'A Film Unfinished,' A History Unveiled
Editor's Note: Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished airs Tuesday, May 3, on PBS' Independent Lens. The following article was published last August in conjunction with the film's theatrical premiere.
A Film Unfinished takes audiences on a journey back some 68 years in time to life in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland. The film was conceived, written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski, who has artfully blended archival footage taken by German cameramen as content for a Nazi propaganda film with images of a handful of survivors sharing painful memories of the Holocaust.
The 89-minute documentary was produced by Belfilms LTD with the support of the New Israel Foundation for Cinema and Television, Yad Vashem Project and YES Docu. It earned the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Best International Documentary Feature Award at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival earlier this year. The documentary was subsequently picked up for theatrical distribution by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Hersonski began her career as a freelance director and editor after graduating from the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in 2003. She subsequently edited a weekly documentary program that aired on Channel 10 in Israel. A Film Unfinished was her first turn at the helm during production of a feature-length documentary.
The Warsaw ghetto came into being after the German army invaded and occupied Poland in April 1940. More than 400,000 Jewish people who lived in Warsaw were forced to live in a walled ghetto that occupied less than three square miles. Countless numbers of them and more than 200,000 refugees who were brought to the ghetto, died of starvation, typhus and other diseases. Most survivors were sent to almost certain death at Treblinka and other concentration camps.
An hour's worth of film footage was discovered in an East German archive at the end of World War II, with the title Das Ghetto written on the cans. The black-and-white film was produced by German cameramen who were brought to the ghetto in May 1942. During the 1960s, a German historian, who was doing research about the ghetto in a Polish archive, found an entry permit given to a German cameraman named Willy Wist. In 1998, Adrian Wood, a British researcher, was looking for footage from the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in a vault on a US Air Force base in Germany, and he noticed two film cans on the floor titled Das Ghetto. Wood had years of experience with Holocaust footage, and what he had found was multiple outtakes of scenes where German cameraman and S.S. guards accidentally got into backgrounds while other people were shooting. That film provided tangible evidence that scenes of Jews living the high life were staged propaganda.
"A Film Unfinished emerged out of my preoccupation with the notion of the perpetrators of war crimes creating an archive that testifies to the suffering of their victims," Hersonski says. "The systematic documentation of these horrors has changed forever how the past is archived. These images have been used in many films. In the worst cases, they have been presented as straight-forward historical truth."
In 2006, Hersonski wrote a short essay outlining her ideas for a documentary and submitted it to Noemi Schory, an experienced film producer in Israel. That was less than a year after Schory had completed her work on the new Visual Center at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, which includes more than 100 short films that use archival footage. Schory told Hersonski about a diary written by a 15-year-old girl, which describes a German camera crew making a propaganda film in the ghetto.
About a month later, Hersonski traveled to Jerusalem to watch a copy of the 62-minute rough cut of the Nazi propaganda film that was never released. "After so many years of being bombarded with films about the Holocaust, I was shocked that I didn't know anything about this film," she says. "Until you see it, you can't understand the evil behind its making, and the distorted ways it was used in dozens of documentaries after the war. I asked myself, How can a propaganda film shot from the point of view of the perpetrators of a crime truly reflect the realities facing the victims?"
Hersonski traveled to Berlin to meet the archivists and learn more about the history of the footage. She discovered that approximately 90 percent of the film created by the Nazis was destroyed during the last days of the war. No documents were found revealing who initiated the propaganda film and why it wasn't completed.
Schory and Itay Ken-Tor, a producer/director, who has been worked at Belfilms since 2000 and managed the organization for the past three years, came on board as producers. Hersonski credits a "persistent" Israeli researcher for finding nine survivors of the crimes committed in the Warsaw ghetto. They were teenagers or younger during the war, and they now lived in Israel, England, Poland and the United States. She contacted them and asked if they would be willing to be filmed sharing memories and their thoughts while watching film found in the archives. "I explained in detail what they were going to see, and asked if they were absolutely certain they could stand the shock," Hersonski says. "I was relieved that five of them were more than willing to come. After every session, I was physically numb and mentally worn out. The four women who were filmed watching and commenting on the archival footage live in Israel. The only man [among the five participating survivors] died last year."
