IN MAY 1942, a Third Reich film crew arrived at the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of the Nazis’ heavily guarded urban enclosures designed for the separation, containment, and inhuman deprivation of Jews before their ultimate transfer to extermination camps. It was there that this unit shot an unfinished propaganda film titled Ghetto, footage of which was first discovered in 1954 in an East German film vault. To this day, despite the Third Reich’s meticulous record keeping, little is known about the production.
Israeli director Yael Hersonski has now made this document the center of A Film Unfinished, a profound and disturbing investigation into the uses of cinema. Here the original footage is interwoven with transcripts from the official questioning of cameraman Willy Wist, the only Third Reich crew member ever identified from the production; entries about the filming from the diaries of Ghetto inhabitants, including Jewish Council director Adam Czerniaków; alternate takes and outtakes of the “final” product found separately in 1998; and reactions to the film from Ghetto and Holocaust survivors. “In what ways can archival footage filmed by the perpetrators testify to the suffering of the victims?” Hersonski writes in a statement. “And in the case of Nazi propaganda footage, where does cinematic manipulation end and reality begin?” Ghetto is filled with images of the Nazis twisting the extreme plight of oppressed Jews toward perverse anthropological and racist ends: as documents of customs and religious practices of a soon-to-be-destroyed race (in the case of scenes featuring circumcisions and ritual bathing) and as proof of the Jews’ inherent barbarity (via scenes focusing on the few people able to live in some measure of comfort even as their fellow citizens were starving in the streets).
As proven by Wist’s admissions, Czerniaków’s diary entries, and the alternate takes, sequences were carefully fabricated by the film crew (some of whom were accidentally captured in the frame), who, with the aid of SS troops, forced Jews into demeaning performances at gunpoint. The Nazis also ended up documenting the atrocious results of the very conditions they created: emaciated citizens living in abject squalor, corpses lying in the middle of crowded markets, the dead unceremoniously shoveled into mass graves. Hersonski has stated that the anguished gaze of the Jews caught on camera attests to their resistance against oppressors who tried to strip them of dignity, even on celluloid. But the most moving moments of A Film Unfinished attest to the perseverance of that dignity after living through the evil so callously delivered by the Nazis. While watching the unbearable images from Ghetto, one elderly survivor admits to a time during which she was so traumatized by what happened she couldn’t even cry. “Today I am human,” she whispers. “Today I can cry.”
A Film Unfinished plays August 18–31 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.