Adolf Hitler’s The Big Lie wasn’t the only evil fraud perpetrated on humankind in the era leading up to and encompassing World War II. For those of you too young to remember or were tardy that day in World History class, the Führer zealously propagated the misinformation that the Jews were responsible for the first World War and that the German people suffered because of it. This was the basis of the German leader’s Anti-Semitic beliefs that ultimately resulted in the Holocaust. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels apparently took this concept to the next level, that if someone repeated a lie often enough it can easily become widely accepted as the truth. The notion wasn’t original with Hitler, of course, and it continues to play havoc with today’s masses whether in political, social, or financial situations.
“A Film Unfinished,” is a very powerful documentary and first feature by Yael Hersonski, an editor who worked on the original Israeli versions of “In Therapy,” later adapted into the U.S. series starring Gabriel Byrne telecast on HBO. The film, with terse English narration by Rona Kenan and occasional subtitles, investigates a forgotten piece of cinematic “history”—a draft version of what was to have been the penultimate German propaganda film ever shot within the large Warsaw Ghetto—that has long be repurposed as truth. For too many documentarians that believed it to be an authentic record of ghetto life, the power of the images overwhelmed the confirmed fact that it was staged material. Specifically the footage came from four reels (and outtakes) of an uncompleted work (about an hour’s length) called “Das Ghetto,” filmed by the Nazis and never released. It would surface a decade after WWII’s end, hidden in a concrete East German film vault, where thousands of film reels documented the war’s atrocities.
As the viewer learns of the facts from the narrator, the decomposing black-and-white (sometimes sepia-tinted) images flicker by, of the “objective” life which the SS filmmakers hoped to educate the German masses, of Jews enjoying life to its luxuriant fullness. For the hundreds of thousands of starving Jews (a third of the city’s population) crowded into the walled enclave, it was anything but glamorous.
Hersonski is uncertain of the reasons for the original film’s shelving, although the ghetto would be wiped out within a year after the scenes were shot in May 1942, three months before the deportations to the Treblinka death camp began. Instead, in the war’s aftermath, the footage was refashioned in too many documentaries, deceiving creators and viewers. Assisted by detailed German records, dozens of secret journals kept by some of the Jewish prisoners, and nine diary notebooks kept by Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Jewish council within the ghetto, Hersonski was able to piece together the true puzzle’s picture.
Every ten or so minutes, survivors in a darkened theatre watch the ambient sound effects-enhanced footage, their faces narrowed in the glow of the film’s projected reflection. They are saddened with worry that they might identify a loved one, or recall horrifying memories from their youth in such a Hellish time. One woman remembered that when the Germans showed up in the streets it was generally an unpleasant experience, and while the appearance of the SS cameramen often was a less-of-the-worst occurrence, she was unaware of the filmmakers’ ultimate intentions. Another woman exclaims as a vase with a single flower is moved from a table. “Where did one ever see a flower?, she exclaims. “We would have eaten the flower.”
Occasionally, emaciated human skeletons, with barely enough flesh on their bones to keep them alive, become a group portrait of the frail and weak, a freakish contrast to a pretend champagne ball the Germans constructed, with “actors” swirling around the floor in a silent, slow motion dance of deception. The sparse, haunting, dissonant score by Ishai Adar adds to the horrors shown on the screen, although the real footage is more effective than some of the obvious recreations that help tell the real story. One of the German cameramen’s actual post-war testimony is revealed in reconstructed yet convincing interview/interrogation segments featuring Rudiger Vogler and Alexander Beyer. It is a little disconcerting when you try to reconcile the original staged scenes with some of the manipulative desaturation techniques used by Hersonski in her film.
Fake butcher and baker stalls cater to “Jews” supposedly living comfortably one moment, while in another instance a young mother begs for bread crumbs in the street. Staged meals, forced musical performances, faux circumcision ceremonies and weddings were all part of the German cameramen’s orders to capture all aspects of Jewish life in the ghetto. One of the most callous moments are when the Germans ordered naked Jews—men AND women—into a ritual bath. The “cavorting” is anything but joyous, especially for us forced voyeurs watching today.
Nearly all the imprisoned residents, it turned out, were at wit’s or life’s end. Every morning, corpses littered the streets. In the film’s final moments, some survivors force their hands over their eyes as dozens of gaunt, naked bodies are tossed in a mass grave. The emotional immunity they had to develop to survive despicable conditions back in 1942 are now washed away in tears of sentiment.
Distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories appealed, unsuccessfully, the MPAA’s ‘R’ rating. What silly minds those men and women of the Classification & Rating Administration have. This German/Israeli co-production is on the short list of contenders for Best Documentary Feature for the 2010 Academy Awards. It played for two weeks in Washington DC two months ago, barely noticed. DVD copies can be pre-ordered at http://www.oscilloscope.net/films/store.