Does it matter that a young Israeli filmmaker’s imaginative reconstruction of an abandoned Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw Ghetto is not, strictly speaking, a documentary? Not if it sets a crucial historical record straight. Discovered by East German archivists after World War II and accepted for decades as one of the few visual documents of life inside the ghetto, the 1942 film—in which rich Jews lived the high life in the ghetto, while ignoring or exploiting the suffering of the poor Jews—was revealed as manipulative distortion once a British film researcher uncovered a fifth reel of outtakes in 1998. Mixing staged scenes with documentary footage of starving or dying Jews, the new footage made clear that the Nazis forced more prosperous-looking Jews into service as actors in order to portray the ghetto as a place of unpalatable extremes they created themselves.
Filmmaker Yael Hersonski, herself the granddaughter of a Warsaw Ghetto survivor, rebuilt the rough cuts into A Film Unfinished, adding commentary from nine survivors as they watch, as well as excerpts from the buried archives of de facto ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum, the diary of a Jewish community leader who subsequently committed suicide, and damning testimony from Willy Wist, the only Nazi cameraman ever identified as having been employed on the project.
Like many cogs in the wheel of the Third Reich, Wist pleaded ignorance of the larger ambitions behind the project. And, indeed, it’s hard to tell what the Nazi filmmakers had in mind, beyond pinning the blame for the Third Reich’s horrific handiwork on the Jews themselves.
To modern audiences at least, steeped in imagery of the Holocaust and other genocides, the sequences manipulated by the Nazis look crudely tacked on. The artificial look of the added footage, counterpointed by the commentary of inmates and survivors, only underscores the unending shock of the film’s unadulterated images, even though we have seen them in other Shoah documentaries. This is all compounded by our hindsight that this suffering, this desperate will to survive in the ghetto, led all but a handful either to Treblinka or to a brave but quixotic uprising.
Here again, and necessarily so, we witness the overcrowding of a typhus-ridden population squeezed into a smaller and smaller area; the shrunken faces, huge eyes, and enlarged ears of a people being starved to death; captured children shaking smuggled food out of their clothes under the eyes of German soldiers; Jews forced to dance over corpses; bodies lying in the streets while the (barely) living walk by in seeming indifference. Perhaps the most wrenching testimony comes from an elderly Israeli survivor of the ghetto who, watching the film, covers her eyes, then finds solace in the fact that she has recovered enough humanity to find her past unbearable.