A Film Unfinished, which generated considerable critical acclaim when it was released in movie theaters last year, as well as controversy over its "R'' rating, came out on DVD this week (Oscilloscope Laboratories, $29.99, rated R). It is a painful film to watch, but an important one.
The basis for A Film Unfinished was the discovery in 1954 of a single movie reel entitled Das Ghetto (The Ghetto). Inside was an unfinished one-hour Nazi-made film about the Warsaw Ghetto, a film without titles, credits, or narration. The footage was shot in May, 1942, just a few months before a majority of the 450,000 Jewish inhabitants forced to live in an area less than three square miles were deported to the Treblinka death camp.
For years, The Ghetto served as a troubling but essential filmed record of life in the overcrowded Ghetto. It reveals the horrendous living conditions inflicted upon the Jews in the Ghetto, who were sent there from all over Poland as well as other territories conquered by the Third Reich. Its images of terribly emaciated men, women and children, and stacks of dead bodies being poured into a mass grave are ghastly and horrifying. (After watching A Film Unfinished one gains even greater appreciation for director Roman Polanski's re-creation of the Warsaw Ghetto in his 2002 Oscar-winning movie The Pianist.)
But the film also shows Jewish policemen shoving and hitting their fellow Jews, cuts from images of starving children on the street to rich adults dining in fancy restaurants and living in luxury apartments, and other scenes of "normal" Ghetto life. Although we never will know the exact intent of the Nazi filmmakers, they were clearly trying to make the point that Jews were callously mistreating their own people in the Ghetto.
However, decades after The Ghetto was found, researchers discovered some important additional footage -- including outtakes from the original film. These reveal that many of the scenes were actually staged by the Nazis, none more heinous than a scene where two starving children in rags stand outside a butcher shop, in which a well-to-do Jewish patron is purchasing meat from a well-stocked supply.
The astute narration of A Film Unfinished juxtaposes these scenes and outtakes to show how the original filmmakers operated. This is buttressed by the detailed reports of life in the Warsaw Ghetto and the film shoot itself taken from the diaries of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Jewish Council inside the Ghetto; the reports of the Nazi commissioner Heinz Auerswald, and an interview after the war with Willy Wist, a cameraman and the sole member of the German film crew to be identified.
In addition, five survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto also are interviewed and featured in A Film Unfinished, and their role is crucial. They provide eyewitness testimony as to what was real, what they saw with their own eyes, and what was obviously staged by the Germans.
For example, in one bogus scene filmed in a luxury apartment in which rich Jews supposedly lived within the Ghetto, we see a flower in a vase. The survivor watching these scenes scoffs in disbelief, and says, "We would have eaten a fresh flower." As to the big apartments, another survivor reminds viewers that the Nazis forced families, no matter how large, to be confined to no more than one room in any apartment. Other staged scenes show Jews being allowed to worship together, take part in a lavish funeral procession, attend musical performances, and dance in a nightclub.
The poignancy of the survivors' commentaries on what they, and we, are watching not only exposes the deceit of the original filmmakers, but also personalizes the suffering of those in the Ghetto. DVD extras featuring interviews with film scholar Adrian Wood, Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, and study guides for students and teachers are also informative and revealing, as is a short essay on the film by historian Annette Insdorf. The DVD also includes a short film, Death Mills, made by the U.S. War Department in 1945 by famed Hollywood director Billy Wilder, whose parents died in Auschwitz. It was the first documentary film to show what the Allied armies discovered when they liberated the death camps -- in particular, the physical condition of the survivors and the clear evidence of the mass murder that had taken place there. The film was made for showing to the German people after the war.
Watching A Film Unfinished, says Berenbaum, "was an intense and difficult experience." He also points out that for the survivors, viewing it must have been "excruciating."
At times, Hersonski's use of these survivors, however powerful their testimony may be, becomes troubling. Among the final scenes is some shocking footage of dead, naked bodies being dumped into a large pit, images which resemble some of the footage taken by Wilder and others after the liberation of the Nazi death camps. It is difficult enough to view these scenes, but Hersonski cuts to the survivors watching them and records their tears and their turning away from the movie screen. Watching these people re-live and re-view some of the most tragic images anyone has ever seen comes close to being exploitative. As humane viewers, we will shed our own tears without having to watch the emotional responses of the survivors.
Yet the presence of the Holocaust survivors in A Film Unfinished also reminds us of the importance of a movie such as this. All of the survivors are elderly, and soon they will be gone. Then, the only documentary records of the Nazi atrocities will be the writings left behind, the testimonies of survivors taken by the Shoah Foundation and other groups, and footage from movies like A Film Unfinished.