Observations about “A film Unfinished”

The documentary film, A Film Unfinished, by director Yeal Hersonsky, uses found footage captured by the German army during the WW2.  The film is accompanied by director commentaries, interviews with Ghetto survivors, readings from the personal diaries of Adam Cherniakov, (the head of the Jewish Council), and detailed reports from ghetto commissioner Heinz Auerswald.  Also included is a recreation of excerpts from a taped interview with Willy Wist; one of the cameramen who worked on the Das Ghetto project.

There are a few important facts that aren’t mentioned in the movie. The material was first revealed in 1954, inside the East German film archive. The first use of the material by a filmmaker wasn’t until 1961. Almost 40 years later Adrian Wood was looking for footage that dealt with the 1936 Olympic Games and noticed two film cans lying on the floor titled Das Ghetto. The found material was a raw-cut, but still reminded us, once again, of a horrible history that we all share and shall never forget.

Yeal Hersonsky works with this material in a very specific way; she leads us through the film with a strong idea as to how the film would have been used by German Propaganda. I don’t have to point out that this is a construction based only on the actual footage which was never finished and screened.  Yeal Hersonsky came to the conclusion that this found footage was taken with the purpose of showing the Jewish population in the Warsaw ghetto as a cruel and egoistic society with no feeling toward the weak and dying among them. This was most likely the real purpose of the found footage, but what I struggle with as a viewer is the way in which Yeal Hersonsky choses to prove her conclusions. She works with found propaganda in her film, and yet also she uses propaganda techniques to put the viewer in a deep emotional state in order to support her conclusions.  Although there’s no music or sound in the found footage itself, the film begins with and is accompanied by sentimental music and sounds from the street.  Also disturbing is the director’s commentary, which is read in a really sad tone, as well as emotionally charged readings from the diaries of Adam Cherniakov and Heinz Auerswald, neither of which were alive during the recording of this movie.  The mother languages chosen for these readings were Polish for Chermiakov, read in a sore tone, contrasted with a strict and dominant German voice for the ghetto commissioner Heinz Auerswald.

A Film Unfinished appropriates documentary qualities based on facts, but the before-mentioned details are feature film techniques which Yeal Hersonsky also used in the staged interview with Willy Wist (a German cameramen), who was played by Rudiger Vogler. Another special effect technique she utilized to exaggerate emotion and tension is slow-motion. By doing all of this she doesn’t leave much space for the viewer to formulate his/her own opinion based on the footage and interviews with the survivors.  Interviews with the victims while they watch the found footage is the strongest part of A Film Unfinished. Their memories from the Ghetto are more powerful than any other effect used by the director. It is a pity that we couldn’t hear less of Yeal Hersonsky’s commentaries and more from the survivors’ reflections on the footage, as for example: “Today I cannot watch this. Today, I am human. Today, I can cry.”

One thought on “Observations about “A film Unfinished”

  1. Good for you, Peter, for noticing what almost no one seems to have noticed–how Hersonski “…works with found propaganda in her film, and yet also… uses propaganda techniques to put the viewer in a deep emotional state in order to support her conclusions. Although there’s no music or sound in the found footage itself, the film begins with and is accompanied by sentimental music and sounds from the street. ” The film is indeed over-determined and over-narrated, and utilizes feature film techniques and special effects in a very manipulative way, as you pointed out. Though I agree that the survivor testimony was the most (if not only) authentic element in the film, I think these oral histories belong in another film–one about the Warsaw Ghetto and not one about the Nazi propaganda film about the Ghetto. But thanks for your thoughtful observations!

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