“A Film Unfinished”: You Said It
Published on August 22nd, 2010 | by Ryan Wells0
Anyone would be hard pressed to find a more skeptical and pessimistic state than the current one we live in. Contradiction in economic reports plague media coverage, more turmoil in the Middle East than before Saddam, population issues, the supposed Ground Zero “mosque,” corporate mistrust and catastrophe, global warming: there’s a lot to get excited about. And yet simultaneously we’d rather not.
We’re a generation of forgetting, as the late Tony Judt once said. Mix this with ever-growing skepticism towards political panhandling in Washington and abroad, and we simply don’t give a damn. It’s plainly too much effort to point out that things are bad; we know things are bad but what are we going to do about? When it seems one of these devastations cleans up, we peel back another one underneath.
And yet, the hundreds of filmmakers who have taken the Holocaust as their subject (in both fiction and subjective reality) rebuke this kind of thinking, and continue churning out roughly a new movie a year released to general audiences.
There’s many ways to skin the Holocaust subject. From post-war trauma (“The Night Porter,” “The Reader”), to actionable good intentions (“Schindler’s List,” “Inglourious Basterds”), survival (“Shoah,” “The Pianist,” “Sophie’s Choice”), and enemy tactics (“The Sorrow and the Pity”). In the latter category we can index the recent documentary “A Film Unfinished,” the latest in the Holocaust canon.
Directed by Yael Hersonski, the documentary has made quite a splash, garnering awards at Sundance Film Festival and Hot Docs, and it has several nationwide release dates in the works. Not bad for a documentary regardless of its content.
“A Film Unfinished” is an archivist’s dream: 60 minutes of raw film found in an East German archive some 45 years after it was shot. The footage (taken by Nazi soldiers) is of the Warshaw Ghetto in May 1942, two months prior to before the expulsion to Treblinka would take place. The content is pure propaganda: staged street scenes, dinner parties, dancing, and a possible tryst being recorded (not to mention found outtakes which pulled the curtain back even further). What’s particularly interesting is that the Nazis combined these pleasant, fraudulent scenes with horrific images of skeletal citizens, begging children, and decomposing bodies in the street. The supposed intention was to show money-grubbing Shylock enjoying his sherry while his “supposed” chosen brothers and sisters lay helpless and hungry. In other words, let’s highlight the need to rid the world of this apparently insensitive and anti-modernity population who can’t even save themselves.
And with this, Hersonski does a marvelous job presenting the viewer these extremely strong, startling juxtapositions with voice over narratives from Ghetto survivors, a diary from the head of the Jewish Council, Adam Cherniakov, and most interesting, one of the apologetic cameramen, Willy Wist.
It’s hard not to call the documentary highly engrossing; yet, simultaneously one felt a void that was waiting to be filled and never was. The documentary does deserve quite a bit of applause for its emotional wallop, which comes from how it underscores the travesties that occurred as well as from showing us such fascinating footage in its working stage (the film was canned and never edited to final specifications). However, I couldn’t help thinking “yeah, thanks for the primer, now where’s the guts?”
There are countless movies on the Holocaust, and yes, it is a very important part of mankind’s history; whenever a new piece of the puzzle gets discovered and brought to the public’s attention it deserves the attention. With this documentary though, we needed less emotion and more demystification. What does the Nazi propaganda machine live on? How does it work? Were there other cities getting the same treatment as Warsaw? Who was the end audience? “A Film Unfinished” felt begging for a Nazi scholar to chime in and be part of the process of this important retelling. Instead we get five fascinating personal accounts, but frankly by this time in the creation of the Holocaust subgenre, we’re beyond just remembrance. Not to mention it felt slightly exploitative to turn the camera on these survivors to capture their reactions to, say, a mass grave being filled. If anything it lessened the importance of finding the propaganda and led us down the scare-you-into-believing path.
Propaganda is highly scientific and methodical stuff. And a beautiful find of “Das Ghetto” (the working title of the footage) should prove to be the poster child of propaganda case studies not only for folks interested in Holocaust history, but citizens everywhere who may need a toolkit in when they suddenly find themselves subject to propaganda in a completely different vein. And with midterm elections in full swing this may prove a handy little helper.