In May of 1942, over a period of 30 days, just two months before the deportations to Treblinka extermination camp began, Nazi movie photographers produced a propaganda film supposedly depicting life of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. It showed Jews living in luxury amidst images of profound suffering, supposedly documenting the high life of Jews under the Nazi’s “compassionate protection,” to let the world see what paradise Jews were living in.
The film, entitled Das Ghetto, inexplicably never finished nor released, was first discovered after the war in 1954 in an East German film archive in a concrete vault hidden in a forest: a 62-minute, 35-millimeter series in four reels. The unfinished work, with no soundtrack, quickly became a resource for historians seeking an authentic record of life in the ghetto. No one was ever able to explain why it had been abandoned nor why it had survived, since it has been reported that 90 percent of Third Reich film footage was destroyed at the end of World War II.
But four years ago, Israeli writer-director Yael Hersonski discovered, with the assistance of producer Noemi Schory, the footage, stored in a Jerusalem Holocaust museum. Then, as they watched shots of “emaciated residents, corpse-strewn streets, fashionably dressed Jews entering a butcher shop ignoring beggars outside and scenes of the well-groomed Jews dancing at fancy Champagne balls,”she came across a fifth reel, discovered by a British researcher in 1998, of 30 minutes of outtakes. A deceit uncovered, this film revealed that all had been staged, entire scenes reshot, shots of camera men staging and manipulating actors, many of whom were soon deported.
This later discovery of the long-missing reel, “a truth untold,” complicated earlier interpretations, showing the manipulations of camera crews in these “everyday” scenes. Well-dressed Jews attending elegant dinners and theatricals now appeared as actors unwillingly participating, fearful of their ultimate fate. The fifth reel even captured cameramen standing and filming.
Hersonki assembled the reels as a testimony of survivors into a heart-rending, not-to-miss soundtrack-free Holocaust documentary. Thus was born one of the most gripping, most important, enlightening movies of the Holocaust. Her film, A Film Unfinished, may now be viewed in selected theaters in Orange County and Los Angeles. The film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award.
Originally driven by a deep concern that soon there would be no survivors left to bear witness to the atrocities they had experienced, Hersonki, 34, set out to find survivors who would be willing to witness the horrifying events of their youth and be willing to permit her camera to record their reactions. “I wanted to show what was documented without humiliation,” she said. She decided on five witnesses: one man and four women who remembered the filming. The camera catches their reactions as they privately watch the haunting, painful footage.
Of the heart-wrenching scenes, none is more poignant than the women who fearfully asks, “What if I see someone I know?” Another confirms, “The piles of garbage are real.” And another comments on a staged scene: “When did you ever see a flower? We would have eaten the flower!” And one cringes at the sight of naked men and women being forced at gunpoint into a ritual bath.
There are shots of emaciated children, eyes listless, sitting blandly, huddled against a wall, some without shoes, contrasting a staged smiling, well-dressed little boy dancing in the street. There are starving Jews gazing uncomprehendingly at the Nazi cameras, well-dressed Jews stepping over dead bodies on the sidewalk, and a pretty young woman squirming with discomfort as she is forced to pose alongside a beggar.
The film re-creates the original war crimes interrogation of late Das Ghetto cameraman Willi Wist, who states that he never knew the purpose of what he was filming. In an example of staged natural effect, a shot is fired to induce people to panic.
The film incorporates new insights of life in the ghetto through readings from personal diaries, including those of Amad Cherniakov, head of the Jewish Council. His apartment was used by the Nazis to stage several scenes, including the marching in of several rabbis, even to the addition of a nine-candled menorah. From 1939 to 1942 Cherniakov was responsible for implementing Nazi orders. (He reportedly committed suicide before having to organize its citizens’ mass deportation to the Treblinka concentration camp.) Minutely detailed reports of the ghetto commissioner Heinz Auerswald also provide vivid insight into the restrictions of daily life and the methods of the Nazi filmmakers.
The “recycled bits and pieces in dozens of documentaries on the Holocaust, have been used – actually misused – without context,” Hersonki stated. “I felt as if the lack of specificity had disabled viewers from fully understanding this exact part of history. I wanted to change that.”
Narration was enhanced by Israeli musician Rona Kenan. Film editor was Joelle Alexis.