My friend R. and I went to see Yael Hersonski's documentary A Film Unfinished last night. It won a prize for editing at the Sundance Film Festival and is now in a short theatrical release (two weeks) here in NYC.
This is a film about a film. In the last few months before the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, a Nazi film crew spent a month filming Jews in the Ghetto to make a propaganda film. The resulting film was found in the East German archives in the 1950s. It had been edited but not completed - there were no titles or credits and no sound track. Although it was understood to be a propaganda film, it was also the only filmed representation of life in the ghetto, and clips from it have been put in many films about the Holocaust, with an assumption that what was represented in the film was largely a true depiction of Ghetto life. Then in the 1990s a reel of outtakes was found, showing how much of the film was staged, with the "actors" performing at gunpoint.
Hersonski's film is an attempt at figuring out what is real and what isn't in the film, and more generally is an exploration of how film can tell truth and lies, often at the same time. To this end, she juxtaposes scenes from Das Ghetto with the outtakes and with contemporaneous diaries of those living in the Ghetto. Clips from an official post-war interrogation of one of the cameramen are also included. And, most affectingly, she shows the film to five Israeli survivors of the Ghetto and has them comment on what they see and compare it to the reality of their lives in the huge, overcrowded prison in which they were children.
As the film was never finished, it's not clear just what the propaganda purpose was. A lot of scenes, though, show contrasts between rich and poor. There are scenes of fake parties and entertainment and a ball put in counterpoint to people starving to death. The "rich" people were instructed to look happy and to ignore those starving near them. So presumably part of the narrative they were trying to tell was Wealthy Jews Neglect Starving Brethren.
It's a hard film to watch. The wealth is often fake, but the starvation is real, and the suffering is palpable. Scenes of Nazi atrocities juxtaposed with the reactions of the survivor viewers who experienced them are heart-rending. There are scenes of terrified women being herded at gunpoint into a mikveh, supposedly to show that Jewish ritual life continued in the ghetto. There's a scene of a mass grave, with bodies being pushed down a slide to fill up another layer. Fear, starvation, misery are in every scene, along with the knowledge that almost all who didn't die in the ghetto would die shortly after these scenes, when the Ghetto was liquidated and they were all sent to the death camps.
Although I found it difficult to sit through and expect to be haunted by it for some time, I'm glad I saw A Film Unfinished. It's thought-provoking and moving and has worthwhile things to say about how film can be used to illuminate, to educate, to reveal but also to deceive and to conceal. I recommend it.
I first heard about this film last week on a local radio program, in an interview with the director. The interview is here and worth hearing.