New Holocaust movie, 'A Film Unfinished,' is a testament to different types of survival

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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010

A little boy, no more than a heap of bones, is huddled on a sidewalk, his hand out, his mouth slack. People hurry past him, oblivious. This is a scene from a Nazi film, shot in the crowded, stinking, typhus-ridden Warsaw ghetto in 1942, preserved by a government infatuated with the camera.

The German lens captured a horrific reality -- and a cynical form of theater. As a new documentary makes clear, scenes such as this were staged by the filmmakers. It was an effort to construct a narrative, at least in part to fabricate a picture of Jewish indifference to the plight of other Jews, and legitimize a nation's hatred.

So what do the images tell us now? What can we take away from this corrupt choreography? "A Film Unfinished," which opens Friday at Landmark's E Street Cinema, puts before us layers and layers of interpretation.

There is the way the largest of the ghettos that confined Jews during World War II fascinated the Nazis, and how they exploited it; how life was experienced by the Jews imprisoned there; and even how some who survived the Warsaw ghetto interpret the Nazi interpretation now, 70 years later, while viewing the old footage.

In proposing how a film's meaning can change over time in ways both dramatic and exquisitely nuanced, this documentary, by first-time Israeli director Yael Hersonski, is an engrossing study in the slippery power of a visual record, a power that, as Hersonski acknowledges in a recent interview, is ultimately in no one's control.

Hersonski, speaking by phone from a hotel in New York, says that with the background she provides in "A Film Unfinished," she hopes to restore some intrinsic force to images of suffering that had become, over years of being excerpted and used in other documentaries, mere "illustrations for so many different stories."

"I was amazed how the meaning of the images was changing before my eyes in the full context," she says.

"A Film Unfinished" scores a delicate achievement. In exposing how the Nazis warped reality in a propaganda film they made about the hell they created, it uncovers new emotional territory in the Holocaust, about which some of us may feel we have seen and felt enough. The clouded eyes of that brittle, birdlike boy on the sidewalk-- twice victimized, having been starved and then turned into a prop -- will surely convince viewers otherwise.

Outtakes reveal staging

The documentary shows, in its entirety, an hour-long film the Nazis made about the Warsaw ghetto, where some 400,000 Jews from occupied Poland and other parts of Europe were confined, creating a clash of cultures, languages and classes. The Nazi film is a sprawling work, depicting streetscapes and home life, mass graves and the circumcision of a tiny, doomed baby. But, oddly, it was left incomplete, without sound or production credits.

Years later, there were discoveries: Outtakes were found in 1998, revealing how certain scenes were staged and shot over and over. "A Film Unfinished" includes these, as well as recently unearthed testimony from a cameraman about the fakery.

The emotional impact of this tale is all the more remarkable given that the 34-year-old director had never made a feature documentary film before. Hersonski is a freelance editor for Israeli television, where she has worked on Israeli versions of "The Office" and "In Treatment." (No one can accuse her of limited range.)

In turning her attention to the Holocaust, Hersonski says she wanted to explore "the way we view atrocities through a visual document."

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