There's never been a dearth of documentaries about the Holocaust, not only because there are so many tragic stories to tell and angles to explore, but because the scale of the atrocity is so large we're still coming to terms with a horror that was perpetrated in our lifetime. For years, Holocaust documentarians have been utilizing about an hour's worth of German-shot archival footage of the Warsaw Ghetto, the three square-mile area that served as a holding pen for hundreds of thousands of Jews before they were shipped off to concentration camps. The material became an essential visual record of the Warsaw Ghetto during the war years. Except, as we're astonished to learn in Yael Hersonski's riveting documentary, much of this footage was staged by the Nazis for a never-completed propaganda film. In a major coup, Hersonski unveils a reel of never-before-seen material that forces a painful reevaluation of all Warsaw Ghetto footage and provides new insight into the workings of the Nazi propaganda machine. This, along with Hersonski's methodical yet never unfeeling presentation, makes A Film Unfinished essential viewing for anyone with an interest in the Holocaust, which is to say, it should be essential viewing for everyone. Some will catch it in theaters; most will catch it on television.
Hersonski's work might generate intriguing theoretical discussions about the multiple, sometimes contradictory, layers of reality and manipulation inherent in documentary films (if not life itself). Such discussions are secondary to more appropriate reactions, like anger, disgust and sadness. In a minor key voice over, we're told that in May 1942, four reels of footage (about sixty minutes) were shot by SS cameramen inside the ghetto. It chronicled life in the disease-riddled prison, including Jews walking the Leszno high street, eating at restaurants and sometimes stepping around or ignoring dead Jews lying at their feet. This footage was hidden in an East German archive until it was found and subsequently used in many Holocaust documentaries. In the 1990's, a fifth reel was discovered that called into question the authenticity of the original sixty minutes. The emergence of this additional reel doesn't negate the historical importance of the previous four reels. It just places them in an entirely new context that is difficult to wrap one's head around after almost 70 years. In this new reel, we plainly see that much of the Warsaw Ghetto footage was staged for a propaganda film. There are SS crew members directing crowd scenes and manning their cameras. Sometimes a cameraman's head pops into frame. We're shown multiple takes of the same woman walking into the same store. Given what Hersonski reveals, it's surprising historians never questioned this material. Although very few Jews could afford to buy food, we see them lining up to buy meat from street vendors. Even though Jews routinely died in the street and were sometimes left there to rot, we see a large funeral packed with mourners. It's unknown what kind of propaganda film the Nazis were trying to make or why they abandoned production after thirty days. Hersonski provides a clue to the former by quoting the long-ago testimony of Willy Wist, a cameraman who shot some of the ghetto footage and was tracked down by the German film archive in the 1960's. He claims the film's purpose was to focus on the "extreme difference between rich Jews and poor Jews." Nice try. In the ghetto there was only one type of Jew...
Hersonski, with full knowledge that the Holocaust is receding into history and there are precious few survivors left, gathers a handful of former ghetto residents in a screening room and shows them the footage. "What if I see someone I know?" says one. Another sees and remembers the woman who'd pace up and down the street screaming with a baby in her arms. Also haunting are diary entries from those brave enough to record their thoughts on paper. Especially unsettling is hearing a diary entry recalling the shooting of a particular scene while that very scene, shot almost 70 years ago, unfolds onscreen. Towards the end A Film Unfinished gets more consistently grim. The heartbreaking shot of SS officers forcing kids to empty their jackets of stolen food makes you seriously question humanity's worth. Scenes of dead Jews being loaded onto a slide for burial in a mass grave are horrifying. To this, it must be pointed out that the MPAA, the organization that assigns motion picture ratings, gave A Film Unfinished an R. This is not only a shame; it is shameful. The MPAA, which showers PG-13 ratings on mindless crap featuring flying bullets, dead bodies and spewing blood, needs to stop nakedly favoring the six major studios that constitute its membership. If A Film Unfinished were released by a major studio or included a "Presented by Steven Spielberg" credit, you can be sure it would have gotten a less restrictive rating (if you don't believe it, check out the rating assigned to the Holocaust documentary The Last Days, executive produced by Spielberg). The MPAA partially justifies the R rating by citing "graphic nudity." This is a joke. Yes, the group is entrusted by a nation of grateful, fretting parents to make sure kids are protected from the sight of horrible, corrupting sex. Yet the nudity deemed so awful that anyone under 17 needs their authorization to see are composed of brief shots of naked men and women being forced into a public bath. It's not salacious and it's not prurient. Ironically, it's helping document the history of a troubled world that everyone under 17 is about to inherit, a world where the pain is sometimes permanent and heroism doesn't always survive to the final fadeout. Shielding the public from reality is not part of the MPAA's responsibilities. For that, we had the Nazi propaganda program. But let's not the make the conversation about A Film Unfinished solely about its rating. Hersonski has done Holocaust scholarship a great favor. Just when we thought there were no new twists to the story of the Warsaw Ghetto comes this documentary: focused, sorrowful and revelatory.
Director: Yael Hersonski
Producers: Noemi Schory and Itay Ken-Tor
Rated: R for disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities including graphic nudity.
Running time: 89 min
Release date: August 18 NY