In May 1942, a Nazi crew began shooting footage in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto intended for use in an eventual propaganda film. Although such a picture was never finished, bits of this material have found their way into countless documentaries and comprise essential visual documentation of the doomed district. In hushed tones and with a steely sense-ordered methodology, “A Film Unfinished” unveils the full hour of unedited material lensed before the Germans called a halt, along with commentary from five ghetto survivors and one cameraman. As such, it stands as a unique film-within-a-film, of significance for the historical value of the raw images, the memories they spur and internal evidence of how the Nazis staged scenes long assumed to be real. A large TV and homevid public awaits after a fest tour.
Familiar-feeling street scenes dominate the first reel, with throngs of people, some looking a bit shabby but others not, making their way along Leszno, the main commercial street, on foot, in bicycle-propelled taxis and on animal-drawn wagons. Director Yael Hersonski’s narration informs that the footage documents conditions 2 1/2 years after the formation of the ghetto, a three-square-mile area occupied by a half-million people that served as “a holding pen before the final destination,” one to which vast numbers of those on view would be sent within three months of the film’s making.
“What if I see someone I know?” cries one of the old female survivors as she looks away from the images being projected for her in a screening room. Three other women and a man add their memories as they individually regard the indelible images from their youths, which include everything from well-stocked food stands to ordinary people stepping over corpses lying on the sidewalk.
German cameraman Willy Wist is quoted as saying that, “We were concentrating on the extreme differences between rich Jews and poor Jews.” This is borne out in patently staged scenes in which well-dressed characters are shown socializing in well-appointed rooms, while one of the witnesses declares that “there were between 20 and 50 wealthy people in the ghetto.”
Unless it was to stress the point that Jews of all walks of life occupied the ghetto, it remains, as Hersonski says, difficult to discern what sort of effective propaganda film could have resulted from footage that mostly ranges from the mundane to the grim and ghastly. Perhaps that’s why the Germans canceled the production, having had the same realization.
The pretend high-life scenes aside, the remaining street footage appears “real” until certain shots reveal film crew members slipping into view to arrange things to their liking. To what extent this compromises the historical worth of the material as a whole can be debated. But, with the exception of some rare color footage, it all becomes grimmer and altogether too real toward the end, with young men shown shoving corpses down slides into a mass grave.
The docu has been made in a careful, academic manner, with editing and explanations making everything clear and answering most questions viewers could raise. The presence of the witnesses adds immediacy and emotion, of course, and serves as a reminder to younger audiences that the events happened within a lifetime ago. For archivally oriented scholars, it’s a real boon to have all the footage now intact and publicly accessible.