A revealing look back
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 24, 2010
"A Film Unfinished" may not be the strangest making-of documentary you've ever seen. It may, however, be the most affecting.
The film that Israeli director Yael Hersonski takes as her subject is also a documentary, of sorts. It's an hour-long rough cut of a silent Nazi propaganda film, shot over 30 days in May 1942 inside Warsaw's Jewish ghetto and titled simply "The Ghetto." "A Film Unfinished" doesn't so much finish "The Ghetto" as it does place the earlier movie in its proper context, incorporating long-missing outtakes that reveal staging of scenes that were once thought to be authentic by many historians.
There's no real surprise there. The fact that Nazis might have set up a scene of well-dressed Jews ignoring Jewish beggars as they stride into a shop -- as a way to prove that Jews don't care about those in need -- is disgusting, but is it really news? Of course the Nazi film tries to portray Germans in the best possible light. "Look how well we take care of our Jews," it seems to say. Butchered geese, meant to show abundance of the ghetto, would be brought in when scenes were shot at the Warsaw market. (Though the film also shows residents of the ghetto buying horse meat as well. Not many, of course, could afford even that.)
But revealing the secrets hidden in the raw footage is not Hersonski's most powerful weapon. The film doesn't hit you over the head, but in its own way, it is quietly devastating. Like the filmmakers behind "The Ghetto," she, too, uses staging, in this case filming an actor in the role of Willy Wist, the only cameraman who worked on "The Ghetto" to have been identified by name. In the years following World War II, Wist testified at the war crimes trial of the officer responsible for liquidating the Warsaw ghetto and its half-million inhabitants. Hersonski uses Wist's actual testimony in that trial -- part equivocation, part wrenching honesty -- to underscore the bizarre contrasts in the Nazi film, which include both faked and unfaked scenes. Corpses lining the streets, for instance, meant to show Jews' disregard for life, only make the Nazis look depraved. Wist's fellow cameramen can often be glimpsed in the background of "The Ghetto," making the film's cavalier surreality even more poignant and disturbing.
Hersonski, powerfully, also films a series of contemporary Polish "witnesses" -- now-elderly survivors of the ghetto, who were kids in 1942 -- as they watch the Nazi film today. She doesn't show us what they're looking at, just their faces. Sometimes they recognize someone on the street, or add a bit of historical detail, or throw out a caustic comment. "Who ever saw a flower?" one asks. "We would have eaten a flower." But it's the sorrow behind their lined faces, not their words, that tell the most moving tale.
In the end, "A Film Unfinished" doesn't really need to add anything to "The Ghetto" to put the final touches to it. The eyes of those whom Wist and his crew filmed -- alternately hollow, haunted and horrified at being made complicit in their own character assassination -- speak most loudly of all.
Contains corpses and nudity. In English, Hebrew, German, Polish and Yiddish with English subtitles.