Monday, August 16, 2010

What's this? A FILM UNFINISHED by Yael Hersonski discovers an archived, Nazi-made movie about the Warsaw Ghetto

After all the films made about life (and death) in the Warsaw Ghetto – from Polanski’s award-winning The Pianist to the rather silly Jews-fight-back-while-falling-in-love War and Love (aka The Children’s War), not to mention countless documentaries -- it is still a kick in the gut and the head to experience a movie like the new A FILM UNFINISHED from documentarian Yael Hersonski (shown below). Whatever the "magic of movies" (and I'm a firm believer in same), to my mind no narrative film I've yet seen begins to pack the punch of watching a documentary that covers the actual Holocaust.  There is something about the reality of documentary film that wipes the floor with the near-impossible-to-resist romanticizing that occurs in narrative Holocaust movies, from Schindler's List to whichever film you care to name. (Only, to a major extent, at least, Lajos Kotai's Fateless manages to avoid -- or maybe incorporate -- this in a way that does not end up somehow reducing the Holocaust.)

TrustMovies imagined, foolishly of course, that he was by now immune to further shocks about this event, but as usual, there's always room for one more.  As much footage over the decades as he's seen about the Warsaw Ghetto and the fate of its inhabitants, Hersonski's film breaks new ground. In it, the director shows and tells of the discovery of a single copy of an hour-long film -- unfinished -- shot by and for the Nazis in that ghetto in May of 1942. Labeled only Ghetto, this film had lay untouched since some time after WWII in an East German vault/archive.

That film is both a documentary and a faux documentary, as the Nazis appear to have documented the horrors of their ghetto but have also used some of the healthier looking Jews to create scenes of supposedly wealthy Semites partaking in "fun" activities -- dancing (below), dining and, hmmm, other things -- while their poorer brethren suffer terribly from want -- and being noticeably disdainful of them in the process. We learn some of this information because an actual cameraman on the project, one Willy Wist, was found along the way (captured once in his actual Nazi uniform) and speaks to us here about the film.

While we're being once again steeped in the horror of the Holocaust, we are also being made aware -- yet again -- of how film, "documentary film" at that, can lie like a rug.  Another layer is provided by actual Warsaw Ghetto survivors who watch the film with us, but on screen, and comment on various parts and situations.  "A flower?!" asks one of these viewers with disdain, as one of the "faux wealthy" Jews arranges a bouquet in a vase.  "Whoever saw a flower in that place?  We would have eaten it!"  As hard as it is for us to view this film, what must it be like for these survivors?  One woman, in a combination of expectation and fear, asks, "What if I recognize someone I knew...?!"  The faces of these women, along with another male survivor, watching as corpses slide down into a mass grave is one of many disturbing "keeper" images that the film provides.

Another layer of information and feeling is provided via the diary kept by the Jew-in-Charge-of-the-Ghetto-Jews, Adam Cherniakov. One can only wonder what he would make of some of the ridiculous "scenes" the Nazis created in their film:  the "circumcision," the ritual bath in which men and women bathe naked together, or the many "takes" the cameramen had to manage in order to get the correct piece of "reality." We see some of these, and they would be a hoot, were the subject matter different.

Finally, it is the very idea of this film that should command one's imagination most tightly. When is a film "real," and when is a real film "fake"?  For a blog with the name TrustMovies, this has partic-
ular meaning.  I still stand by my thesis that movies are indeed to be trusted.  Sometimes as much for their falsity (and what this signifies) as for their truth. In any case -- in every case -- we first have to know how to "read" them.

A Film Unfinished, via Oscilloscope Laboratories, begins its premiere U.S. theatrical run in New York City at Film Forum this Wednesday, August 18.  Click here for the FF performance schedule. You can find the complete list of upcoming playdates, theaters and cities here.

(Photos are from the film, except that of Ms Hersonski, 
cribbed from the web courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.)

No comments: