A disturbing Holocaust feature, “A Film Unfinished” brings up many issues about documentaries, propaganda and the invisible lines between the two. Young Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski has unearthed a relic of that era and turned a silent film into one that screams to be heard.
In 1942, the walled-off Jewish area of Warsaw contained 440,000 Polish Jews, all crowded into a three-mile area and awaiting “deportation.” Into this cramped, awful space stepped a film crew with less than good intentions.
Nazi propagandists filmed Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants being shipped to death camps in the last years of the site’s existence, before the Warsaw rebellion. The footage at the heart of “A Film Unfinished” never made it to the editing stage, remaining undiscovered until recently. It vacillates between staged scenes of well-to-do Jews, featuring exquisite drawing rooms and tastefully dressed society ladies, but depicting actual footage of poverty, desperation and death in the streets outside.
So why shoot the staged footage? As the doc explains, the Nazi aim was to suggest the rich Jews were indifferent to the suffering outside their front doors. The next question, then, must be why shoot this at all? The answer creeps up on us: The Nazis thought the Jews would soon be extinct, and this film would be all that was left. A memento of an earlier world, perhaps. It’s a chilling realization.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen, and Hersonski found enough survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto still alive to sit and watch the footage. The audience watches them in turn. These men, women and children, now lined and aged, are transported back to the horror of the moment, as the footage alternates between visions of despair and a false front. “What if I see my mother?” one wonders, just after we’ve thought the same thing.
Hersonski’s film has other voices to lead us through this real history and its treacherous record. Adam Czerniaków, head of the Jewish Council, wrote diaries through those years. The Jewish Council was the authority within the ghetto, and the Nazis staged many of the “rich Jew” segments in his place. His entries, read while we watch the footage, give these shots a nightmarish quality, echoing the non-violent usurpation of a home’s sanctity. Ghetto commissioner Heinz Auerswald provides detailed descriptions of the day-to-day methods of the Nazis and the people’s restrictions. Reconstructed interrogatory footage of one Nazi cameraman named Willy Wist is all evasion and emotionless calm.
The cumulative effect is overwhelming, and one of the better post-“Shoah” Holocaust documentaries. The footage alone would be confusing and hard to collate. With what amounts to a “commentary track,” the real story unfolds, and the frisson between reality on the screen and actual reality is the energy that pulses through this film. What would it mean without these voices?
Oscilloscope has continued to release worthwhile, intelligent and never gimmicky documentaries, and “A Film Unfinished” may be the best of the lot — it would be no surprise to see it turn up come Oscar time. As important a film as it is, the MPAA has given the film a ridiculous R rating, for “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities, including graphic nudity.” By doing so, it ensures no schoolteacher will show this in class, denying a valuable learning opportunity to a younger generation.
‘A FILM UNFINISHED’
Rating: R for disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities, including graphic nudity
Length: 89 minutes
Playing at: Riviera