A Film Unfinished (Oscilloscope Pictures, NR)

I have to hand it to Hersonski; given the large number of films about the Holocaust it’s a real accomplishment to find something new to say about it.

One of the more intriguing Nazi propaganda efforts was an unfinished film shot in the Warsaw ghetto in May 1942, a few months before mass deportations to the Treblinka extermination camp began. Several reels of raw footage for this film, labeled Das Ghetto, was discovered in an East German film archive in 1954 and bits and pieces were used in other films beginning in 1961 (documentary footage from the Warsaw ghetto in this period is understandably rare).
However, the origins of Das Ghetto remained a mystery until 1998, when two additional reels of film were discovered that contained outtakes and revealed the extent to which the Ghetto footage had been staged. Cameramen sometimes appear in the frame and there are numerous retakes of some scenes. It’s not clear what the Nazis intended to do with the film; some staged scenes were clearly meant to feed the fires of anti-Semitism (well-dressed, apparently rich Jews dining in restaurants and seemingly oblivious of the suffering of starving beggars on the street), and others could have been used to support a contention that the Jews were an inferior breed of people (a contention that ignores the fact that no one looks or acts their best when they are starving). On the other hand, much of the footage could easily be interpreted as an indictment of Nazi rule (corpses on the street, many clearly emaciated people clad in rags). Perhaps the latter is the reason the film was never completed—we’ll never know, and it’s not really the most important issue anyway.
The story of how the footage of Das Ghetto was located and identified is the subject of A Film Unfinished, and director Yael Hersonski presents an impressive amount of historical research (including the identity of the cameraman, Willy Wist), as well as assembling five Holocaust survivors who view the film and share their memories of its creation. Their testimony is both informative and moving, but the real star of A Film Unfinished is the footage shot by Wist, which remains horrifying to this day. I have to hand it to Hersonski; given the large number of films about the Holocaust it’s a real accomplishment to find something new to say about it.
A Film Unfinished also raises questions about the nature of truth and its presentation in a documentary film. Clearly the Nazis intended to create a false view of life in the Warsaw ghetto, but they’re hardly the only documentarians to use staged scenes without explicitly identifying them as such. In fact, it’s an old tradition. Remember the lemmings hurling themselves off the cliffs in Disney’s White Wilderness? Entirely fake. How about the footage of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad? Not only staged but also carefully framed to present an entirely false impression.
Staging “reality” is far from the only way a documentary director may shade the truth. For instance, in Little Dieter Needs to Fly Werner Herzog scripted apparently spontaneous behavior, for example instructing his subject to open and shut his door several times as a symbol of his need to feel free. And none of these techniques may really matter because a film is created in the editing room (Frederick Wiseman, sometimes cited as an exponent of cinema verité, is explicit on this point: he edits his footage to create a dramatic structure), and we’re never going to have films without editing.
One final note: you may have heard that A Film Unfinished was originally given an R rating by the MPAA. The ludicrous nature of this rating (based on brief footage of nude adults at a public bath) led to well-publicized protests by, among others, Beastie Boy co-founder Adam Yauch. Now the film is officially NR (not rated) which is the right decision; an R rating would have meant that children younger than 17 could not attend the film without being accompanied by a parent or guardian and would have limited its educational use. Although the subject of the Holocaust is horrifying, it is also taught in high schools and there is no reason students should be kept from seeing this powerful film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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