The Sundance Film Festival, the premier showcase for independent films ended on January 31. It had screened 117 potential masterpieces in ten packed days with some 45,000 film enthusiasts in attendance. The films covered a vast array of subjects from every genre and with styles from carefully traditional to extremely avant-garde. There were humorous films, those that explored serious subjects and sad films. No film this year, however, was as heart wrenching as “A Film Unfinished.”
In May 1942 — two and half years after the Warsaw Ghetto was established and only three months before the Nazis emptied the Ghetto and sent 300,000 Jews to their deaths in Treblinka — a group of German soldiers were sent to film Jewish life in the Ghetto. They would record various aspects of Jewish culture: street scenes, a circumcision, luxurious living, extreme poverty… always with the goal of emphasizing any extremes.
Many if not most of the scenes of the Nazi film were staged, crafted for propaganda, fabricated to discredit the Jewish people in the eyes of the world. This was not a film, then, to enlighten, but to distort and mislead. This propaganda film, however, was never finished. Since the end of World War II, the reels have been stored in a German film archive in boxes marked simply, “The Ghetto.”
Yael Hersonski, the director of “A Film Unfinished” (two-thirds of the documentary’s 90 minutes is comprised of the Nazi propaganda film), was told by a German film archivist, “This is the greatest mystery in our archive. Why the Nazis made the film, who actually made it, and why it was never completed.”
Beginning in 1961, snippets of the film, often the same snippets, have appeared in films and museum exhibits on the Warsaw Ghetto. Hersonski, a 33-year-old from Tel Aviv, has used more than 60 minutes of the Nazi rough cut and outtakes in her gripping documentary.
To the raw footage that forms the basis of her documentary, Hersonski adds her controlled narration, inserting the emotional commentary from five Jewish survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, written words of Jews from diaries that survived, and testimony from one of the German cameramen. The total package – Nazi footage, survivors’ commentary, diarists’ words, German cameraman’s testimony — make “A Film Unfinished” a profoundly moving film.
Running throughout Hersonski’s film are repeated street scenes, gaunt faces and malnourished bodies, frozen faces with deep-set eyes, Jews barely alive. Later in the film these are the dead, lying on sidewalks, picked up by carts and disposed of in a mass grave.
Jusxtaposed to that are the staged scenes of Jews living in luxury, in spacious and well furnished apartments, eating sumptuous meals — even pastries and meat! There’s even a phony ball with Jews drinking Champagne and dancing: the women in attractive dresses and men in creased suits.
In “A Film Unfinished,” a survivor views the footage of the German propaganda film and says, “What on earth? Where did one see a flower? We would have eaten the flower.” Another survivor, watching numerous segments of the Nazi film, has difficulty forming any words. He sighs.
This juxtaposition of the squalor and the decadence was meant to send the message to the world that Jews are indifferent toward and exploitative of, not just Aryans, but even their fellow Jews. The message it sends now concerns the premeditated cruelty of the Nazi propaganda machine forcing people to play these roles knowing that they were about to be murdered.
“A Film Unfinished” contains the largest chunk of film footage of the Ghetto ever used in a feature length documentary. Moreover, when snippets of the propaganda film had been used previously, it was not always made clear that the footage was actually Nazi directed and shot.
At Sundance the premier was sold out, leaving festival goers stranded outside. Inside the theater, the mood was somber throughout the screening. Viewers hardly stirred in their seats. It was silent, except for the voices from the film. Outside, viewers attempted to come to terms with what they had just witnessed.
“The footage interwoven with the diaries, the survivors’ reaction to watching the footage was really powerful,” noted Lior Sasson of Los Angeles. But Hersonski said she wanted to avoid overwhelming the viewers, which would inhibit people from feeling and thinking because only the feeling and thinking can use the past to influence the future.
As Sundance 2010 wrapped up, “A Film Unfinished” is not yet finished. It will move to more festivals and events before being released on DVD. In a sense, of all the films at Sundance this year, “A Film Unfinished” is the most unorthodox or experimental film. It took the enemy’s film of lies, which dealt a near-mortal wound to the community of Jews, and placed those lies in a larger film of truth.