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Movie Review

A Film Unfinished

Behind the lies of Nazi propaganda: ‘Unfinished’ documents double horror

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 24, 2010

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Far more than “just’’ another Holocaust documentary, “A Film Unfinished’’ tackles issues of memory, history, intent — the lies of propaganda as they bend the truth of what we see. Within Yael Hersonski’s devastating documentary is nestled another film: four reels of silent footage — an hour’s worth — of the Warsaw Ghetto, shot by the Nazis in May 1942, and discovered a decade later amid the shelves of an archive deep in the German woods.

It’s the only film that exists of the Ghetto, and it’s both revelatory and profoundly suspect. The cameramen, under orders from the SS (under orders from someone in Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry), arranged scenes of Warsaw Jews in fraudulent splendor — sitting down to staged private dinners, attending the theater where dancers were ordered to perform, going to nonexistent nightclubs — while contrasting them with those starving and dying in the streets. The film was never finished but its message was clear: Look how well the Ghetto Jews are living, and look how terribly they treat their own.

Hersonski not only dispels the big lie at the center of the Nazi footage but she ingeniously separates and identifies the many smaller lies and where they entwined with facts. A fifth can of film was located in 1998, and we see how the “documentary’’ was created: multiple takes of a corpse being removed from the street, of a fake funeral cortege, of children in rags watching a woman buying meat from a butcher. (This at a time when the monthly food allocation for each of the half-million Jews in the Ghetto included one-fifth of an egg.)

“A Film Unfinished’’ lines up these images with the memories of those, dead and alive, who were there. The director avails herself of the many diaries kept precisely to speak to later generations, including that of Adam Czerniakow, appointed leader of the Ghetto Jews. He writes of a staged sequence where he met with rabbis; the Nazis removed the artwork from Czerniakow’s room and replaced it with a lit menorah.

We hear from Heinz Auerswald, the young Nazi commissioner in charge of the Ghetto, through documents in which suffering and murder are cloaked in bureaucratese, and, eerily, we hear from head cameraman Willy Wist through a subtly dramatized reenactment of his testimony at Auerswald’s war crimes investigation. A craftsman appalled at what his lens was capturing, Wist occasionally pops up in his own footage like a ghost in the machine.

Most movingly, we watch five elderly survivors of the Ghetto as they watch the flickering black-and-white footage, scoffing at prop flowers on tables (“We would have eaten flowers,’’ one says), gasping as they recognize acquaintances in the street, weeping when the scenes come of each day’s corpses — men, women, children — shoveled into the mass grave in another part of the city. “I’m no longer immune,’’ says one woman through her sobs. “I’m so happy that I can cry now that I’m human.’’

Hersonski knows the real treasure here is the footage of people who had less than two months to live — who were already hearing rumors of the trains to Treblinka — and she constantly slows the film to a crawl so we can take the full measure of their gaunt but individual faces. Remember, remember, says every insistent frame in this movie, and when the old images unexpectedly bloom into color — one of Wist’s cameramen had the new stock — it’s as though the unthinkable were leaping from the past into the present. The title is prescient: Once seen, “A Film Unfinished’’ is carried forward, unresolved, in one’s heart.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

A FILM UNFINISHED Written and directed by: Yael Hersonski

At: Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 89 minutes

Unrated (graphic depictions of suffering and death, nudity)

In Polish, German, and Hebrew, with subtitles

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