Certainly the film is about the nature of documentation itself and the inability to capture reality as such. Always capturing one aspect, or more than one aspect, but never the thing itself.
—Yael Hersonski, indieWire (13 August 2010)
Again and again in A Film Unfinished, faces turn to the camera. Most belong to residents of the Warsaw ghetto, looking back at the Nazis filming them in May 1942. Preserved in a 62-minute project titled “Das Ghetto,” today they’re both haunted and haunting, their cheeks caved in, their skin stretched tight, and their eyes unavoidable.
Like so many faces that look back in so many documentaries, these indicate the subjects’ awareness of their status as such. Their expressions are curious. The subjects are also silent, like all of “Das Ghetto,” an unfinished Nazi propaganda film discovered in an East German vault during the 1950s. Yael Hersonski has reassembled much of that footage for her film—some of it observational and some staged by the German film crew—along with readings from diaries and transcripts, as well as shots of ghetto survivors watching that footage. Comprised of more faces, shadowed in a theater, these shots serve as vivid reflections of your own experience, horrified at what they see.
What they see exemplifies one of the most chilling aspects of the Third Reich, “an empire infatuated with the camera,” narrates Rona Kenan, “that knew so well to document its own evil, passionately, systematically, like no other nation before it.” This infatuation is visible everywhere in A Film Unfinished, as German soldiers grab residents’ arms or push them along in the street, as starving children sit on curbs and adults hurry along sidewalks. “The intention of the propagandists can never be determined, only surmised,” says Kenan. No matter their motives, “Das Ghetto” has been used as “a trustworthy document for any filmmaker or museum seeking to show what really happened, to tell the untellable. The cinematic deception was forgotten and the black and white images were engraved in memory as historical truth.”
A Film Unfinished picks at this idea of “historical truth” as if it’s a scab. The resulting discomfort is more resonant than that of “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities including graphic nudity” that led the MPAA to give the documentary an unusual R rating. For Hersonski’s film insists on the constructedness of all films, fiction and documentary, hers as well as the Nazis’. This complicates their truth, makes it a process of recollection and interpretation at all stages, from shooting to assembling to consuming.
“Do you see the garbage?” asks one survivor as she looks at a huge mass of waste. “People threw their garbage out the windows,” she explains, “because they were too weak to go down the stairs.” Her story reshapes the image as you watch, for it has just been described in another way, by one of the Nazis’ cameramen, Willy Wist. He says he was told “to film a large pile of feces in the courtyard of one of the buildings. I remember thinking to myself that either because of the winter or because of the overcrowding, the sanitary installations had stopped working.” Even as he speaks, his memory has turned in on itself, for he also recalls that he was shooting in May, not winter.
Wist recounts a number of confusions and inconsistencies, during filming and remembering. “Herr Wist,” asks the interviewer, “Were you aware of the restlessness among the Jews when the camera crews showed up, accompanied by the SS?” “On the one hand,” he answers, “I was unable to have much contact with the Jews because the soldiers pushed them away immediately. On the other hand, they brought us Jews they deemed appropriate for filming.” Under his voice, you see a series of faces, including a woman who looks at the camera, “deemed appropriate,” as well as a series of what might be described as portraits, gaunt and enfeebled and yet aware, looking back at the lens and so, at you.
As it sorts through memories, inaccuracies, and images without clear contexts, Hersonski’s film insists on your participation, your understanding of what you see. The diaries of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat (Jewish Counsel) in the ghetto, provide another sort of framework. A onetime engineer who committed suicide when he was told to start deportations to Treblinka in July 1942, “he made a point to write about the shooting of this film and his part in it,” says Kenan. He is, she continues, “an actor playing himself, unaware how his role will end.” This notion is key to every shot in A Film Unfinished. No one in the Nazis’ film knows what you know, how far this horror will go. And yet all participate in the image-making, the creation of “historical truth,” from ghetto residents to soldiers to cameramen. It is especially striking when a man with a camera, like Wist, appears in shots captured by another member of the “propaganda crew.” When the film freezes on such a face, you’re encouraged to wonder what he’s thinking.
Once the film raises it, the question frames all kinds of images, whether naked men and women herded into baths or citizens passing corpses on the sidewalk. “People who still looked more or less human were asked to calmly walk by the corpses with their heads held high,” says one survivor. “In the morning,” remembers another, “You’d wake up to find a corpse every 100 meters.” Here again, the film shows a man on the street who looks back at the camera, then men lifting a body onto a cart. Here and elsewhere, A Film Unfinished includes multiple takes (these recovered in yet another reel made for “Das Ghetto,” discovered in 1998), so that even images that seem observational are exposed as constructions.
Eventually, the line between observation and staging is charged with significance and also so much complication as to be nearly meaningless. For one example, the film shows bodies being removed to a cemetery, piled in a shack at the gate, then transferred into a mass grave. “I recall that I had to film that mass grave with many layers of corpses,” says Wist. “Although I believe the corpses were naked, I can’t say for sure. The people were all skin and bones. At the time, my impression was that the people had died of starvation.”
“At the time” now seems preserved on film, and shots of corpses that are naked and emaciated appear to confirm Wist’s memory. Still, these shots and his description can’t convey all that occurred “at the time,” the dreadful anticipation you can only imagine suffused each moment of life in the ghetto. It’s your imagining that makes A Film Unfinished so daunting, so astute, and so memorable.