Willy Wist, one of the German cameramen who were brought to Warsaw to shoot Das Ghetto, also agreed to share his memories. He had been called to testify when the West German government prosecuted war criminals during the 1960s. "We had no idea of what was happening until we arrived," he recalls in the film. "The thought that these people would be systematically murdered never entered my mind. The SS brought us Jews whom they wanted us to film. We could see the fear on their faces." After 30 days, the film crews packed their gear and left.
A Film Unfinished ranges from close-in shots of faces of starving adults and children to a staged scene in a restaurant where waiters are carrying trays stacked with food to show the world the paradise that rich Jews lived in. There are haunting close-ups of the faces of the survivors and Wist sitting in a darkened cinema, sharing their feelings as they watch images projected on the screen-such as people desperately searching for food in piles of trash at a garbage dump, while one of the survivors recalls doing that when she was ten years old. In another scene, Wist reminisces about filming a staged shot of an attractive woman looking in a mirror as she applies lipstick; shots like that one were designed to contrast with film of a shabbily dressed woman walking on the street, carrying her baby and begging for bread. Itai Neeman, an Israeli cinematographer, heightens the drama with intuitively sensitive composition and use of light and darkness playing on the faces and eyes.
The man whom the Nazis had appointed director of the Jewish Council was filmed sitting at his desk looking like a corporate executive. He obeyed the Nazis, but wrote entries in his diary expressing his feelings. Other people risked their lives by documenting history as it was happening, in their diaries-some of which, including the one maintained by the council director, were also found in archives. Hershonski had a narrator verbally punctuate images by reading appropriate words selected from the diaries. "A time will come when no survivors are left," she says. "The archival footage, unlike paper documents, bears a much more layered testimony regarding the realities it witnesses. It will remain as our source of understanding our history. The film will testify to the crimes that were committed and the suffering of the victims."
On August 5, despite appeals by Oscilloscope Laboratory president Adam Yauch, Hersonski and Hanna Abrusky, one of the survivors who appears in the film, the MPAA classification and ratings appeals board upheld an "R" rating for A Film Unfinished. The reason given was that the film contains "disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities, including graphic nudity."
The "graphic nudity" is a brief shot of a few naked men and women separately stepping into a pool, which the narrator describes as a ritual Jewish bath. It is a graphic example of how the Nazis staged shots designed to denigrate Jewish people.
Yauch argued to the MPAA that it is important for young people to see A Film Unfinished to learn a valuable history lesson. As George Santayana wrote in 1905, "Those who can't remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
“The MPAA "R" rating is extremely unfortunate,” says Oscilloscope Laboratories co-founder David Fenkel. "Yael has created a really powerful film that has important educational value for people of all ages…especially young people who aren’t familiar with the history. We are still uncovering layers of history of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. This documentary provides an extremely unique and fresh perspective of what the Nazis did in terms of media manipulation.
“It’s disheartening that the MPAA has decided to make it difficult for young people to experience this film,” Fenkel continues. “It's really crazy, because there are films with extreme violence and sex that get PG-13 ratings, but apparently it’s okay to censor history. Sure, some of the images in this film are not easy to watch, but a lot of truth isn't necessarily easy to watch. We should leave the choice up to the parent and teachers who believe that it is important to educate children. The realities of an “R” rating make it more difficult. But, I believe this film is good and important enough to get a wide audience. I believe this story about World War II is going to become a topic of conversation this year and for years to come.”
A Film Unfinished opens August 18 in New York City and August 20 in Los Angeles.
Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, mainly focusing on cinematography and preservation.