by Jessica Mosby
Footage from Nazi propaganda films are some of the most recognizable historical documentation of World War II and the Holocaust. In 1942, a 60 minute unfinished film titled “Ghetto” was made in Warsaw, Poland. The raw footage was long considered authentic documentation of life in Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto. A later discovery of a missing reel, which contained multiple takes, stagings, and even footage of the cameramen filming their subjects, reveals the fictional nature of the original film.
Israeli director Yael Hersonski examines the lost footage in her 89 minute directorial debut, A Film Unfinished. Interweaving footage with diary entries by Ghetto inhabitants, an account of filming by a German cameraman, and reflections by Warsaw Ghetto survivors now viewing the footage, Hersonski brings a new perspective to the authenticity of Nazi propaganda films. Scenes were staged to create a life of happiness and abundance that concealed the suffering of the Ghetto’s 440,000 residents. Imagined encounters include a staged dinner party with guests who were, in reality, on the verge of starvation. The perversity of the Third Reich’s obsessive documentation of human suffering, intensified by the revelation of cinematic manipulation, stays with you long after leaving the theater.
A Film Unfinished screened in the Bay Area as part of the 30th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Before the film’s festival premiere at the legendary Castro Theatre, I sat down with Hersonski to discuss the documentary.
When did you first see the original 60 minutes of raw footage?
It was 4-and-a-half years ago, and actually I already wrote an essay about the testimonial value of these images. [An image] not only has historical value but emotional value. I see these pieces of celluloid really like time capsules. There is something that still lives inside them, and I wanted to try and see how I could release this time out of these round boxes of film reels.
Then I approached one of the most experienced producers in Israel. She just finished a vast project producing 100 short archived-based films for the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. So she knew more or less about everything that existed inside the archives around the world. She gave me a pile of films that I should watch. And when I watched these 62 minutes I stopped because I realized that some of the images were familiar for me. It was the first time that I understood the whole context of the bits and pieces that were used so many times. I was overwhelmed also by the fact that I didn’t know about [this] until that very day. The fact that we live in Israel - sometimes it makes us arrogant regarding what we know. We think we know everything, and sadly, all this immense quantity of footage was just something that I could not believe I didn’t come across.
Did you originally know you wanted to use the footage in a documentary film?
I knew that I wanted to focus on that period in time because the Holocaust not only confronted humanity with inconceivable horror, it marked the beginning of the systematical and obsessive documentation of this horror. The documentation we are witnessing today is just another stage in a process that began exactly then. I believe that something was changed in us. I don’t know how to define that “something.” But after the world saw the first images from the liberation of the concentration camps, something was not the same anymore. It’s a leading wand that keeps on leading to this very day when we are surrounded by images of violence and atrocities from all kinds of areas.
Especially as an Israeli citizen, mostly living in Tel Aviv, [I] witness whatever is going on through television. It means witnessing the disaster through the media. I finally came to realize that we cannot digest emotionally what is going on a few kilometers from our homes. We are not indifferent but paralyzed. Or, at least, the feeling is of being hopeless and helpless. I wanted to know if I could go back to these extremely difficult images and make them alive again.
How did you conceive the idea for A Film Unfinished?
I had a more general idea, and then I found the footage. The footage shaped further my initial beginning in the sense that I knew I wanted to show it all exactly like I saw it the first time. But I knew that I could not show it without having any visual breaks because I wanted to enable every viewer to have fresh eyes from the beginning until the end of the footage. I know that after 30 minutes you cannot watch it anymore. The eye gets tired – not only because it is black and white, and sometimes the quality is of an old film, and because it’s silent– but also because of its content.
I knew that there were four reels. I was going to divide this film into four parts, and then in between [the footage] advance the story, or the storyline. The research was combined with the writing. The first stage was collecting all the diaries written by Jews during the Ghetto times that mentioned the filmmaking. I actually discovered more than I expected to. Then we located the survivors. We called every survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto who is still alive. I questioned them about their memories regarding the filmmaking; I was making sure that this was the filmmaking they remembered, not any other kind of filmmaking. This was probably not the only presence of filmmakers inside the ghetto, but this was a massive presence. In a parallel way we researched the German archives, and found the preliminary interrogation articles of the cameraman. When I found this, not only was I shocked to have this kind of an interview with the very person who stood behind the camera, [but] his description of things matched perfectly with the scenes that we can see in the film. Also, I knew that it was such a rare document that from it I should create an outline of the film. Not only the children who are hiding from the cameraman, not only the Jews that are observing from another angle, but also the cameraman himself. And then, [by] creating a kind of circle of witnesses around this footage, create a world outside the frame and change the world we see inside the frame.
What reaction are you hoping for, especially among viewers who have seen the propaganda films and think they are familiar with the footage?
During the earlier years, the main occupation of museums or any other educational system, be it also documentary filmmakers, was to just discuss the fact that it happened. And tell the stories, the many stories; much more survivors were alive and the stories were told. What happened to the footage? It was used as illustrative material. The use of it was very general. With these kinds of images, Jews starving inside the Ghetto, you could mention the Holocaust; you could mention Poland and the Ghettos. It was never an issue of which Ghetto is it? Who are the people who are being filmed here? Who filmed them? I always felt that we see these images as if they were created by itself as an objective entity in the history of this time. I think that maybe now the time has come to be much more critical about these images, and to perceive them as something which is very, very specific. Someone was making decisions behind the camera about what to shoot and what not to shoot. The soundtrack, which was definitely recorded, was lost and destroyed. We would have gotten more information by hearing it, but since we don’t have it we must consider that fact that we are watching silent images – but not because they were meant to be silent.
Beside that, there is the very simple and truthful fact that these people who were captured felt something during these moments of filming. It’s not just documentation; it’s also thinking about their own feelings - the existence of feelings of people who were filmed in black and white and today seem so far away. Something about this mystery of the cinema – it captures a moment. I think that moment manifests itself when someone is gazing in the camera. Although we cannot identify them by name, for me, they’re not just a huge mass of people. Everyone, when he is gazing into the camera, can manifest his own identity and express something that belonged only to himself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.