A Film Unfinished
It’s easy to see why documentary films about the Holocaust turn people off. They are not only unbearably sad, they are also unbearably gruesome. By concentrating on the making of a documentary, Israeli director Yael Hersonski has hardly circumvented these problems. But her own documentary of the documentary is itself a story at least as fascinating as it is depressing and horrifying.
As the title implies, the Nazis never did assemble the footage that forms the main part of A Film Unfinished into a coherent film of their own. Sorting through the complex ambiguities of the Nazi filmmakers, Hersonsky attempts to come to some conclusions about the purpose of the film, tentatively titled Das Ghetto; or at least that was the names on the film cannisters discovered years after the war ended in an archive vault buried deep in an East German forest.
Shot over 30 days just before the inhabitants were deported en masse to their final destination, the Treblinka death camp, the footage depicts three levels of reality. The first, and most unreal, are the staged shots of prosperous Jews sipping Champagne at a cotillion or shopping for fine cheeses and meats (actually horse meat, and even that was a rare delicacy in the real ghetto). To do this, they had to step over starved corpses. There’s even a staged funeral with elegantly robed rabbis and a hearse being pulled by four horses.
The weird outtakes that are the real reason for this film (they were only discovered in 1998) show how these "prosperous" Jews were forced to re-enact these grotesquely false scenes over and over again, as if they were on a Hollywood backlot. These 30 minutes were discovered that showed how extensively the scenes were staged, with the unimaginable brutality that was the SS’ trademark. (I suppose there’s some grim humor in noting that some of the most martial and disciplinary directors in Hollywood -- Douglas Sirk, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, et al. -- were German.)
The second level of reality is the actual conditions in the ghetto itself, and you’d might as well be warned: These are as nightmarish as anything you’re likely to see in your lifetime. For me, the saddest scenes weren’t even the endless starved corpses piled up on top of each other by the Jewish burial police, but the starving children. The most poignant scene -- and there are many -- are young children at the entrance to the ghetto being forced to empty their pockets of the root vegetables they obtained by whatever means possible from the Poles outside.
The third level of reality are a handful of still-living witnesses, who view the footage in an Israeli screening room. Hersonsky’s camera mercilessly focuses on these very elderly women and one man as they recognize ghetto characters, look for close relatives or relate to the action of place of a scene.
The excellent narrative is punctuated by first-person accounts, especially the diaries of Adam Cherniakov, the Nazi-appointed Jewish leader of the ghetto. When Cherniakov was finally given a mandate to draw up a list of several thousand names for deportation, he knew it was the end of the ghetto and telegraphed that by taking cyanide.
The one part of the documentary that didn’t work for me was the recreation of the interrogation of Willy Wist, a cameraman who was the person who was identified as part of the film’s production and interrogated by the Allies. I seldom like these recreations in documentaries; in one whose subject is as grimly, seriously real as this one, it looks especially cheesy.
Much better is the evocation of the efficiently murderous behavior of Heinz Auerswald, the Nazi commandant in charge of the ghetto. By having a military-cuffed hand type on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, the filmmaker conveys that banality of evil endemic in the Nazi bureaucracy of death.
The film was disturbing to me, at least, because the very act of looking at these poor souls from such a distance of time, place and circumstance threatened to cheapen their suffering. Drinking a chilled cocktail and nibbling on salted almonds while watching people literally starve to death is more than a disconnect: It reduces the act of watching to gawking, rubbernecking even.
But as conflicted as these feelings were, they were way overcome by the knowledge that these were real, flesh-and-book people experiencing these things, that paying attention was respect, and that respect has to be paid.
Incidentally, the film was awarded an R (restricted) by the MPAA, presumably because in certain scenes men and women are naked. The very thought that this frontal nudity in this circumstance could somehow be titillating or too much of a turn-on for someone under 16 only shows how obscene the modern film ratings system has become.
If you want to read more about how this extraordinary film was made, readread EDGE Arts & Entertainmnt Editor Robert Nesti’s interview with director Yael Hersonski.
Distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, DVD $24. The DVD contains several valuable extras, including interviews with a historian who helps put it in context.