For nearly half a century, historians of the Holocaust used 60 minutes of supposedly raw film labeled "The Ghetto" discovered in an East German archive at the end of WWII as an authentic representation of Jewish life in the ghetto. But the discovery, in 1998, of another reel containing multiple takes and staged scenes has cast the entire project in a more sinister light. That turn from history to propaganda is the subject of A Film Unfinished, the feature-length documentary debut of Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski, premiering in Boston Sept. 24.
Rather than dismissing the footage as tainted, Hersonski makes it the centerpiece of her documentary, providing context through historical documents like the journal of the Jewish official in charge of the Ghetto and the testimony of one of the filmmakers. Through this process she unravels the dark intentions behind seemingly innocuous images. Scenes of naked men and women immersing themselves in a mikveh become profane when one realizes they are doing so under duress. Wealthy Jews showing indifference to the destitute, literally starving to death on the street become more heartfelt than heartless once when Hersonski shows the multiple takes the Nazis filmed to achieve the desired effect.
Hersonski choose to show the footage to five survivors of the Ghetto and film their reactions as they watched the new footage. "Emotionally, that was one of the most challenging of experiences of the film," she said. "Real people suffered. I didn't want to be the one bringing them more suffering." But the survivors insisted on watching, and their presence in the final film gives it a powerful emotional resonance.
Hersonski "never dared to imagine" how well her film has been received. "People were surprised at how well they could be attached emotionally to black and white footage," the filmmaker said of the reaction at its world premier at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a prize for World Cinema Documentary Editing. "People felt they were in a time tunnel."