Review: A Film Unfinished

Posted: September 23, 2010 in Film Reviews
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Scene from A Film UnfinishedDigging through the artifacts of formerly important sites can uncover treasures, clues to the past or terrifying truths. In the case of Nazi storage rooms, all of these things are likely to be true simultaneously. A Film Unfinished emerged from the discovery of numerous films recorded, but never completed, for the purpose of forming propaganda materials during World War II.

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 labelled 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.

Director Yael Hersonski presents the material in an interesting way. A female narrator sets up the scenes being displayed, which are otherwise without sound. Entries from the head of the Jewish counsel’s diaries are read, revealing the behind-the-scenes happenings leading up to or during various shots. The footage is shown to Holocaust survivors, who provide reactions to, commentary about and insight into the scenes being displayed. In addition, a testimony is dramatized in which a cameraman that filmed the footage delivered an official statement about his knowledge of and participation in the project.

The effect of this approach is a relatively fluid narrative that tells the story of 30 days in that Warsaw Ghetto. A questionable choice is the filmmaker’s decision to slow certain moments of the footage unnecessarily. The events being portrayed really don’t require further dramatization. It’s true that a picture is worth 1000 words – and it usually remains true without any flourishes.

The outtakes and personal observations that demonstrate how contrived many of the scenes were are appalling, but informative of their intentions. Equally impactful is the section of the film that shows the number of corpses crowding the streets and being placed in mass graves, as well as the survivors’ reactions to the scenes now versus then.

A Film Unfinished is an intriguing look inside one element of the Nazi propaganda machine, with a variety of views to help put it into context.

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