Documentary is compelling look at Nazi propaganda

A frame from outtakes of unfinished Nazi propaganda film reveals a cameraman in the background of the shot, part of the Israeli documentary “A Film Unfinished.” Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratory.

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Earlier this year, a powerful Israeli documentary about an unfinished Nazi propaganda film depicting the Warsaw ghetto grabbed widespread media attention and acclaim from Jewish film festivals around the country – not to mention picking up awards at the Sundance Film Festival.

Now this remarkable examination of the making of a propaganda film, “A Film Unfinished,” is making its way to St. Louis.

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The key to Israeli director Yael Hersonski’s striking new film is a reel of footage recently discovered, which reveals the hand of the Nazi propagandists in manipulating what we see on screen.

As the filmmaker tells us, the Nazis were inordinately obsessed with film and with keeping records of their evil acts. The footage first found for the incomplete propaganda film was discovered in a bunker of film stock in East Germany after the war. The hour-long black and white rough cut, simply labeled “The Ghetto,” has no sound and no opening or closing credits. The footage was shot in the Warsaw ghetto in May 1942, two years after the ghetto was established and three months before it was closed and its inhabitants sent to the camps. At the time, about half a million Jews were crammed into about three square miles, as yet unaware of the future.

What was intended to tell the Nazis’ version of events became source material for historians. Since its discovery, the footage had been regarded as a record of life in the Warsaw ghetto. Many scenes have appeared as archival footage in various contexts.

Yet the recent discovery of a reel of outtakes, of multiple takes of scenes, reveals that far more of the footage was staged than previously thought. As awful as things appear, in many cases they were worse.

The resulting film is a remarkable combination of artistic presentation and a thoughtful exploration of a historical record once thought fully examined.

It uses excerpts from the propaganda film and its outtakes, including some color footage, along with actors’ readings from historical documents and contemporary commentary from survivors of the ghetto.

The visual presentation of this powerful documentary is striking. It opens with narration over half-lit scenes, in near black and white, of shots inside the film’s storage bunker. Footage from the film, some partially decayed, is inter-cut with scenes of the reels being loaded into a projector, in the same half-lit, atmospheric manner. Survivors of the ghetto comment on the film as they watch it being projected. The director focuses her camera on their faces in the darkened theater, as the light from the projector streams overhead.

Materials used include testimony from one of the cameramen at trial of another Nazi and the impersonal, third-person status reports of the Nazi commander who oversaw the ghetto. But the most telling historical material comes from the diary of the head of the Jewish council in the ghetto, Adam Czerniakow, describing the filming of the propaganda film, in which he was forced to appear as an actor. Czerniakow’s journal helps take apart what is real and what is deception.

The survivors’ comments reveal that many appalling street scenes are accurate, with some of them even recalling certain figures familiar on the street. Yet the Nazis’ manipulation of the facts nearly always made conditions appear less awful than they actually were, while also creating an exaggerated contrast between the poorest and those who still had a little money left.

Many of the staged sequences show well-off Jews living a very comfortable life in the ghetto, ignoring the plight of the poor starving before their eyes. Czerniakow’s journal and the eyewitness survivors describe how the Nazis brought in food to make it look like more was available in the markets. Scenes of lavish banquets were staged, with healthiest and most attractive Jews in the ghetto chosen and dressed up in finery for them.

Not surprisingly, there is footage that is difficult to watch but the filmmaker handles it tastefully, giving the survivors the focus in responding to scenes from the propaganda film.

“A Film Unfinished” is a stark reminder of the power that governments have in presenting an official version of events, and it underscores the importance of others keeping a journal of the facts outside the official story. This beautifully crafted documentary is also an important reminder of the critical role historical documents play.

“A Film Unfinished” is an important film that should not be missed.

“A Film Unfinished”

When: Opens Friday Nov. 12

Where: Plaza Frontenac Cinema

More info: 1:29, not rated;