Can you believe your own eyes? Not since computer-generated images made it all but impossible to distinguish between real images and ones that were digitally created.
But, as Yael Hersonski’s documentary, “A Film Unfinished,” shows, even in documentary film, seeing wasn’t always believing – and the Nazis knew this.
“A Film Unfinished,” opening Wednesday in limited release, is a chilling example of the Big Lie that Josef Goebbels propagated during the Third Reich. Tell it loudly enough and often enough and you’ll convince people that it must be true. (Hello, birthers?)
In this case, it was a container of film that had been hidden away in a trove of Nazi documentary footage that was discovered after World War II. With the words “The Ghetto” written on the canister, it was a mysterious artifact: seemingly a documentary showing that Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were actually treated well by the Nazis.
The footage showed both wealthy Jews enjoying the amenities of a comfortable city life – and the same Jews turning a blind eye to their less fortunate brethren, who begged on the streets and died there of hunger. The well-heeled seem to dine out and attend the theater and synagogue with impunity, stepping over the dead bodies on the street as if they were an inconvenient form of litter. And, for years, it was treated as just that: an actual documentary.
So Hersonski studied the footage more closely, discovering clues that it may actually have been staged: German soldiers acting as crowd control or enforcers, in the margins of the frame; momentary images of the camera crew itself directing the action. Further research unearthed the journal of one of the Jewish officials in charge of the ghetto, chronicling his disgust at dealing with the Nazi film crew, which was forcing the Jewish captives to stage scenes in synagogues and elsewhere.
“A Film Unfinished” examines all of this, then offers interviews with witnesses – survivors of both the ghetto and the concentration camps, who watch the footage and talk about the people they recognize, offering memories of the filming itself and the conditions it depicts. They can barely bring themselves to watch footage of workers burying the increasing number of dead (from starvation and disease, principally typhus) in mass graves.
The capper is a deposition given by the cameraman for the footage some years ago. Recreated as an interview with actors reading the transcript in stylized scenes, it features the cameraman describing himself as merely an observer, taking pictures. Gradually, however, the questions bring out the facts of how much was staged, as opposed to documented.
The cameraman claims to have no idea what the footage was being shot for, though hindsight makes it obvious that it was meant to be propaganda. By showing just how comfortable the Jews were, the Nazis hoped to stave off worldwide concern ignited by rumors about the death camps and the wholesale slaughter of Jews, gypsies and others.
As Hersonski shows, the “Ghetto” footage ultimately was misunderstood by the people who discovered it. For years, it was presented as actual documentary evidence of what life was like in the Warsaw Ghetto, proof that the Jews didn’t have it so bad. “A Film Unfinished” takes the whitewash off this propaganda, refuting it on an almost scene-by-scene basis.
Watching this film is like seeing a strong detective story, with the sleuth pointing out the clues along the way and offering witnesses to tell the real tale that the footage depicts. It’s also immensely sad – not just the images of dead bodies lying in the streets or being stacked like logs in a trench, but the fact that the same fate awaits virtually everyone you see in the film.
The exception, of course, are the lucky few who escaped to bear witness – to this film and to the unthinkable horror of the Holocaust itself.