Holocaust films are numerous, and though reminding audiences of the atrocities therein is an important element to include — especially in a documentary — the best examples enlighten further. As scholar Michael Berenbaum says in an extra on this DVD, what does the film have to add to what we already know?
Yael Hersonski’s bracing A Film Unfinished enriches our understanding greatly — both in terms of facts about the Nazi-propaganda machine and a more abstract knowledge about the nature of images and what we see. It’s an appropriately uncomfortable film to sit through, but it’s more than “just another” Holocaust documentary.
The film traces the origins of a mysterious piece of Nazi propaganda — simply titled Das Ghetto — that was discovered unfinished shortly after the war ended. It wasn’t until recently that additional footage was discovered, shedding light on the methods and the intentions of the Nazis to portray the Warsaw ghetto as a fulfilling place for the Jewish people forced to live there.
The lies are audacious. Scenes are staged to show Jews enjoying fancy dinners and cultural delights, and the general sense is that the ghetto life is perfectly satisfying — luxurious even. Outtakes that were discovered later show certain scenes being filmed a number of times from different camera angles, and if the deception weren’t appalling enough already, footage of emaciated bodies being dumped into mass graves is certainly enough to shatter the illusion.
Hersonski often lets the images speak for themselves, forcing the viewer to evaluate every piece of visual information he or she takes in. The effect extends beyond the audience to a number of inhabitants of the ghetto — now in their 70s and 80s — being shown the footage in a screening room. The painful recognition on their faces makes it clear that these are more than just images, more than simply the ephemera of celluloid.