A Film Unfinished Review

This new documentary looks at footage filmed and often staged by the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942

Yael Hersonski’s documentary A Film Unfinished is largely comprised of extraordinary footage shot by the Nazis in Warsaw in 1942 and presumably intended to serve as propaganda. Sixty minutes of film was contained in canisters with the simple label of “Das Ghetto” affixed but sat untouched in an East German archive until the end of World War II. The contents of the footage is predictably gruesome, with starvation having ravaged the bodies of countless Jewish men and women. By the end of the film, we see many being slid down a chute into a mass grave. In some horrific way this aspect feels less like an education than yet another confirmation of the horrors of the Nazis. Where the documentary takes a fascinating turn is in detailing how the Nazis staged much of what they filmed. It wasn’t enough to just chronicle the ugliness and deprivations as they actually happened. Entire scenarios were created to depict some Jews as selfishly living a life of luxury complete with feasts and happy times.

Augmenting the Warsaw footage in A Film Unfinished are readings taken from the diaries and other documents of people who were there, both Nazis and Jews, and the individual, emotional reactions of a few survivors as they see the black and white film projected in a cinema. The choice was also made to use the only one of the Nazi cameramen to be identified, named Wally Wist, as a recurring figure. His words are spoken by an actor in a reenactment. In terms of trying to gain more information about the meaning behind the Warsaw footage and what the Nazis’ intentions were, these accounts prove invaluable. They place the footage as something beyond just propaganda or documentation. What’s here seems to be a systematic attempt by the Nazis to create proof of a fiction they wished to perpetrate about the Jewish people and their way of life. This idea was hardly unique to the footage taken in Warsaw. Propaganda was a huge part of the Nazis’ campaign against the Jews, but once again seeing the sort of tactics they used straddles the line between fascination and deep disgust.

Still, it’s to the credit of Hersonski’s movie that anger, or any other emotion for that matter, is never forced on the viewer. This is a documentary for people who like documentaries. It’s not showy and it realizes that the power truly lies in its images rather than any obvious slant it might fancy taking. The telling is sober, straightforward. Each one of the four reels is allowed to run out and then be replaced by the next until the film’s end. An occasional narrator is only here to guide us through what we’re seeing and provide background. Certainly the documentary could have been made with a greater tension and drama, and sometimes the dryness of what we see makes it seem like a small jolt wouldn’t have hurt, but that’s clearly not the approach intended. It not need be, either, as this is forever an important subject given somewhat fresh light by the addition of what’s contained in Hersonski’s documentary.

The only potential reservations about A Film Unfinished that I can see involve the issue of fatigue concerning the travesties brought on by the Nazis. It can be disheartening to regularly revisit via film the atrocious ideas and images of the Holocaust. In this instance at least, the documentary does try to shed new light on sometimes worn subject matter. And yet it still has plenty of horrific images to share like the circumcision of a baby Jew, humiliation via nudity and the myriad victims who are shown as having shrunk to little more than skin and bones. The difference here, I suppose, is that these are not concentration or death camps being shown, but the streets of Warsaw. That distinction has to be emphasized. The worst was still yet to come for many. So if what we see here is slightly staid, a little clinical, then it registers as more of a respect for the viewer than a shortcoming.

The Disc

Oscilloscope Laboratories has given A Film Unfinished a region-free DVD release. The dual-layered NTSC disc is housed in Oscilloscope’s usual all-cardboard packaging style consisting of an outer slipcover box with a handsome multi-tiered digipak on the inside.

The film is 1.78:1 but this frequently becomes pillarboxed to allow for the 1.33:1 footage to maintain its native aspect ratio. It’s been progressively transferred. Contemporary scenes shot for this documentary are often somewhat dark and shadowed but nonetheless look fine in the context of the presentation. There are no issues that arise with this portion. The archival Warsaw footage does vary in quality, as is to be expected. Much of it, though, is quite remarkably clean and detailed, showing only mild damage. That these film reels were only delicately touched for years has likely allowed for a lack of evident wear and tear.

Audio is an agreeable two-channel stereo track that combines several different languages. English, German, Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish are all spoken at points during the film. There’s narration in English and then the reading of various documents in their native languages. Clarity and volume are consistent. Two different English language subtitle options are provided but not forced. One track translates everything spoken that isn’t in English while the other is intended for the hearing impaired and subtitles the entire film. These subtitles are white in color and use different font sizes, with the latter appearing larger.

Oscilloscope continues to be one of the precious few North American distributors to actively put a strong effort in finding and creating supplemental material for its releases. An interview (14:34) with author and film researcher Adrian Wood covers some more background of the Warsaw footage. Next is scholar Michael Berenbaum briefly discussing (3:36) part of the importance of A Film Unfinished.

The strongest impact comes from the 1945 short film “Death Mills” (21:06), directed by Billy Wilder and presented here in a new telecine. The footage on display, taken of various concentration camps soon after they were liberated, becomes enormously difficult to sit through at times. But despite how nauseating these images should forever be, they are of deep importance and require witnessing simply as a reminder of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. The straightforward, unvarnished manner of presentation in “Death Mills” makes for as powerful and upsetting a viewing experience as any film I’ve ever seen.

For educators wishing to show A Film Unfinished to their students, Oscilloscope has included a Study Guide in PDF form on the disc. This can be accessed by inserting the disc into a computer.

A new essay by Annette Insdorf, where she favorably includes A Film Unfinished alongside Night and Fog and the Polish documentary Photographer, is printed directly on the inside of the packaging.

clydefro jones

Updated: Mar 08, 2011

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