A Film Unfinished

 

A Film Unfinished

Written & Directed by Yael Hersonski

2010

 

Studio:

Production: Third Reich/Bundesarchiv & Opus Film

Video: Oscilloscope Laboratories

 

Video:

Resolution: 480i

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 & 1.78:1

Codec: MPEG-2

Bit Rate: 6.67 Mbps

Runtime: 91 minutes

Chapters: 18

Region: All

 

Audio

English Dolby Digital 2.0

(also: German, Hebrew, Polish & Yiddish)

 

Subtitles: English

 

Extras:

• “Death Mills” documentary directed by Billy Wilder (21:05)

• Interview by Yael Hersonski with film researcher Adrian Wood (14:40)

• Michael Berenbaum on “A Film Unfinished”: (3:35)

• Cover essay by author and film scholar Annette Insdorf

• Study Guide 

• Oscilloscope trailers

 

Presentation:

Custom gatefold paper DVD case w/ slipcover

Release Date: March 8, 2011



Product Description (Oscilloscope:):

At the end of WWII, 60 minutes of raw film, having sat undisturbed in an East German archive, was discovered. Shot by the Nazis in Warsaw in May 1942, and labeled simply "Ghetto," this footage quickly became a resource for historians seeking an authentic record of the Warsaw Ghetto. However, the later discovery of a long-missing reel complicated earlier readings of the footage. A FILM UNFINISHED presents the raw footage in its entirety, carefully noting fictionalized sequences (including a staged dinner party) falsely showing "the good life" enjoyed by Jewish urbanites, and probes deep into the making of a now-infamous Nazi propaganda film.


A FILM UNFINISHED is a film of enormous import, documenting some of the worst horrors of our time and exposing the efforts of its perpetrators to propel their agenda and cast it in a favorable light.


              

 

The Movie: 8

In a brief introduction to her documentary Ms. Hersonski sets the stage regarding what we knew about life in the Warsaw Ghetto during the first three years after Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939.  She talks about this in terms of the cinematic record which, until recently, rested solely with an hour-long uncompleted film produced by the Nazis in the weeks just prior to the relocation of several hundred thousand Jews from Warsaw to the newly built death camp at Treblinka. 


While the actual purpose of that footage remains unclear, the recent discovery of a half-hour’s worth of outtakes for that production clarifies that what many had taken more or less as gospel for decades about life in the Ghetto was staged.  Why?  What was the purpose of such a film? Ms. Hersonski asks the question and launches into an investigation that, in a hypnotic, elliptical way, suggests answers.  She shows the Nazi film to several survivors of that period - these were of course children then, but old enough to know what was going on.  And while we watch “The Ghetto” with them, the outtakes reinstated, Hersonski shows us the reactions of two such women while the movie flickers across their faces. Such an enterprise would be thought cruel, if not for their willing and courageous cooperation.  “What if I see someone I know” asks one of the survivors.


               


In addition to the filmed reaction of the survivors who are watching “The Ghetto” for the first time, we also hear excerpts read compellingly by actors in the original languages from the diaries of those who were there - among them Adam Czerniakow, an important member of the Jewish Council that was ordered to provide lists of Jews in preparation for their deportation to Treblinka.


Given a film of such intelligence and sobering import, it may seem out of place to offer any criticism, but there was one thing that now and then took me out of the frame: there would be testimony or recollection about something related to the scene filmed by the Nazis but they don’t always line up.  For example, at one point Jews are herded into an auditorium where they are ordered to respond in certain ways to “overacted” bits of melodrama on the stage: to laugh uproariously or face the consequences.  However we wee the audience sitting only in rapt attention, requiring us to make a leap of faith (easily imagined, I assure you) that the laughing really happened.


Also intercut with footage from “The Ghetto” is a re-enactment of the testimony of Willy Wist, the only identified participant among the original filmmakers.  Wist seems only to have been a cameraman and not privy to the intentions of the producers, who  remain anonymous.  Wist’s later testimony reveals little, stating that he never knew why he was directed to film this or that scene, staged or otherwise.  Even so, his memories of an experience that lasted about four weeks - screened, or rationalized though they may be - make for some quietly wrenching moments.


              


Critical Reaction:

(Sundance Film Festival):

Yael Hersonski's powerful documentary achieves a remarkable feat through its penetrating look at another film-the now-infamous Nazi-produced film about the Warsaw Ghetto. Discovered after the war, the unfinished work, with no soundtrack, quickly became a resource for historians seeking an authentic record, despite its elaborate propagandistic construction. The later discovery of a long-missing reel complicated earlier readings, showing the manipulations of camera crews in these "everyday" scenes. Well-heeled Jews attending elegant dinners and theatricals (while callously stepping over the dead bodies of compatriots) now appeared as unwilling, but complicit, actors, alternately fearful and in denial of their looming fate.


