A few years after the end of World War II, in a concrete vault hidden deep in the German forest, a four-reel, hour-long Nazi propaganda film was found. Titled Ghetto, the silent, grainy movie purported to depict life in the Warsaw Ghetto circa 1942, showing well-heeled Jews attending the theater, living in luxurious houses and dressing in fine suits and furs while ignoring the plight of their starving neighbors literally dying in the streets.
For decades, the footage was the only known filmed record of the ghetto, a three-square-mile area into which half a million Jews crammed. Then, in 1998, a fifth reel was discovered – this one comprised of alternate takes and unused footage – that demonstrated in ways big and small just how insidious the Nazi propaganda machine was. In A Film Unfinished, director Yael Hersonski screens Ghetto for Holocaust survivors, whose faces register a combination of horror and hope that they may glimpse someone they once knew in the shots of the crowded streets.
Using diaries scrupulously kept by Adam Czerniakow, the Jewish Council leader in Warsaw, and court transcripts by Willy Wist, a cameraman who shot the movie and later testified during Germany’s war-crime trials, Hersonski creates a sort of narration to accompany the images. The Nazis’ intent was to show the world how uncaring upper-class Jews were toward their less-fortunate brethren, using actors to play dress-up and waltz in nightclubs that didn’t really exist.
But although the propaganda angle is historically fascinating, the harrowing footage from ghetto exerts a horrific pull, depicting the decrepit living conditions, the overcrowding and unsanitary atmosphere and the malnourished faces of children whose ages are often difficult to ascertain. “People lived here,” one of the survivors watching the movie says about the Warsaw Ghetto. “They lived here until they died.” With that simple, plainspoken statement, A Film Unfinished reminds you that the nightmare of the Holocaust knows no limits.
Director: Yael Hersonski.
Producers: Noemi Schory, Itay Ken-Tor.
An Oscilloscope Laboratories release. Running time: 90 minutes. In English and Hebrew with English subtitles. Opens Friday Nov. 5 in Miami-Dade: Intracoastal; in Broward: Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray Beach, Mizner Park, Royal, Garden.