A Film Unfinished
It is very appropriate that the documentaries “The Tillman Story” and “A Film Unfinished” should be released just two days apart. Although very different in subject matter, each film deals with government-sponsored propaganda.
Although I knew about the Warsaw Ghetto, the reality of what it was like to live there has never been brought home to me as explicitly as it is in the documentary “A Film Unfinished.” As its title indicates, the documentary consists largely of footage of an incomplete film, a piece of Nazi propaganda, about the Jews of Warsaw, Poland.
As “A Film Unfinished” points out, Jews from Poland and Germany were brought to the overcrowded Warsaw Ghetto, in Poland, which served as a collection point and holding area, prior to their deportation to concentration camps. In the footage in question, shot in 1942 and found in a film can simply labeled “Ghetto,” the Nazis staged scenes depicting the Jews of Warsaw as happy, affluent, well-dressed and living in nice apartments. A Warsaw Ghetto survivor, filmed today, reacts to the staged “Ghetto” footage. The footage shows a nicely dressed Jewish woman in a well-appointed, large apartment. The survivor explains that Jewish families in the Warsaw Ghetto were actually crammed into apartments, one family to a room. Other falsely staged scenes show an opulent Jewish funeral procession, Jews eating in a nice restaurant and riding in taxis.
In contrast to these scenes of opulence, the Nazis also filmed the poverty and horrible living conditions that they, the Nazis, created in Warsaw. Multiple takes reveal that some of these scenes were also staged, using the actual, but unwilling, Jewish residents who feared for their lives if they did not cooperate with the filming.
The footage presented in “A Film Unfinished” is quite graphic. The Warsaw residents were sick and starving. Sanitary conditions broke down and typhus began to spread. People became too weak to carry their garbage down stairs and threw it out of their windows. When a family member died there was no alternative other than to put the body out on the sidewalk. What may be the most haunting sections of the film, in a film filled with haunting sequences, are the hopeless, hallow, mal-nourished faces of Warsaw’s Jews, soon to be exterminated. One has to wonder, with living conditions such as these, why the Nazis even went to the trouble of sending the Warsaw residents to concentration camps.
By showing two extremes of Warsaw Jewish life, one manufactured, the other all too real, “An Unfinished Film” is historically significant. Viewed from today’s perspective it is the Nazis’ own indictment of the harshness of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, contrasted with the false image of it that the Nazis sought to create. It is not known what the intention of the film was or why it was not finished.
“A Film Unfinished” opens on August 18 at Film Forum and will run through August 31.
A Film Unfinished, Director Yael Hersonski, 2010,
Oscilloscope Laboratories, 89 minutes