In 1942, the Nazi propaganda machine sent camera crews into occupied Warsaw to film life, real and not, in the walled ghetto of the city – 3 square miles housing over 500,000 Jews. The incomplete footage of the horror was found after the war and gave historians a previously unseen view, outside of Hitler’s Germany, into the Warsaw Ghetto and its condemned denizens. First time documentary film maker Yael Hersonski takes the three silent film reels (with a fourth take reel found years later), assembles it to show the terror and then dissects, for analysis, “A Film Unfinished.”
This astounding debut documentary feature by director/screenwriter Heronski does two things that a documentary should do. It gives an in depth look into a familiar subject for the WWII history student like me, the Nazi atrocities against the Jews. It also is a startling new look at one of the greatest evils against humanity. Roughly one hour of a partially edited film exists, in poor condition, but the images shown are ones of unimaginable terror, for the poor Jews, and the supposed gay and prosperous life of the wealthy Jews. We are shown the rich stepping over the bodies of the dead, ignoring the plight of the poor Jew.
The crude attempt to show the Jews in their “true” light is heavy handed in the first three reels, but it is the fourth reel, with multiple takes of different scenes, each one showing a different perspective of the scene, that completes this chronicle. The manipulation by the propagandists shows their contempt for the Jews and others whom the Nazis considered inferior to the Aryan “race” and therefore to be eliminated. You can see, though, that the original film, called simply “The Ghetto,” would be greeted as gospel by the German people, affirming the propaganda drilled into them for years that Jews are a heartless people, beneath contempt.
Most will consider “A Film Unfinished” a good documentary that tells an unbelievable story. For me, though, it is an incredible archival insight into a horrific event that, until now, I have only read about in print. To see the images of the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto, the look of terror in their faces and the bodies of the dead randomly strewn about, is a gut wrenching experience. The sheer horror being filmed, and knowing that it is all an elaborate Nazi lie, make this a must see, at least for me. I give it an A.
With “A Film Unfinished,” filmmaker Yael Hersonski accomplishes something unusual - presents a new angle on the Holocaust documentary. This film within a film is an analysis of the artform as propaganda, and while there have been other looks at this subject under the Nazi regime, most recently with "Harlan - In the Shadow of Jud Süss," no one has been able to break down the subject to the level of detail of camera angles in different takes. Hersonski also has the perspective of one of the main cameramen on the project, a man who claims to not understand the purpose of what he was shooting, while the work of another is contrasted with the aid of the personal work he did on the project. What is most surprising to me about the film, though, is the existance of wealth in the Warsaw Ghetto, a fact that more than one survivor discusses. Hersonski's voice is heard occasionally as a narrative bridge, but she largely keeps her own objectives out of the picture. The Nazis attempted to exploit a condition by exaggerating it and creating a false impression of Jewish disregard for their own, but one wishes the director had prodded some of the survivors for their own feelings on the subject. B+
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