A Film Unfinished
Directed by Yael Hersonski
An hour-long, uncompleted film often excerpted for its "documentary" view of life in the Warsaw Ghetto gets duly filed under propaganda in Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished, a mostly clear-eyed, if uncomfortably slick, corrective to the visual record of the Holocaust. By drawing on the uncompleted film itself, as well as a reel of unused takes and journal entries by a key participant in the spring 1942 production—a 30-day shoot soon after which deportations to Treblinka began—Hersonski exposes the film as deliberately staged; freeze-framing and zooming in on fleetingly visible crew members is a favored gotcha move. The full-on Nazi fiction—simply labeled The Ghetto in an East German archive—presents invented inequalities in the three-square-mile ghetto: Select Jews live in opulent apartments and gorge themselves at restaurants, cruelly indifferent all the while to the extreme poverty and suffering around them.
Hersonski shows the film to former residents of the ghetto, all of whom recall encountering its crew while roaming the streets in their youth. Some of them admit to scanning each frame of The Ghetto for the faces of friends and family, bringing to mind the scene in W.G. Sebald's archive-mining Austerlitz in which the title character combs through a slowed-down, time-stamped videocassette of footage from the Theresienstadt ghetto for a trace of his mother—though these viewers dread such a recognition more than they anticipate it.
Hersonski tricks out her film further, barely stopping long enough to let any of it sink in. She also includes a reenactment of an interview with German cameraman Willy Wist starring onetime Wim Wenders collaborator Rüdiger Vogler; though these sequences are a minor part of the film, and though the actor's face is mostly obscured in them, it's nonetheless a little jarring to encounter a stylized dramatization like this in a film that otherwise argues so persuasively for the importance of distinguishing between documentary and fiction filmmaking techniques, especially where the historical record is concerned. A Film Unfinished marshals a wealth of research toward a strong, basically inarguable point—that this piece of propaganda cannot be mistaken any longer for a presentation of life as it was in the Warsaw Ghetto—but in attempting maximize the accessibility of her horrifying material, Hersonski makes some questionable creative decisions.
Opens August 18 at Film Forum