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Film Review

A Film Unfinished

An accurate portrayal of the Holocaust in film is impossible, although Alan Resnais (Night and Fog) and Claude Lanzmann (Shoah) bring us close. There have been many attempts, both with documentaries and fictionalized films, but few directors are equal to the task. Memorable efforts include Schindler's List, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Au Revoir Les Enfants, and a handful of others. The Sorry and the Pity, and Hotel Terminus are notable, but just a few of the most important documentaries. But as well done as they are, they cannot look into the abyss, because, like looking directly at the sun, we will be blinded. A remarkable new film, A Film Unfinished, now joins the ranks of important documentary films about the Holocaust.

Yael Hersonski, an Israeli filmmaker, examines a well known archival film, shot by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in May of 1942. Four reels were discovered in 1954 in a hidden film vault in East Germany, labeled "The Ghetto", and is the only known footage of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. It was unfinished and without a sound track. In about 60 minutes it shows people starving, corpses on the sidewalk, rich Jews living well and ignoring poor Jews, stacks of garbage in the streets, and other horrors. Many of the scenes are close up, with pitiful faces staring at the camera, hungry and terrorized. But the discovery in 1998 of two additional reels of the film dramatically changed the historians' ideas about the intent and accuracy of the original 4 reels. These two reels show repeated takes of street scenes, such as wealthy Jews eating a huge meal in a restaurant, or children staring into the windows of bakeries laden with bread and cakes, or people ignoring corpses on the sidewalk. Occasionally the cameraman, in German Army uniforms, show up in the background of a scene. The additional footage made it clear that the film was done as a propaganda effort, with staged scenes, to show the world how disgusting Jews are, and how cruel they are to one another. Entries in Goebbel's diaries confirmed this. This was to be a more sophisticated effort than an earlier Nazi anti-Semitic film, Jew Suss (itself the subject of a recent documentary).

Hersonski realized that there is an important story here, because the original four reels have long been used by historians and documentary film makers as an accurate film portrayal of life in the Ghetto. Photography in the Ghetto was severely punished, and only a handful of photographs by German soldiers survive. But few seemed to appreciate that this film was designed to be propaganda, with deliberate shooting and editing to depict Jews as less than human. There is a mixture of truth and falsity here: the literally starving children with matchstick legs and arms and the corpses on the sidewalk are the truth, and the apparently wealthy eating sumptuous meals are the lies. Much of the footage is narrated from Adam Czerniakow's diary, the head of the Warsaw Jewish Council, who killed himself after being forced to make selections for deportation. Miraculously, Hersonski located five survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, all living in Israel, and most amazing, a German cameraman who helped shoot the film. Their interviews are riveting and very powerful. Hersonski screens the original reels, interspersed with interviews with the survivors, who comment on various parts of the film. One woman, after watching the scene of the restaurant meals, says that the idea that there were flowers was ridiculous. She says the flowers would have been eaten immediately. Several of the women distinctly remember the cameramen shooting various scenes, and describe the repeated takes. Another woman says that after the war it took years for her to be able to cry, and when she did, she realized that she had become human again.

The cameraman, Willy Wist, was deposed at a war crimes trial in the 1960's, and the questions and his testimony are spoken by actors in the only re-creation scene. The calm tone of the questions, and the chilling answers, also unnaturally calm, are powerful. Finally, we actually see Wist, as a young man in a uniform, in a frame of the original film. One of the many questions asked was whether he was ever told what the purpose of the film was. He said he never knew but surmised it was for propaganda purposes. According to the survivors, many of the people who were forced to act had hoped that this would somehow spare them. It did not. Within four months after the film was shot, most were sent to Treblinka, where nearly all were gassed immediately upon arrival. The Warsaw Ghetto, which held 500,000 Jews, mostly from from Poland, was annihilated. One hundred thousand died in the Ghetto from disease and starvation, 300,000 were shipped to Treblinka in 1942, and the remainder died in the 1943 Uprising and subsequent deportations. Less than one percent survived.

Many of the scenes in A Film Unfinished are heart breaking, and few will leave without tears. But Yael Yersonski has accomplished something very important here: in only 89 minutes she has given us a window into darkness, a time that is vital to understand and remember. This is an enormously impressive film, and despite the darkness, well worth seeing. Just opened at Opera Plaza, and will probably only screen for one week.

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