Spotlight on A Film Unfinished
"For almost half a century, an unfinished Nazi propaganda film of the Warsaw Ghetto, simply titled Das Ghetto and discovered by East German archivists after the war, was used by scholars and historians as a flawed but authentic record of ghetto life," reports Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times. She continues, "In A Film Unfinished the Israeli director Yael Hersonski embarks on a critical analysis of Das Ghetto that is remarkable as much for its speculative restraint as for its philosophical reach. Moving methodically reel by reel and acknowledging the "many layers of reality," the director creates a palimpsest of impressions from multiple, meticulously researched sources representing both victims and oppressors."
Michelle Kung from the Wall Street Journal agrees, offering that A Film Unfinished, "forces viewers to reconsider the use of historical footage in Holocaust films."
Eric Kohn from indieWIRE adds: "[Heronski's] technique displays the skill of a masterful archivist rather than filmmaker, but A Film Unfinished certainly holds its own as a unique cinematic experience." The horrors unearthed by the archivist-filmmaker leave an indelible impression on New York Magazine‘s David Edelstein who responds, "There is too much hell in Yael Hersonski's documentary A Film Unfinished to begin to evoke it adequately. It's assembled around reels discovered in a German vault: Nazi footage of life inside the Warsaw Ghetto-half a million starving Jews squeezed into three square miles-circa 1942, before most of the population was shipped to Treblinka and the remainder lost their lives fighting back."
Four and a half years in the making, the film includes a Nazi propaganda video meant to "record for posterity examples of the religious practices and ‘sub-human culture' of the soon to be eliminated judische Rasse (Jewish race), everything from a circumcision ceremony to a burial service; from the extreme poverty of the many to the supposed lack of concern of those few Jews who still had some assets...the Nazis had no compunction about showing Jews suffering," writes Richard Z. Chessnoff of the Huffington Post. It "[R]eveals the extent to which these scenes were fabricated, with residents forced to put on a show to back up the official narrative," agrees the Hollywood Reporter‘s John DeForce.
A satisfactory response to the question raised by the title itself--why was the propaganda film never finished?--may never be found. Willy Wist, a Das Ghetto cameramen interviewed by Hersonski for the documentary, claims he was never told the purpose of the film, nor, he says, does he know why it was never finished. Shlomo Porath, in his article from Midnight East, offers a possible answer: "One can guess that perhaps the Nazis feared that even the most Jew-hating Nazi couldn't stomach the misery on display."
The Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) decision to give A Film Unfinished an ‘R' rating has been hotly contested. The MPAA justifies the rating based on graphic nudity and "disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities." Among those calling for a reconsideration of the rating is Oscilloscope, the North American distributor of A Film Unfinished. Hersonski, however, sees a certain upside to the ruling, as she relayed to the Wall Street Journal: "I don't think [the MPAA's rating is going to damage the theatrical life of this film... We now have more people that are talking about it... But I am sorry that fewer students are going to be able to see it because I truly believe it has value."
The educational importance that Hersonski alludes to is succinctly summed by Jeannette Catsoulis as the film's thesis, "When here is no one left to bear witness [to the Holocaust], how far can we trust the evidence of our eyes alone?"
Read more from: Gary Goldstein (Los Angeles Times), Michael Ceiply (New York Times), Micah Sachs (indieWIRE), John DeForce (The Hollywood Reporter), Richard Brody (The New Yorker).
*Spotlight is a regular new column of the Israel Film Center that aggregates news about a prominent Israeli film currently in theatrical distribution in the United States. We owe the format of these columns to David Hudson's fantastic blog The Daily.