The story of the Warsaw ghetto is one of the hallmarks of the Holocaust saga. Further distinguished as a resistance movement that rose against the Nazis by Jews with little to fight with and nothing left to lose. Heroism at its historical best, the Warsaw ghetto stands as a testament to the durability of man in the face of unbeatable odds, and the consequence of malevolent politics.
There have been many books, plays and novels about the Warsaw Ghetto and its uprising. The new documentary “A Film Unfinished” is not about Warsaw—it is Warsaw.

Directed by Israeli filmmaker, Yael Hersonski, a special screening was held on August 2, at USC’s School for Cinematic Arts, in Los Angeles, in the Ray Stark family theater. An eclectic crowd gathered consisting of film students mixed in with both Christians and Jews who come to events like this on a continual search to try and understand the phenomenon of evil.

After the Nazis walled in 500,000 people in a three square mile area, they wanted to chronicle their achievement through photos and film. Although most of this documentation has been lost or destroyed there is one 62 minute reel that was discovered in East Germany in 1954, left over after the Soviets had ransacked the entire archive, and hauled everything left to Moscow. Why this was one reel was left behind is only speculative at this point. Produced in May of 1942, only a few months before the massive deportations began, it covers the bulk of the raw footage in “A Film Unfinished.”

Shot as a propaganda film until very recently it was thought to be “truth.” Studied by western historians for decades it was the only primary source film available.

Then several years ago, a second reel was found. Showing the Nazi filmmakers doing scenes over and over again, from different angles and different set ups, the outtakes reel caught the Nazis in their deceit 60 years after the fact.

Nevertheless, the original 62 minutes has infinite primary historical value and Hersonski exploits that asset in her work. One example of this is identifying who these victims are. Since so many families and whole communities were completely wiped out by the Shoah, and have no one to speak for them, it is the never ending task of Holocaust students to try to put names and histories to these individuals. The film did exactly that on two occasions, a woman who was known to be begging for a piece of bread while she held her infant in her arms walking up and down the street and a street performer dancing on a corner with lots of people huddled around staged for the Nazi cameras.

We know now that by the time this film was being produced hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been murdered in Byelorussia, capped by the incident at Babi Yar and with the Wansee conference in January of that year, the “final solution” had already been decided. It’s all too overwhelming how the efficiency of the Nazi machine went about taking its notes and making its mark for the thousand year Reich. The ones who ordered this film were well aware by May of that year what would be the fate of Warsaw’s Jews.

The barbarous nature of Nazi brutality is well documented and it’s further codified in this film.

Of course, they wanted the world to see that they were not mistreating their Jewish wards as rumored, so they staged scenes of Jews in normal daily activities, eating in restaurants, sunbathing in the warm May sun, and buying food from a market place that is about as packed with foodstuffs as any in the world. The narrator tells us that maybe 20-50 people could actually afford to buy food in the ghetto.

The sea of humanity on Lezno st., and other main thoroughfares staged to show that it may be crowded but life goes on for Jews even in a wartime economy—they will all be dead in a couple of months.

Unforgettable are the scenes that show Jews one or two at a time, and with each the director tells them to turn their heads slowly one way or the other. Each four or five second spot is obvious that this is an attempt by the Nazis, preoccupied with racial theories to show that Jews were inferior to the Arian physique.

Unable to forget these images, the close-ups throughout the film reveal the vicitims’ vacant death on expressionless faces that haunt the viewer and clings to the mind’s imaging well after the experience ends.

Remember the original footage is “unfinished” so all the raw cuts are still part of the reel. The subsequent piles of human bodies waiting for mass burial, corroborates the historical axiom that any Jew left behind Nazi lines after the war started in 1939 was marked for extermination. They never had a chance.

One of the most disturbing scenes was the mikveh. Both men and women were subjected to a degrading display of being forced to disrobe and enter the pool. Mortified faces deprived of even the simplest human modesty, the women were obviously being told how and where to move. Sixty eight years across time and still, that humiliation is not lost on the viewer.

Hersonski explained that Germans were obsessed with the camera. They took extra pictures, some for their own personal use. This explains a color reel discovered which Hersonski shows in her film. It is so out of place though, it probably could have been left out of this particular story. But, Germans taking photos and filming on their own opens up the possibility that there are others, reels of historical gold sitting in someone’s attic somewhere waiting to be discovered by descendants who didn’t know it was there.

Hersonski makes good use of survivors to tangibly connect our world to that past. From memories as children and teenagers, now mostly in their 80s, several of these people watched the film and commented on what they remembered. Showing the people up close, getting every little facial expression of nightmares ingrained so deep into their psyche, even to the point where one woman shielded her eyes during the mikveh scene.

As the survivors continue to die out and the events of the Holocaust transform from a physical real life experience into an historical past, it’s incumbent on the present generation to do what is necessary to preserve that past. Yael Hersonski has done that with “A film Unfinished.” It stands on its own as a primary document of a few weeks of life in the Warsaw ghetto before it was extinguished. It’s an important film, one that inspires us to remember and implores us never to forget.

Jewish community examiner

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