A Film Unfinished

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Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****

After all the films made about life, and death, in the Warsaw Ghetto – from Polanski’s award-winning The Pianist to Cannon Films' rather silly Jews-fight-back-while-falling-in-love War and Love (aka The Children’s War), not to mention countless documentaries -- it is still a kick in the gut and the head to experience a movie like the new A Film Unfinished from documentarian Yael Hersonski. Whatever the "magic of movies" (and I'm a firm believer in same), to my mind no narrative film I've yet seen begins to pack the punch of watching a documentary such as Shoah. There is something about the reality of documentary film that wipes the floor with the romanticizing in narrative Holocaust movies, from Schindler's List to the latest Claude Lelouch, which – as much as I love his new film, Ces amours-là -- gives us this in spades. (Only Lajos Kotai's Fateless manages narrative in a way that does not end up somehow reducing the Holocaust.)

I foolishly imagined that I was by now immune to further shocks about the Holocaust, but was mistaken. Hersonski's film breaks new ground on footage of the Warsaw Ghetto and the fate of its inhabitants. In it, the director shows and tells of the discovery of a single copy of an hour-long film -- unfinished -- shot by and for the Nazis there in May of 1942. Labeled only "Ghetto," this film remained untouched since some time after WWII in an East German vault/archive.

That film is both a documentary and a faux documentary, as the Nazis appear to have documented the horrors of their ghetto but have also used some of the healthier looking Jews to create scenes of supposedly wealthy Semites partaking in "fun" activities -- dancing, dining and, hmmm, other things -- while their poorer brethren suffer terribly from want -- and being noticeably disdainful of them in the process. We learn some of this information because an actual cameraman on the project, Willy Wist, was found along the way (captured once in his actual Nazi uniform) and he speaks in A Film Unfinished about the film.

While we're being once again steeped in the horror of the Holocaust, we are also being made aware of how film, "documentary film" at that, can lie like a rug. Another layer is provided by actual Warsaw Ghetto survivors who watch the film with us, but on screen, and comment on various parts and situations. "A flower?!" asks one of the survivors with disdain, as a "faux wealthy" Jew arranges a bouquet in a vase. "Whoever saw a flower in that place? We would have eaten it!" As hard as it is for us to view this film, what must it be like for these survivors? One woman, in a combination of expectation and fear, asks, "What if I recognize someone I knew...?!" The faces of these women, along with another male survivor, watching as corpses slide down into a mass grave is one of many unforgettably disturbing images that the film provides.

Another layer of information and feeling is provided via the diary kept by the Jew-in-Charge-of-the-Ghetto-Jews, Adam Cherniakov. One can only wonder what he would make of some of the ridiculous "scenes" the Nazis created in their film: the "circumcision," the ritual bath in which men and women bathe naked together, or the many "takes" the cameramen had to manage in order to get the correct piece of "reality."

Finally, it is the very idea of this film that should command one's imagination most tightly. When is a film "real," and when is a real film "fake"? For me this has particular resonance. And while I stand by my feeling that movies are indeed to be trusted -- sometimes as much for their falsity (and what this signifies) as for their truth, we first have to know how to "read" them. Hersonski’s film provides a salutary lesson on this "reading."

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