In 1954 four 35mm reels of unedited footage were found in an East German archive. The Nazis simply labeled the reels Das Ghetto and never saw the film to completion. The footage was shot in May of 1942, two and a half years after the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto. In the years since, snippets of the films have appeared in countless documentaries. But it wasn’t until 1998, when a British researcher unearthed a fifth reel in a Jerusalem Holocaust museum, that it was clear that the film was staged for propaganda purposes.
The idea of making a film about a film intrigued Yael Hersonski, a 32-year-old director who learned German and moved to Berlin to work on what would eventually become A Film Unfinished. The movie, which opened on September 24 in Boston, was pre-screened last month by the Boston Jewish Film Festival. The next day Hersonski answered questions about the film and the feelings it engendered in her at her publicist’s office.
“Like the film,” Hersonski said, “we’ll never be finished with the Holocaust.” She recounted the many Holocaust films she saw during her school years and was determined to distinguish her film by “interviewing five survivors in the Warsaw Ghetto as they watched the film. I focused on their faces, isolated in the darkness. They were all in their 80s, but something in their eyes testified to their vitality, their strength of spirit.”
Hersonski said that her greater goal was to make audiences de facto witnesses to the Holocaust through the Nazi’s faux sociological cataloguing of Jewish life and ritual. For example, the filmmakers go to great lengths to convey a fictional socioeconomic hierarchy in the Ghetto. There are scenes of supposedly wealthy Jews who had lavish dinner parties as their fellow Jews died of starvation around them.
Yael Hersonski, who graduated from the prestigious Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem thinks of herself as a documentarian. But she still keeps her day job editing Israeli versions of televisions shows like In Treatment and The Office. She notes that television work kept her “sane” as her research deepened and intensified during the making of A Film Unfinished.
Hersonski doesn’t shy away from controversy. As the film’s director she grappled with whether showing naked Jews rushing into a mikveh was crucial to collective Jewish memory or deeply disrespectful. The scene is among the more disturbing in a film made up of disquieting images.
Hersonski explained that she was “obsessed with the ethical question: Am I repeating the humiliation of the first film makers? I think in the end the scene shows the sadism of the filmmakers. It also clearly shows the humiliation of the people forced into the mikveh. But by including this scene, I think I gave these people their dignity back.”
An actor recreates the post-war testimony of the late Willi Wist, the in the Warsaw Ghetto who shot most of the footage. Wist died in 1999, but Hersonski tracked down transcripts of interviews he gave about his experience, using them to great effect as the film’s narrative. She points out that without a soundtrack there is “much more intensity for the viewer who is only left with speculation.”
She declines to judge Wist as a Nazi war criminal, but notes that a whole nation participated in the genocide of the Jews. Hersonski prefers to address other philosophical queries. For example, she contends that, “the world of images is changing all the time. It’s important to be aware of this bombardment and not to be victimized by it again and again.”