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, inclusive of multiple takes and cameraman staging scenes, 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.
As part of the Final Solution for the Jews, the massive transfer of Jews to impossibly unlivable urban ghettos was a key tool used by the Nazis to eviscerate the Jews of Europe; ghettos were often the last transit point before deportation to gassing and liquidation centers. Of the many ghettos, the Warsaw Ghetto, which was walled in beginning April 1940, was the largest and most notorious of the ghettos of Eastern Europe. Before the German blitzkrieg in September 1939, over 400,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, and were now forced to live in a single zone of the city; over the course of its existence, at least another 200,000 refugees passed through the progressively smaller and more constricted ghetto.
By the summer of 1942, at least 100,000 of these residents died from malnutrition, disease, and starvation, all the result of the draconian limits placed on supplies permitted into the Ghetto. Surrounded by German soldiers and Polish police, and administered internally by a Nazi-appointed "Jews' Council," the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto tried to simultaneously preserve a semblance of normalcy and struggle against the inhumane oppression of the Nazi overlords. Beginning July 1942 there were near daily deportations by railcar of Jews from the Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp, and by September, over a quarter of a million captives of the Ghetto were transported to their deaths.
By the beginning of 1943 there were less than 100,000 Jews left in a far smaller ghetto. Another round of deportations led to an armed and open resistance; the most famous, but by no means the only, example of a ghetto uprising. Between April and June 1943 the largely young remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto engaged the Nazi forces in urban guerilla warfare. While some of the first skirmishes caught the Germans off guard, eventually the Nazi determination to eliminate all Jews from Warsaw won out, often by simply burning to the ground the surviving structures of the ghetto. By August 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto was liquidated, with only a handful of survivors making it out to the "Aryan" side of town.
"A Film Unfinished first emerged out of my theoretical preoccupation with the notion of the "archive", and the unique nature of the witnessing it bears." - Yael Hersonski
The Holocaust confronted humanity not only with inconceivable horrors, but also for the first time, with their systematic documentation. More than anything else, it is the photographic documentation of these horrors that has changed forever the way in which the past is archived. Atrocities committed by the Nazis were photographed more extensively than any evils, before or after. Yet since the war, these images, created by the perpetrators have been subjected to mistreatments: in the best of cases they were crudely used as illustrations of the many stories; in the worst, they were presented as straightforward historical truth.
Locating the footage
In 2006, after phrasing composing an outline for a film idea, Yael Hersonski sent it directly to Noemi Schory, one of the most prominent and experienced producers in Israel, in order to hear her thoughts. It was less than one year after she had completed a vast project for the new visual center of the Holocaust historic museum in Jerusalem (Yad Vashem), which consisted of over 100 archive-based short films.
She was familiar with almost all the footage that exists in the visual archives, and gave Yael a list of materials to watch, which she found capable of corresponding with her initial ideas. Noemi had also introduced her to a diary that was written inside the Warsaw Ghetto by a 15-year-old Jewish girl who described, among other things, a Nazi film crew making a propaganda film inside the Ghetto.
One month later Yael traveled to Jerusalem, to the Yad Vashem Visual Center to watch the entire 62-minute rough cut of the Nazi propaganda film for the first time.
About the footage
The Warsaw Ghetto footage was first revealed in 1954, inside the East German film archive's area in Potsdam Babelsberg, in a concrete film vault that once belonged to the Third Reich. It was just after the Soviets, who controlled the eastern parts of Berlin, had retreated to Moscow taking with them all the Nazi propaganda footage they could locate after 9 years of sorting through the Nazi archive remains. Why did they leave the Warsaw Ghetto film to the Germans? One can only speculate.
The first time a filmmaker made use of several minutes from the Warsaw Ghetto footage was in 1961. Only scenes that showed great misery were shown. The staged scenes in which we see Jews living in luxury were totally ignored.
In 1957 a Polish man approached the West German film archive, and gave archivists a 35 mm reel that contained 7.5min shot inside the Warsaw Ghetto.
It was an edited compilation that contained images from 1941 to 1944. Among the various elements were also bits of scenes from the Nazi propaganda film. The only difference was that they were visually inverted, so that the people who walked from the right side of the frame to its left, walked in the Polish material the other way around. The Polish man claimed that two Nazis, who were murdered a short time afterwards, gave the reel to him in 1943 inside the Warsaw Ghetto.
Almost 40 years later, in 1998, a crucial event occurred:
In an American air force base, inside a film vault, the British film researcher Adrian Wood was looking for footage that dealt with the 1936 Olympic Games and noticed two film cans lying on the floor titled "Das Ghetto". Wood, with years of experience with Holocaust footage was very familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto film, and thus could immediately recognize that the reels belonged to the main film. It contained two sequences – all together 30 minutes of outtakes left on the editing floor. The outtakes exposed not only the number of takes that were taken by the Nazi film crew, even in the case of the seemingly documentary scenes of extreme poverty and death, but also moments in which cameramen accidentally entered each other's frames.