              


[salon]:

 ["A Film Unfinished"] is a somber, brooding reconstruction of one of the murkiest and darkest productions in cinema history, a Nazi propaganda film shot in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, not long before most of the ghetto's 450,000 or so inhabitants were shipped eastward to be murdered en masse. Hersonski never mentions the larger context of World War II or Hitler's attempt to exterminate virtually all of Europe's Jews; there is no footage here of goose-stepping soldiers, the dictator's blustering speeches or the gates of Auschwitz. None of that is necessary, or to put it another way, it's all here already. The point of "A Film Unfinished" is to explore the painful paradox of the film known only as "Das Ghetto," which offers a precious glimpse of a doomed people's final days, even though it was also a vicious work of slander concocted by an evil regime.


              

 

[ny times]

Moving, mysterious and intellectually provocative, “A Film Unfinished” positions familiar Holocaust horrors (the R rating was unsuccessfully contested) within a philosophical commentary on the way we view images. Perfectly pitched narration (by the Israeli musician Rona Kenan) fills in crevices in the visual record, but the most eloquent testimonies are delivered by those who are mute: starving Jews gazing uncomprehendingly at the Nazi cameras, and a lovely young woman squirming with discomfort as she is forced to pose alongside a beggar.


In the end, however, the value of Ms. Hersonski’s work lies less in what is shown than in her persistent reminders of what is not. By drawing our attention repeatedly to the filmmaking process itself — staging Mr. Wist’s testimony as a re-enactment; using a whirring projector to divide reels; freezing again and again on Nazi cameramen inadvertently trapped in their own fabrications — Ms. Hersonski blatantly emphasizes the hand behind the celluloid curtain. As we leave the theater, her thesis question echoes: when there is no one left to bear witness, how far can we trust the evidence of our eyes alone?


              

 

Extras: 9

Yael Hersonski’s documentary pretty much speaks for itself, but for other perspectives on the historical context in which her film and the original “Ghetto” was made, Oscilloscope gives us three bonus features: one of them is a 21-minute documentary titled “Death Mills” directed in 1946 by Billy Wilder for the U.S. War Department.  The title is self-explanatory. The time in which it was made, just after the discovery and liberation of the death camps, is raw with righteous outrage.


Michael Berenbaum, a consulting writer and lecturer in the conceptual development of museums and historical films, speaks briefly on the importance of the movie and on the gift of witness by those involved at the time, offering their reaction to seeing the film sixty years later.  His three-minute piece makes for a good introduction to the movie.  Adrian Wood, one of the world’s leading authorities on Holocaust-related films, talks more extensively about how he came to locate the source materials for the present documentary, given his then current interest in the Olympic Games.


              


Not least of the Bonus Features is the inclusion of a Study Guide, a 12-page pdf document that offers additional detailed historical background and that can be downloaded from the disc onto your computer. Oscilloscope winds up their selection of bonus features with trailers for “A Film Unfinished” and three of their upcoming films for DVD: “Flow,”  “The Garden,” and “Burma VJ.” 


Oscilloscope continues to offer their DVDs in what I think is the best single disc packaging in the business: their boxes are paper instead of plastic; the disc simply slides in and out without those idiotic clasps that place unnecessary strain on the disc, frustrating the most careful user in the process.  The gatefold presentation allows for full size photos or other art, essays or booklets. Feel free to be suitably impressed.


              

 

Image: 2~8

As expected for a documentary of such peculiar origins, the image quality varies from very good to poor.  The weakest sections are mercifully brief and can easily be passed over as to their import, but the great majority of the surviving “Ghetto” footage is in surprisingly good shape.  The recently filmed reactions of the survivors and the interview clips of what may or may have not have been Willy Wist are quite good.  The Wist footage is staged artfully in fragmented close-ups, even if the words are his.  The film alternates seamlessly between 1.33:1 B&W “Ghetto” footage and 1.78:1 color material of present day reactions and interviews.


              

 

Audio & Music: 6/8

“The Ghetto” itself was discovered minus an audio track (if, indeed it ever had one). The dialogue of the survivors is generally clear enough and, excepting the director’s opening and closing remarks in English, are pretty much retained in the language of the speakers: German, Hebrew, Polish & Yiddish, all of which are clearly subtitled in English.  Ishai Adar’s evocative and unassuming music features clarinet, cello, and piano; it is often tender and bittersweet but never strident, cloying or sentimentalized.


              

 

Recommendation: 8

“Not another Holocaust film!” you might be tempted to say.  Well, it is and it isn’t.  “A Film Unfinished” is simultaneously a film of and about the Holocaust like no other in that it focuses on the business of documenting the event as much as the event itself.  It is also a film about perspective: that of the victims and the survivors, of course, but also that of the German filmmakers, the director of the present documentary, and our own as we try to sort out our dynamic reactions to what we are witnessing.  I should note that Oscilloscope has granted their DVD as “Region 0” indicating their intention that anyone with a DVD player or computer anywhere in the world can watch this movie.


              

 

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

February 22, 2011


 

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