Extremely thought provoking Director Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished analyzes Das Ghetto, an abandoned propaganda movie made by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. It exposes the movie’s hidden internal assumptions and contradictions in order to subvert its apparent significance.
A summary of the Holocaust in the opening segment contextualizes the film: the Nazis imprisoned Jews in overcrowded city blocks called the Ghetto. Later, the movie shows shocking scenes of well-fed Jews living a rather luxurious life in the Ghetto, while surrounded by emaciated corpses in the streets. Much effort was made in Das Ghetto to show the contrasts between rich and poor. Perhaps this was to demonstrate the perfidy of the Jews that the rich Jews were unconcerned about the poverty around them.
The discovery of an outtake reel in the late ‘90s reveals the truth about the process of making this film. It demonstrated just how much this “reality” was shaped by the SS officers supervising the cameramen. The unedited footage proves that the scenes were elaborately staged, sometimes with actors, and often filmed in multiple takes. Also, the filmmakers are caught by the lens on occasion, seen giving direction to the people in the film. In addition, Hersonski features a re-enactment of testimony from Willy Wist, one of the cameramen but she refrains from any comment about him implicating individuals for their conduct is definitely not the point.
Considering the fitting title, A Film Unfinished reveals the substantial problem confronting the Nazi propaganda machine and its artificially manufactured truth. The Nazis needed to justify their actions by portraying their victims as wicked and threatening, but why did they not ever manage to finish the film or use it for its intended propaganda value? The movie might have engendered hatred for the despised upper-class Jews, but its depiction of the horror of Ghetto suffering definitely sparks sympathy for its victims. In other words, the movie’s lies were insufficient to cover up its truth. Therefore, it is plausible that they preferred to bury the record and lose the opportunity to disgrace the concept of Jewish compassion.
There is a clear conflict in A Film Unfinished as a documentary based on the notion that movies always embody lies and truth at the same time: the dominant stylistic device of the movie is also the most controversial one, as when footage of Das Ghetto is put up on a screen in front of the survivors and their reactions are recorded. Not only does the inclusion of these parts feel exploitive, but also the use of the same filmmaking methods from the footage does not seem to be a persuasive choice. Watching bodies piled into a mass grave is just too powerful to be accompanied by overwhelming close-ups of survivor’s emotional reactions.