Although World War II ended in 1945, it still lives on the screens of cinema. For years, we've watched the war's struggles, victories, and devastation. Over half a century has passed, yet it's still burned deeply into our consciousness, so much so that it seems like we know it all. But then a documentary like A Film Unfinished comes along. Taking forgotten propaganda footage from the Warsaw Ghetto, Yael Hersonski has crafted a film that not only oozes a harsh reality never before seen, but also reveals the all-too-easy "cinematic deception" of film, reminding us that image doesn't necessarily equal truth.
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and by the end of the month, Warsaw fell. Under Nazi control the Ghetto was formed, a walled barrier keeping the city's Jewish population contained under terrible and deadly living conditions. Roughly two and a half years later, and shortly before hundreds of thousands of the area's residents were shipped to the Treblinka extermination camp, Nazi filmmakers entered the city to shoot a propaganda film simply titled, Ghetto.
German cameraman Willy Wist and other Nazis began to film a jarring collection of real shots and staged scenes, shooting over and over until they got the effect they wanted, to outline the "extreme differences between rich Jews and poor Jews." The film shows mountains of feces piling up in alleyways, starving children caught smuggling food, and wealthy people living normal lives -- buying food whilst ignoring hungry children, enjoying the sun, having parties, and seemingly living the high life.
While much of this footage has been shown over the years as documentary and fact, Hersonski reveals that much of Ghetto is obviously staged and misleading. Collecting five survivors brave enough to watch the footage, taped interviews with Wist, and journals from the Ghetto, Yael finds every bit of commentary on the Nazi film she can, and skillfully reveals the manipulation of the footage.
Journal entries describe the truth behind many of the scenes in Ghetto. One entry explains how healthier Jewish residents were gathered to dine on delights never available in the Ghetto. Another explains how residents were forced to sit for hours without food or bathroom relief in a theater as cameras filmed entertainment. If they did not laugh and enjoy themselves in a believable manner, they were beaten. These scenes and explanations lay in stark contrast to the many shots of starving men, women, and children, and the dead bodies laying in the street -- skin and bones bodies too sick to leave their beds. As the crew stages scenes where residents ignore the suffering, made to walk past and step over bodies over and over again until the "right" shot was achieved, one has to wonder why this would be filmed.
Of course, that question can never be fully answered. As Wist said, they were obviously trying to show a disparity between the poor and the rich, and one would assume demonize the Warsaw Jews, but the footage reveals so much more than what looks like class carelessness. (It is, actually, a mixture of manipulated scenes and the real-life requirement to survive the ghetto. As one survivor explains, "I am no longer immune. I am human." ) There are scenes where the filmmakers forced men and women into the same bathing rooms, naked and at gun point; there are harrowing shots exposing piles upon piles of naked, skin-and-bone corpses waiting to be buried. Each of these shots reveal a lot more about Nazi cruelty than they do about Nazi accomplishments or pride.
In the context of cinema, there's yet another question to consider.
All too often, documentary filmmakers will focus on subject while neglecting that essential question: how. Without the how, we often see compelling stories fall victim to the cinematic simplicity of dull scenes, jumpy interviews, and bland moviemaking. It forces the subject to explode beyond its portrayal and fill in the blanks, and sadly, the subject isn't always successful. Hersonski, however, asks the how at every turn. You can see it in every decision she makes, every skilled cut, every moment of Ghetto shown, and every bit of context she includes.
At times, Hersonski chooses to pull back from the Nazi footage and show the reactions of the survivors instead, to save further humiliation to the subjects on-screen and to save us from the worst of the reels. Rather than simply providing voiceover from Wist's interrogation, it's re-enacted. However, by focusing on the hands, the tape, and the shadows in the room rather than the performance, we're forced to focus on the information, not the talents of the actor and how well they handle the scene. Narration fills in the blanks, explaining what the footage cannot. She takes us reel by reel, splicing scenes from Ghetto with her own shots of the film cells and projector, always reminding us of the artistic hand guiding us.
Hersonski understands how to relay and strengthen her material. She's aware of the power held in the eyes of the Warsaw Ghetto survivors, what atrocities we must see for ourselves, and the stylistic choices that will make the documentary flow smoothly. A Film Unfinished engages us, challenges us, and most importantly, teaches us -- not only about history, but about what we take for granted, and what we assume to be truth.