Arts and Entertainment

Film Review: A Film Unfinished

By Jaime Rinaldi
Published: October 2010

When we say something is a “document about the Warsaw Ghetto what, exactly, do we mean?
Can something which we thought a document over time, under other circumstances be another ‘€ even contradictory ‘€ kind of document?
Dealing with the Holocaust, where men, as philosopher Hannah Arendt observed, stood History “on its head, what are we to do, as listeners, readers, viewers when context changes?
When Claude Lanzimann created Shoah (1985), his seminal documentary about the Holocaust, he deliberately excluded any archival footage from the film, instead filming long testimonials of witnesses and survivors.
He did not believe in the power of the archive to affirm the full weight of his subject matter; in his own words: “a certain absolute horror cannot be transmitted.
Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski confronts the wisdom of Lanzimann’s belief in her film A Film Unfinished (2010) by upending the equation.
Hersonski forces together the archival footage and contemporary testimonial, asking survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto to provide commentary to a Nazi film that scholars had for many years purported to be an authentic visual record of ghetto life.
The film in question was never completed and languished in amidst numerous other pieces of Nazi propaganda footage until East German archivists discovered three reels of footage in the early 1950s.
Despite having no sound, no credits, and no inter-titles (the text that appears between scenes in a silent film), the film contained about sixty minutes of footage which purported to capture daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto circa May 1942.
In the following decades, scholars assumed the footage to be authentic and for many, these reels acted as a rare visual record of Jewish life in the ghetto.
The sixty minutes of film present nothing less than a bizarre amalgam of imagery.
While the footage suggests a life of relative normalcy and at times, even luxury, amongst the wealthier residents of the ghetto, the reels also contain shockingly graphic images of human suffering, including corpse-lined streets and mass graves. Scholars generally agreed the purpose of the footage was propaganda; had the film been released, it would have promoted anti-Semitic stereotypes by portraying the alarming indifference of rich Jews towards their starving brethren.
In 1998 a fourth reel was discovered which revealed the original footage might not have been as authentic a document as many had initially thought.
The reel contained thirty minutes of jettisoned footage that revealed the German photographers actually had taken greater pains than originally assumed to construct the reality of the Ghetto.
Well dressed Jews in the Ghetto were coerced by the film makers and SS officials to attend plays, sip coffee in cafes, and socialize on street corners, all while, under direction, turning a blind eye to the corpse-strewn streets.
In A Film Unfinished, Yael Heronski includes all of the surviving footage alongside powerful and painful interviews with five survivors of the Ghetto, readings of contemporary Jewish accounts of the filming and a dramatization of the court testimony of one of the German filmmakers recorded during the trial of the Warsaw Ghetto’s SS Commander in the early 1960s.
The minimal narration, read by Israeli musician Rona Kenan, is cool and reserved throughout. Heronski only provides the most essential details and eschews an in-depth analysis of what scholars have taken from this footage, both before and after the revelation of the fourth reel. At the expense of this context, Hersonski makes room for yet another narrative to emerge.
A majority of the film’s insight comes from those five survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, each filmed individually watching the footage in a darkened screening room.
Hersonski prefers that these aging but strong voices shape the discourse of her film, allowing these survivors to speak for those whose voices were stifled by the Nazi’s visual distortions, whose lives were destroyed by the Nazi’s brutality.
To this end, their commentary is consistently revealing and the emotional turmoil they suffer, as they watch their families, friends, and neighbors navigate the cruel confines of the ghetto, is absolutely agonizing.
Oddly, the images of emaciated corpses juxtaposed with these elderly witnesses looking away from the screen in sad horror has the strange effect of averting our attention from explicating the found footage.
Any film about the Holocaust must address the terror of human destruction that occupies nearly every facet of its terrible existence.
However, I feel the choices Heronski makes in her film allow this terror to overwhelm the essential question raised by this film; how and why did the Nazis choose to document their destruction with such meticulous deceit?
It would be unfair to suggest that Heronski ignores these questions, but some of the fundamental conclusions at the heart of A Film Unfinished need closer scrutiny.
Even if Heronski’s presentation shifts the discussion in one direction, the surviving footage reaffirms the depths of the Nazi’s contempt for truth.
Although many film reviewers have fixated on the deceit of manufacturing a seemingly authentic visual record, I am troubled by an even greater question.
What could have compelled the Nazis to labor over such a meticulously fabricated film if they believed their campaign of total extermination would soon be realized?
Who did they need to convince of their righteousness when the Final Solution was nearing full implementation?
The only conclusions I can come to suggests the true scope of the Nazi lunatic vision; with colossal arrogance they imagined a future after the extinction of European Jewry where they could in fact re-write the visual history of the last Jewish generation.
Their archives would affirm the virulent anti-Semitism that fueled the Final Solution; The Ghetto, in this horrific alternate reality, would leave behind a cinematic record of Jews as callous and selfish on one hand, and derelict and filthy on the other.
Nazi-ruled Europe would come to understand Judaic culture solely in context of this perverted mythology.
Heronski’s aim is to fully upend whatever residual legitimacy those poisoned intentions may have yielded.  At the expense of scholarly precision, she allows the surviving victims to reclaim this footage from the death grip of the Nazi propagandists.
A Film Unfinished takes a firm step towards giving the survivors the final word on this chilling visual history.

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