A Film Unfinished is a film staged as documentary about a film staged as documentary. The subject in question comprises four single reels, identified only by the inscription “Das Ghetto” and abandoned by the Nazis in a secret archive. Partially edited, without an audio track, and complemented with alternate takes discovered in 1998 at a US Air Force base, the footage shot in the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1942 constitutes most of A Film Unfinished. Yael Hersonski supplements the source material with her own voice-overs, readings from the diaries of ghetto prisoners, scenes of a reconstruction of a tribunal interview with the only identified cameraman, scenes of four survivors individually viewing and reacting to a screening of the footage, and shots of the archive, projector, canisters, and film.
Without supplements, “Das Ghetto” would probably strike most viewers as documentary, a historical document depicting images of the torments of the starving and the comforts of the wealthy. Most of the film is a crude juxtaposition of corpses, actual or soon-to-be, and banalities that in the context of their setting become monstrous — fancy coats, dancing, dining. What Hersonski reveals for us is that the camera crew has been dispatched to make a film, not a record. A cafe is ordered to serve food to “actors” (Jews pressed into thespian service). A crowd is told both to watch a theater performance for hours, without break, and to laugh heartily. A scene in which Jewish police disband a large crowd only occurred because SS officers corralled people in the street and subsequently ordered the Jewish police to disperse them, firing shots to generate panic.
Like the violence that produced the conditions of the ghetto, the incredible violence that produced suitable conditions for filming is here almost invisible. There are, however, brief moments that exceed the control of the cameramen that illuminate the frame and constructedness of their project. First, the camera is often unable to avert the genuine and penetrating gazes of defiance, curiosity, and terror. Second, the filmic gaze occasionally and accidentally fixes the crew, uniformed or holding equipment. Finally, “Jews don’t bury their dead in a coffin,” as one survivor points out while watching the staging of a dignified funeral.
A motivating question posed throughout is: to what end were the Nazis filming the Warsaw Ghetto mere weeks before the opening of Treblinka? The answer that Hersonski and some of the survivors offer is that the film was intended to work as cultural evidence of the necessity of genocide. A bris, two ritual baths, holiday rituals: these manifestations of ethnicity were somehow already self-indicting in the eyes of Nazi propagandists. In other words, the ears of Nazi posterity might have heard “This is what we dealt with” when confronted with evidence of Jewish culture.
It is sobering to think that in itself “Das Ghetto” can tell us almost anything (or rather almost nothing). Framed merely as a film, we would assume the similitude of its images — the honesty of its portrayal. Even after viewing it in the frame of A Film Unfinished, Sundance makes the (amazing) claim that “Hersonski relentlessly screens each reel as ghetto survivors and (amazingly) one of the original cameramen recall actual events.” Assuming the cameraman, Willy Wist, was 25 at the time of filming, he would now be 93. His testimony was acted by Rüdiger Vogler, credited.
Besides telling us about history, then, A Film Unfinished also tells us about film. One such revelation is that one uses a camera to shoot because it is a weapon, a weapon that an unnamed Nazi filmmaker and his crew sought to employ in the eradication of Jewish people. In her turn, Hersonski aims film’s weapon back at itself, seeking to undermine its power and instead find truth.