Mark Twain famously said that politicians, old buildings and prostitutes become respectable with age. To that category, a provocative and disturbing new documentary claims, you can add Nazi propaganda films.
“A Film Unfinished,” directed by Yael Hersonski, focuses on about an hour of incomplete Nazi footage shot in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto in May 1942, just months before the ghetto was liquidated and its half a million Jewish residents sent to their deaths.
That footage, found without sound or credits, was discovered in cans labeled simply “The Ghetto” in a concrete vault hidden in a forest. Though this was clearly the rough first draft of a Nazi propaganda film, as the years went on clips from that footage were considered trustworthy enough to find their way into various Holocaust documentaries.
Then, in 1998, a reel of outtakes from “The Ghetto” was discovered as well, outtakes that revealed how nakedly manipulated and meticulously staged key parts of that film were. When Israeli director Hersonski found out about that deception, she became determined to make a documentary that dealt with the original film and the outtakes.
One reason to show the original film, here presented in its entirety, is because, as “Unfinished’s” voice-over attests, it contained devastating scenes that “required no staging.”
Squeezing half a million Jews into the 3 square miles of the Warsaw Ghetto led to almost unimaginable poverty and desolation. The beggars in pathetic rags, the starving people dying on the streets, the sick and destitute living in squalor, these make the most powerful of impressions.
Just as disturbing are the original footage’s numerous close-ups of ghetto residents, close-ups that are simply awful to look at. Living faces haunted by knowledge of a sure death, these are among the most purely despairing images ever put on screen.
As bad, if not worse, are scenes that almost beggar description. There is the horrible humiliation of forcing women to disrobe and then filming them, clearly terrified, using a mikvah, or ritual bath. And shots of the numberless corpses piled one on top of the other in the ghetto’s massive cemetery leave one speechless with despondency.
The Nazis, obviously, were not interested in a film that emphasized Jewish suffering. The aim of “The Ghetto,” as far as can be determined, was to contrast this pain with the alleged callous indifference of better-off Jews, to show, as the voice-over says, “the paradise the Jews lived in.” Only, there were no better-off Jews, let alone a paradise, which is where the Nazi fakery and manipulation came in.
Outtakes show that key scenes were staged over and over again from multiple angles. As a voice-over reading from the journals of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the ghetto’s Jewish Council, makes clear, the sequences we see of Jews putting on evening dress to go to Champagne banquets were completely fabricated. As a survivor of the ghetto laconically says on watching a dinner with flowers on the table, “We would have eaten the flowers.”
To emphasize the connections between reality and the Nazi footage, director Hersonski showed the original film to five ghetto survivors, who view the film with trepidation and growing horror. Some scenes are so difficult that even people who lived through them have trouble watching: “Today, I am human,” one woman says through tears, “today I can cry.”
One of the points of “A Film Unfinished,” which is to make you question the reliability of the documentary form, is perhaps unintentionally strengthened by one of Hersonski’s decisions.
Having unearthed a transcript of testimony by Willy Wist, one of the ghetto footage cameramen, the director chose to have an actor play Wist and reenact scenes of him being interviewed. Unless you are paying close attention, you might believe Wist was still alive and part of the film. It’s another indication of the malleability of the documentary form, of how it can be turned to anyone’s purposes in the blink of an eye.