Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Film Unfinished

Fake Jewish opulence, as seen in Nazi propaganda.
Article first published as DVD Review: A Film Unfinished on Blogcritics.

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.

The footage itself is silent, but is often accompanied by a reading of Adam Czerniakow’s diary entries. The leader of the ghetto’s Jewish Council tells a markedly different story than what the images portray. We also hear from a German cameraman in interviews where his face is almost always obfuscated or pushed to the very edge of the frame. It adds a haunting quality to his recollections, and it’s clear he feels rather haunted himself.

A Film Unfinished pits truth against lies over and over, and its lessons have as much to do with the nature of documentary filmmaking as they do the Holocaust. The self-deception necessary to commit the atrocious crimes of the Nazis had to have been enormous, and the film confirms that duplicity was at the very heart of the operation.

The DVD includes an excellent slate of bonus features, including Billy Wilder’s 1945 short "Death Mills". The film was shot for the U.S. War Department with the intention of being shown in Germany to educate citizens on the horrors their leaders had committed. It’s an extraordinarily difficult film to watch, as shot after shot of waxy, skeletal corpses continually underline the scope of the massacre. It’s especially eye-opening in its final moments when a cadre of German civilians are taken to see the freshly liberated camps. They begin the journey as happy-go-lucky travelers, but you can practically see the blood drain from their faces as they come face-to-face with reality. It’s an excellent film, worth including in any serious consideration of Holocaust films.

Also on the disc are a 15-minute interview with film scholar Adrian Wood, who discusses the discovery of the footage, and the aforementioned three-minute interview with Berenbaum.

A PDF study guide is included on the disc for educators, and it can be accessed with a DVD-ROM drive.

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