A Film Unfinished shows how the Nazis tried to create a propaganda film (called “The Ghetto”) presenting a false image of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. What makes this such an interesting example of the manipulation of truth in documentary filmmaking is the extreme disparity between what the Nazis attempted to stage and the reality of Ghetto life. When we see the outtakes, and even much of the included material, images of suffering are revealed that seem too powerful to have their sympathy reduced by contextualization or framing devices. It’s hard to understand how, even with all the most moving images edited away, and the staged scenes of rich Jews in the Ghetto added (the “outer” film suggests this is done so that the poverty of the poorest Jews would be blamed on the richer ones), the audience for such a film could walk away without a feeling of deep sympathy for the victims. Is this why the film was ultimately abandoned? Although A Film Unfinished is about the power of documentarians to falsify and control their subject matter, in a sense, it’s a testament to the power that raw images can have, and their resilience against this manipulation.
Walking into the film, I had thought that perhaps, after seeing images of the Holocaust that came from the camps, we’d be somewhat inured to the imagery, and that the Warsaw footage would be less potent than those from the camps. But this wasn’t the case — there were many scenes that were very hard to watch, and a few that are amongst the most moving I’ve seen in a Holocaust film. A few explanations for the power of these images struck me. First, these are images we’ve never seen before, taken in a very different setting from the camps, so there’s a rawness to them as we experience them for the first time. Second, the context is more relatable — these are scenes from a story that begins with human beings living rather ordinary city life and ending up in the camps. These scenes come late in that story, but when the Jews are still living in a somewhat ordinary-looking neighborhood, which seems to hold some shadow of life from before the Holocaust began. It’s easier to imagine ourselves in the ghetto than it is to imagine arriving at a concentration camp. In fact, the most disturbing moments in the film were the ones where people were forced to act out scenes meant to show how well they were living. The Bris scene sticks with me the most: these people were forced to act out a ritual — ordinarily a joyous celebration of life — on a baby who was unlikely to survive the next few days. This bringing together of the ordinary and the monstrous seemed to make the horror of it feel more real.
Of course, this scene relies on us knowing the greater story to see the tragic irony of it. And watching the film now, we know how it ends, that the Ghetto will not last much longer, and its inhabitants are headed for Treblinka. However, I believe some of the imagery in the film is powerful even without this knowledge. The haunted expressions of starving beggars on the street hold a palpable hopelessness, and I think it’s impossible for these images to not invite sympathy. In fact, there are very few images of the poor in this film that do not have this quality. This is what makes wonder if the film was simply a failure, and that’s why it was left unfinished — that it was too difficult to shape the material to convincingly blame the richer Jews for the fate of the poorer ones, and to do it in a way that wouldn’t make the audience (presumably made up of people who were already very anti-Jewish) feel *more* sympathy for the Jews than they had at the beginning.