Presented as an investigation of the Nazi propaganda film The Ghetto, A Film Unfinished seeks to expose and elaborate on the footage shot and roughly edited in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto. As viewers, we are presented with new information and new ‘facts’; information that would not have been available to the average viewer of The Ghetto. This includes commentary and reactions by survivors as they view the footage, testimony by Willy Wist, one of the cinematographers, and journal entries by Adam Cherniakov. This added information aims to present a more complete understanding of the making of the film as well as the real conditions in the ghetto.
Yet, through the specific representations of these new ‘truths,’ we are faced with an entirely new subjectivity, that of the filmmaker. For example, the journal entries of Cherniakov address specific moments in the filming, yet how are we to know what the entire context of his entry consisted of since we are given only short excerpts. The audio testimony by Wist is presented in a reenactment, but do we know if this really took place and if Wist truly was one of the cameramen? His monotone testimony and the drab locale in which the reenactment took place suggest an emotional distancing from and necessary indifference towards the subject. On the flip side, the visual reactions of the survivors and their first hand accounts of certain events provide new information, new ‘truths’ with which we as viewers can use to process the footage. Are these survivors reacting specifically to the footage they see (as new spectators), or are they reacting to the emotions and memories they induce? What then is real? And in the end, does it really matter what is real?
The act of remembering an experience, as purported in a recent New York Times article, only happens once. The first time you remember an experience you are creating the memory of that experience. Once it is set, every memory thereafter is no longer a recalling of the experience, it is a recalling of the memory you have accorded to that experience. This is one reason why eyewitness testimony is so often found to be ultimately unreliable. In applying this idea of remembering to the film and all the new seemingly factual background information about the The Ghetto footage, the authority presented in A Film Unfinished becomes questionable. The film begs the question, is A Film Unfinished a propaganda film about another propaganda film? And again, does it matter one way or another as long as we are conscientious observers? Even if we assumed it was propaganda, does that detract from the very real horrors and tragedy of the Warsaw Ghetto? Ultimately, A Film Unfinished is an exploration of the notions of memory and truth and the confluence of the two through visual and audio representation.