| It seems like the Holocaust has been extensively covered by books and movies from every possible angle. The voluminous amount of information may have some people saying enough already. To refute that notion, Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski brings something both old and new to the table with “A Film Unfinished,” a powerful 89-minute documentary that exposes the false perception of reality conveyed by a Nazi propaganda film about life for the Jews trapped inside the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1942.
In 1954, four reels of film were discovered along with thousands of others in a concrete vault deep in the East German forest, the exact location where they had been stashed by the Third Reich. The four reels were a rough first draft a little over one hour in length with no soundtrack, opening or closing credits. The black-and-white footage had only the brief title “The Ghetto.” It would be used by museums and filmmakers as a record of what really happened in the ghetto.
Although the intent of the Nazi propaganda film can never be determined, one can surmise that it could have been a record of an extinct people wiped off the face of the earth.
The filmmakers attempted to capture every aspect of the Jewish “folk” character. Life cycle events including a circumcision, wedding, funeral, ritual bathing and praying during the Sabbath are depicted as strange barbaric customs. This was a blatant attempt to justify annihilation as the only way to deal with Jews. The film also contrasted wealthy Jews living a life of luxury with those unfortunate souls facing hunger and disease from the overcrowded conditions.
The veil of deceit on this Nazi-recorded version of history was finally pierced in 1998 when a fifth reel, consisting of 30 minutes of outtakes left on the cutting room floor, surfaced in a U.S. Air Force base film vault. This offered proof of the repeated attempts to stage moments over and over again until they were credible enough to be included in the package before editing.
Hersonski penetrates the superficial layers of the raw film footage through extracts from daily diaries written by Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto including Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Jewish council. Weekly reports of Heinz Auerswald, the commanding SS officer in charge of the Jewish quarter, reveal the smuggling activities of the starving population and the executions ordered during this same time frame.
During Auerswald’s war crime trial before a German court, a key witness was Willie Wist. An entry permit to Warsaw along with court transcripts prove that Wist was one of the actual cameramen. A reconstruction of exactly what Wist was asked and his responses are recreated throughout the documentary by German actors Rudiger Vogler as Wist and Alexander Beyer as the interrogator. This provides the audience with the point of view of the man behind the camera.
If all this was not enough, Hersonski adds even more weight to her remarkable expose by showing us the reactions of five survivors witnessing the footage. They look for family members or other familiar faces from their past. They make comments about living conditions in the ghetto and have their own amazing stories to tell.
After 30 days of filming, the camera crew left Warsaw and the Jews still left alive were deported to Treblinka.
Indelible images that stay with you long after the lights come back up include a couple too weak to get out of bed and corpses lying on the sidewalk. These naked bodies are transported through the streets on a handcart and eventually sent down a slide into a mass grave. These painfully graphic and disturbing scenes make this unrated film not appropriate for children.
The film premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where Joel Axis won the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award. It also won the prize for Best International Feature at the 2010 Hot Docs Canadian Film Festival.
Other strengths of this non-fiction film are the well-written narration read by Rona Keenan and the haunting original music of composer Yishai Adar.
This superb work of critical historical analysis was produced with the support of The New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and TV, Yad Vashem, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive.
The languages spoken in the film are German, Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish with accompanying easy-to-read English subtitles. It is now playing exclusively for a limited engagement at the Glenwood Arts.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"