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A Film Unfinished

Documentary patiently reveals the mendacious depths of Nazi propaganda

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A woman comforts a young boy in A Film Unfinished.

A Film Unfinished

Directed by Yael Hersonski

Opens Sept. 24 at the Charles Theater

There is, undeniably, a pull of the grotesque. Bitter images may turn the stomach, but they no doubt attract the eye--especially when they tell the truth. Nowhere does this rule apply better than in past grievances humans have wrought upon one another, and Israeli director/screenwriter Yael Hersonski's latest work uses this morbid reality in an intensely executed and darkly exquisite piece about the Nazi obsession with self-documentation during its rise to terrible power.

A Film Unfinished is in its composition what it ultimately becomes in its essence: a slow unveiling of a dangerous truth. Hersonski and her crew take this project seriously--as well they should, considering its contents and implications--allowing the movie to take its plodding time as it introduces viewers to the world of the Warsaw Ghetto, Poland, May 1942.

A cold and lovely female voice brings you up to speed: In the mid-1950s, reels of German-filmed footage of life inside the ghetto are discovered—unedited, silent, and titled only "The Ghetto"—and enter into Holocaust canon as fact. Four decades later, and quite by accident, outtakes from this same footage are uncovered in another building, and they reveal the Germans' creative process, including numerous takes and staging of scenes previously considered candid.

And thus Unfinished embarks on a slow, deliberate journey into the twisted minds of the Reich. Much of the movie is simply a screening of the original Nazi footage, which the filmmakers wisely alter only by adding a haunting soundtrack. There is little narration.

This is not to say, though, that the filmmakers did not create something of their own. The Nazi footage is filled out with shockingly precise details from their research—such as the narration of the diary of Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Warsaw Ghetto's Jewish Council, who was forced to play himself in the Nazi footage that would be used to destroy his own people and later swallowed his fate in a cyanide capsule—and their recreation, in its original Polish, of a court interview with Willy Wist, one of the German cameramen.

The movie is its most poignant in moments created from a stroke of documentary genius. Using a list from the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel, Hersonski tracked down a handful of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and invited each of them to view the footage, alone, in an empty quiet theater. She asked them to comment on what they saw. And she filmed them.

The result: Viewers of A Film Unfinished watch the Nazi footage, yes, but they also watch the Jews watching the Nazi footage. Some of them recognize individuals among the masses, like the silent screaming woman brought to life by the man who remembers that she was carrying a baby and asking for a piece of bread. One worries she will see her mother in the crowd. Some simply gasp. But aside from adding dimension to the yellowed faces on screen, the survivors' unrestricted reactions expose the propaganda-driven manipulations to which the Germans resorted.

In one instance, the Germans invite two Jewish women and a male "lover" to Czerniaków's lavish apartment, where they drink champagne and smoke cigarettes over casual conversation. A survivor watching asks with a quiet wisdom, "Where did one ever see a flower? We would have eaten the flower."

In another, the Nazis stage a luxurious funeral procession and burial, prompting the response, "But Jews don't bury their dead in a coffin."

And the tactics went further than simply orchestrating an elegance that didn't exist. The Nazis sought to show the richer Jews as heartless snobs, the poor ones as hopeless, and the entire population a strange, gruesome breed in need of elimination. They forced the community to hold a circumcision in a home rather than a hospital; they filmed scared, naked men and women dipping themselves repeatedly in a dark ritual bath. They pitted the Jews against one another, making pretty Jewish waitresses stand oblivious to the outstretched hands of beggar children. Hersonski lets the footage speak for itself, and defaults to beautifully chosen words from the mouths of those who were there to strengthen the case Unfinished builds, one laborious piece of evidence at a time: We don't know everything the Nazis were doing, but one thing they were definitely doing is lying.

As the movie's final scenes play out, a realization may slowly dawn on an unsuspecting viewer, whose soul is by now dripping into pools of sorrow at his or her feet: It is May 1942, and no one in the world—certainly not those in the Ghetto—yet understood the full scope of the depths to which the Nazis would sink. The gruesome has unfolded, the painful images have progressed from ragged children to corpses on the street to Jewish workers arranging bodies in the pits of mass graves, and it's finally become clear what the Nazis were really trying to do: prepare the world to accept the looming monstrosities of the death camps. The footage ceases streaming; the message settles in; the bottom hollows out.