A Film Unfinished

From Oct ’10 Spotlight:

A Film Unfinished by Israeli director Yael Hersonski analyzes recently discovered film stock buried deep in German archives. Even as the Nazis were building Treblinka, cameramen were sent into the Warsaw Ghetto to make a “documentary” for the Red Cross. Some of this footage was eventually released and assumed to be authentic, but Hersonski shows that many scenes were actually staged for propaganda purposes. Deeply unsettling, A Film Unfinished is extremely graphic, and although I’ve already seen dozens of Holocaust films, I found it almost impossible to watch.

A Film Unfinished opens at the Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park on 10/1/10.


I’m looking at Rotten Tomatoes. At this point, 36 of my colleagues have weighed in & A Film Unfinished is 94% “Fresh.”  This isn’t the first time I’ve disagreed with the mainstream, but this time I’m heartsick.  I really don’t want to say anything negative about A Film Unfinished, but… here goes.

Hersonski’s film braids together three elements.

1.) Archival Images: film stock shot by German filmmakers in May 1942.

2.) Wartime Documents:  official reports by Heinz Auerswald (German Ghetto Comissar), notes from the diary of Adam Czerniakow (head of the Judenrat), observations collected by Emanuel Ringelblum & his team (called the Oyneg Shabes Archive), & testimony by cameraman Willy Wist.   Most of these words also come from 1942; only Wist’s testimony is post-war.

3.) Contemporary Interviews: input from 6 survivors reflecting on events that occurred over 60 years ago. 

Even after watching A Film Unfinished for a second time (a real labor of love given that “I found it almost impossible to watch” the first time), I’m still not sure what Hersonski’s point is.  The narration & the oppressive soundtrack (musical score & sound effects) seem designed to make viewers feel they are hearing something new–something buried away & previously unknown will finally be revealed.

But since she includes quotes from the Oyneg Shabes Archive, Hersonski knows just as well as I do that nothing here is “new.”  Rachel Auerbach’s Oyneg Shabes entries (read by Chava Alberstein no less) talk explicitly about German camera crews staging “scenes” from an implicit “script” in a mikvah and a restaurant.  No, this information has been available since the late ’40s, & corresponds with what we know of other films made elsewhere (especially Theresienstadt).

But instead of inteviewing historians & scholars who could provide context for what’s seen on screen, Hersonski turns to survivors.  They’re never identified by name or given any backstory, all we know about them is that they were young children in 1942.  Please don’t misunderstand me: even though they’re reporting on things that happened many, many years ago, I don’t doubt that children can remember specific incidents from a period of terrible fear & deprivation.  But how can children report on what happened in adult spaces?

One line, in particular, seems to move many of my colleagues: “Where did one ever see a flower?  We would have eaten the flower!”  This sounds like truth, but the point of view is completely unreliable.  In fact, there were theatres & restaurants in the Warsaw Ghetto, not to mention a thriving Black Market.  That’s one reason the Germans succeeded: they were able to convince many of the relatively prosperous, well-connected Jews that only “the others” would be sent “East.” 

 Hersonski’s narrator seems oblivious to the ugly truth revealed by the actual images on display: yes, some people were clearly starving, but others look, at worst, fashionably trim.  She also obscures identity questions by never identifying source words, even though language choice (German, Hebrew, Polish, or Yiddish?) was one of the few ways people had to “label” themselves for posterity.  Here, in A Film Unfinished, the complexity of the Warsaw Ghetto is santized, & real people are reduced to saintly victims.

In the end, I felt like I was watching a propaganda film about the making of a propaganda film.  There are people who should see this film.  Anyone who really thinks what’s happening in Gaza today (right or wrong) bears any resemblance whatsoever to what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1939 & 1943 should definitely see this film.  But I doubt any of them ever will…

Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope.

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