In an East German archive, three reels of silent film lay untouched and forgotten amid the chaos of World War II and its Communist aftermath. 40 years later, on an American airbase, a British film historian came across these reels simply titled, "Das Ghetto." The deceptively simple name, however, belied the power of its contents.
As we quickly learn in A Film Unfinished, the recently released documentary about the making of “The Ghetto” by Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonsky, “The Ghetto” refers to the Warsaw ghetto and the three reels of film are the missing companions to a fourth reel--discovered in the early 1960s. Until recently, that single reel was used by historians and Holocaust museums as an accurate account of the Jewish ghetto experience. (One might wonder why this was accepted as truth when it is doubtful that Jews would have access to camera, never mind the freedom to openly film their lives, but that is the subject for another post). Together, these four short films were the raw footage—shot in May of 1942--for a planned Nazi propaganda movie. The film was never completed and it is unlikely we will ever learn how the Nazis intended to use the material.
Hersonsky’s documentary is the first to examine the film in its entirety and to present a more accurate picture of its filming of the movie as well as of life in the Warsaw ghetto. The 63 minute work serves as the backbone of her film into which she intersperses three key organizing elements: poignant commentary from survivors of the ghetto watching the film for the first time, a reenactment of an interview between Willi Weis, one of the cameramen of the Nazi film, and an unnamed interrogator, and excerpts from diaries by Adam Cherniakov--head of the Warsaw ghetto Jewish Council--and Emanuel Ringleblum--the ghetto's unofficial historian--about the making of the movie.
Hersonsky’s self-defined objective was to recontextualize the Nazi film before the last of the survivors die and leave future scholars unable to separate fact from fiction. Her painstaking process of peeling back the layers of misconceptions that surround the film and its subjects is thorough and crucial. But what makes this film more than just an educational aide, is how it challenges its audience to examine its own preconceptions of ghetto survival. Now that we know the circumstances of the making “Das Ghetto,” it would be easy to paint all of the scenes as clearly staged. But the film, perhaps unconsciously, also forces its audience to accept some hard truths about life in the ghetto--namely that for many imprisoned there, they lived as best they could. One scene depicts, for example, a group of young, attractive men and women smiling as they sunbathe in a patch of dirt. Without context, it would be easy to assume that this was staged, but in fact scenes like this did occur, even outside of the range of Nazi cameras. As one of the survivors commented as she watched, people were still concerned about how they looked even in the midst of all of the chaos and brutality around them. It was a way to maintain their humanity, their sense of self. Another scene showed a well-dressed woman ignoring beggar children on the street. Although we might chalk this, too, up to Nazi propaganda, another survivor simply offered the explanation that without this act of self-preservation, one could not survive. Later, as this same survivor cried as she watched two corpses lie untended on the sidewalk while saying that she was so happy that she could cry as she watched the frame. Her crying made her human, she said, something that she could not succumb to while living in the ghetto.
When we view the Holocaust today, it is easy to see its victims in broad strokes of black and white. The primary goal of A Film Unfinished was to properly contextualize the subjects of the Nazi footage and to further demonstrate the chilling reach of the Nazi propaganda machine. But this film also succeeds in the far more difficult task. It offers its audience a glimpse of the shades of gray that hover, often ignored, just beneath the surface.