REVIEW: Film Unfinished Leaves Haunting Impression of Nazi Imagemakers, Victims

Movieline Score: 9

The narrator of Israeli director Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished describes the "layers of meaning" locked within the images recorded by Nazi soldiers of the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1942. They are part of a compilation of raw footage that until 12 years ago were assumed to be vérité glimpses of the half-million Jews trapped within the confines of the Ghetto. It was only when a new reel of outtakes -- shots of the subjects rehearsing their "spontaneous" moments over and over -- was discovered that something closer to the truth about their provenance was revealed. Hersonski's measured, devastating pursuit of that truth adds another layer of meaning to those reels, even as it methodically spools and studies each one.

From a historical standpoint, early 1942 was a low point in WWII; for the Jews of Warsaw it would only get worse. By the end of the war almost all of them were dead: half were deported to a death camp; the rest, with few exceptions, succumbed to the inhuman conditions in the Ghetto or were shot. We learn of the background of the images to come via Israeli musician Rona Kenan's precise, eloquent narration. Hidden in a German bunker and titled only "Ghetto," their purpose was unclear. In fact the Nazi propensity for documenting their atrocities -- both on film and paper -- is mysterious in itself. Was there dissociative comfort, or some sense of justification, in the attempt to impose rigid order on moral chaos? In the case of the Warsaw Ghetto films, any subconscious motivations were twinned by a more calculated purpose: Manufacturing propaganda.

The Germans knew well the inherent power of the moving image to imprint entire, unbudging narratives on the collective memory. Tightly orchestrated and well-edited, it was nearly unstoppable. Here we have only the orchestrations, but the intention -- confirmed by the diaries of the leader of the Jewish Council in Warsaw and the testimony of one of the cameramen, Willy Wist -- seems clear: Most of the scenes are designed to showcase either Jewish wealth or extreme poverty, with many of them bluntly juxtaposing the two. The impression is designed both to reassure the outside world that the Jews are faring well in Warsaw, and that they are coldly indifferent to the starving and frequently stone cold wretches amongst them.

Explored within the A Film Unfinished's intricately wrought framework are both the pliability of the image itself and the infinite spectrum of subjectivity and meaning. One can credibly imagine a German housewife watching some version of these images and resting easily with the story they tell in 1942. Less easily borne is the sight of the survivors of the Ghetto watching those same, unedited images in 2009. "I keep thinking that among all these people, I might see my mother walking," one woman says, squinting at one of the many scenes of crowds thronging through the streets. It's a statement suggestive of the bewildering, terrifying space these images open up: They telegraph desperately traitorous scenarios, like Jews eating and dancing at a "ball," or adorning their parlor with flowers ("Who had flowers?" one woman says. "We would have eaten flowers!"); they also offer an old woman the chance to see her mother walking, alive again -- both there and not there, real and unreal.

The camera itself, of course, is anonymous; it simply records the world within its frame. Determining what was really happening on either side of it is a debate that will continue as long as images are recorded. Hersonki's touch manages to feel minimal and restrained even as she digs into the dangers of documentary as it pertains to both the Nazi agenda and her own concerns. She re-stages Wist's testimony in brief, impressionistic scenes, reverts to interstitial shots of reels being changed to punctuate a chapter of her investigation and give the viewer a breather, and physically manipulates some of the images, slowing them down to linger on the glittering contempt behind a subject's glaring challenge to the camera, or emphasize a huddle of Nazis filming a parallel scene in the background. (Some of the images have been manipulated by time: deteriorated reels seem to snap and purl with the heat of their contents.)

The Council Chairman's descriptions of a day's filming are read over the corresponding images, many of them quotidian scenes of crushing normalcy. One of the survivors is able to add a soundtrack to the images of a woman in rags pacing the curb with a baby in her arms. She used to scream for hours, he said, for someone to give her a bit a bread.

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  • Anonymous says:

    As you say, the film lacks both modern context (like "Nuit et Brouillard") and emotional intimacy with its subjects. All we saw were repetitive nameless faces - both in the Nazi's film and the filmmaker's. The result is a decidedly intellectual film that leaves the audience feeling very little. And that is unfortunate, since it's exactly what the Nazi propaganda machine sought to do.

  • Marius says:

    "The impression is designed both to reassure the outside world that the Jews are faring well in Warsaw, and that they are coldly indifferent to the starving and frequently stone cold wretches amongst them."
    Hmm... that sounds familiar...

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