According to the MPAA ratings board, history should be restricted. Saddled with an R rating, Israeli director Yael Hersonski's disturbing and on-the-nose film is more of a necessary historical document than a successful documentary, offering a unique view of Nazi Germany's twin fetishes: documentation and propaganda. But treating it as a cinematic experience for the masses demonstrates the tin-ear, knee-jerk inanity of the MPAA: "Sound the alarm, there was death and nudity during the Holocaust." By implication, their rating further suggests that A Film Unfinished should be reviewed like any other Hollywood product.
That's not easy to do, and I can barely do it. Because while Hersonski's skills as a filmmaker are clearly limited, the material she's working with is a necessary chronicle of one of mankind's greatest acts of inhumanity and should be viewed as such. Just when you thought there wasn't anything new to say about the Nazis' genocidal efforts, four reels of raw footage capturing "life" in Poland's Warsaw Jewish enclave further reveal the depravities of the Holocaust.
The 1942 reels, an hour long in total, offer an unforgettable view of life for nearly a half-million Jews crammed into the Warsaw ghetto's three square miles. Shot only months before the residents would be shipped off to concentration camps, the Nazis described it as "... a holding pen for the Final Solution."
It turns out that this footage, some of which has appeared in other documentaries (Shoah, for one), was created for a to-be-released propaganda movie called Das Ghetto — though it is difficult to imagine what kind of message the Nazis were hoping to communicate. The haunted, uncomprehending looks from emaciated Jews as they stare into the camera, the shots of bodies lying in the street or stacked like wood in piles, and the starving children forced by German soldiers to shed smuggled food from their tattered coats seem impossibly damning.
A fifth feel, discovered in 1998, consists of even more unsettling footage, as Nazis staged scenes to be part of their propaganda effort. Frenzied riots, an elaborate funeral, and scenes of wealthy Jews eating huge meals in lavish restaurants were obviously created for the benefit of the camera — but to what end? Unfortunately, Hersonski's film gives us few answers. Instead it displays horrifying outtakes of Jews forced to dance over corpses and dead bodies casually moved around as on-set props. The faux-footage is so clearly at odds with the on-the-street realities that when a scene set inside a plush apartment is dressed with a flower in a vase, a survivor snorts in voice-over: "Where did one see a flower? We would have eaten a flower."
Hersonski, the granddaughter of a Warsaw survivor, juxtaposes her footage with voice-over commentary and re-creation. The secret diaries of Jewish Council leader Adam Czerniakow provide a running soundtrack (he was in charge of implementing Nazi orders against the Jews and killed himself rather than organize the camp deportations), as well as the testimonies of Nazi cameraman Willi Wist, who was tracked down in the 1960s. Both offer important context for what's on the screen, though Wist indulges in obligatory confessions of regret and ignorance (hard to believe given the extremity of his footage).
The effect is powerful and hard to shake, reminding us of how powerful and important moving images have been at defining Holocaust atrocities. In particular, a montage of ghetto prisoners is emotionally devastating, revealing that rich, poor, young or old — no one was spared the Nazi death wish.
But as powerful and important as A Film Unfinished is, it's a shame that it wasn't crafted by a more ambitious filmmaker. Hersonski is mostly content to let the 68-year-old footage speak for itself, relying on the obvious and heart-breaking narrations of five Warsaw ghetto survivors. What she misses, however, is the potential to examine the power of cinema to re-create reality, and how the very same tactics employed by the Nazis nearly 70 years ago are an everyday staple of "reality" TV today. Half-truth, bias, deceptive re-creation, and emotional manipulation are stock in trade for everything from Jersey Shore to Nancy Grace to FOXNews.
Even A Film Unfinished, in an act of unintentional meta-narrative irony, uses dramatic re-enactment to impact audience reaction. Wim Wender's stalwart Rüdiger Vogler "plays" ghetto cameraman Wist in arty abstractions that dramatize the past. While considering whether the footage the Nazis constructed was an elaborate rationalization for their murderous behavior, a more thoughtful filmmaker might have taken a moment to reflect on his own cinematic choices.
Opens Friday, Sept. 24, at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]