were taking these pictures and, finally, after almost 70 years, they are able to see these images in a cinema hall and comment on them."
Hersonski prepared her participants (four women and one man, all residents of Israel), before and during private screenings held at the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cinematheques, for the severity of what they would be seeing. "I insisted we stop after every reel to make sure [the survivors] were OK, to examine their stare, but all of them wanted to continue to the very end," Hersonski recalled.
The filmmaker's goal was to provide the most intimate, big-screen viewing experience she could for these now-elderly survivors "so they could feel totally isolated and have an intimacy with the images so they could spontaneously react."
The results are heartbreaking as the participants at times tearily, take in these irrevocable images from their childhoods, hiding their eyes from the most unbearable visuals and searching the desperate faces on the screen for a flicker of recognition. They also provide clear-eyed commentary about the veracity of what they're watching: "The piles of garbage are real," confirms one viewer, while another remarks about one of the staged scenes, "Where did one ever see a flower? We would have eaten the flower."
In addition to faithfully re-creating the original war crimes interrogation of late "Das Ghetto" cameraman Willi Wist, Hersonski also incorporated into "A Film Unfinished" vivid excerpts from the diary of Jewish Council leader Adam Czerniaków who, from 1939 to 1942, was responsible for implementing Nazi orders in the Warsaw Ghetto. (He committed suicide before having to organize its citizens' mass deportation to the Treblinka concentration camp.)
Hersonski's insight into the "Das Ghetto" footage sharpened as production progressed on her own film. "I realized that no matter how much a cameraman thinks he can control the people who enter his frame, he will never have control over that moment when someone is gazing directly into the lens of the camera," she said. "I used their gazes as an expression of their unique identity, enabling them to look again directly at the viewer, as if to say, 'I was here, I existed. And when it was shot, I felt something.' That became more real for me than anything else."