×

A Film Unfinished

A unique film-within-a-film, of significance for the historical value of the raw images.

With:
(Hebrew, German, Polish, Yiddish, English dialogue)

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.

A Film Unfinished

Docu - Germany-Israel

Production: A Belfilms production in association with MDR, SWR, Yes.Docu and Arte. (International sales: Cinephil, Tel Aviv.) Produced by Itay Ken-Tor, Noemi Schory. Directed by Yael Hersonski.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W, DV), Itai Neeman; editor, Joelle Alexis; music, Ishai Adar; sound designer, Aviv Aldema. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema, competing), Jan. 29, 2010. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- Panorama.) Running time: 89 MIN.

With: (Hebrew, German, Polish, Yiddish, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Apollo 11

    Film News Roundup: 'Apollo 11' Re-Release Set for Moon Landing Anniversary

    In today’s film news roundup, Neon is re-releasing “Apollo 11”; “Sesame Street” gets moved; “Supersize Me 2” is set for Sept. 13; Will Ropp gets a “Silk Road” deal; and Apple makes a movie deal. RE-LAUNCH Neon will re-release Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary “Apollo 11” in theaters on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the [...]

  • Michael B. JordanAFI Awards Luncheon, Los

    Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy' Moves to Awards Season Slot

    Michael B. Jordan’s upcoming legal drama “Just Mercy” has been shifted forward three weeks from Jan. 17 to Dec. 25 for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. “Just Mercy” is based on the case of Walter McMillan, an African-American death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 1993 after being convicted five years earlier for a 1986 murder in [...]

  • Harry Styles to Play Prince Eric

    Harry Styles in Talks to Play Prince Eric in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Harry Styles is going under the sea. The former One Direction frontman is in early negotiations to play Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

  • Stuber Movie

    Disney Left With a Slate of Film Flops After Fox Deal

    Is Disney having buyer’s remorse? The studio would be forgiven if it were having some regrets after absorbing 20th Century Fox, the company that once generated big box office with the likes of “Avatar,” “Life of Pi,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” After “Dark Phoenix” bombed earlier this summer, Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista’s action comedy “Stuber” [...]

  • Taika Waititi Returning to Direct 'Thor

    Taika Waititi to Direct Marvel's 'Thor 4'

    Taika Waititi is returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The filmmaker will write and direct the sequel to his 2017 blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok.” Waititi’s take on the fourth “Thor” movie puts Warner Bros.’ long-in-development “Akira” adaptation on hold indefinitely. However, the studio hopes that “Akira” can get resume production with Waititi at the helm once [...]

  • Akira

    'Akira' Production Put on Hold by Warner Bros.

    Warner Bros. has put its long-in-development “Akira” adaptation on hold indefinitely, sources tell Variety. Sources indicate that after a brief delay, the studio has pulled the plug on production indefinitely for the classic anime adaptation, which was set to begin later this fall. “Thor: Ragnarok” helmer Taika Waititi was on board to direct, and the [...]

  • Sir Elton John, David Furnish. Sir

    New Elton John AIDS Foundation Gala to be Held in the South of France

    Elton John and David Furnish are launching a new gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The two will host the inaugural A Midsummer Party benefit on July 24 in the south of France at the Johnny Pigozzi’s private estate, Villa Dorane, in Cap d’Antibes. A cocktail reception will be followed by dinner, a live [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content