A FILM UNFINISHED (Yael Hersonski, 2010)

From Israel and Germany, Yael Hersonski’s Shtikat Haarchion examines “Das Ghetto,” the hauntingly silent, black-and-white film, full of indelible Jewish faces, that the Nazis made to document life in the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1942, just two months before they began deporting these Jewish ghetto prisoners to death camps such as at Treblinka. Hersonski’s documentary tries fathoming German motive behind the film, especially in light of the additional reel, discovered only about a dozen years ago, consisting largely of outtakes. Hersonski also gathers five survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, only children at the time, and has them watch and react to “The Ghetto,” including its “extra” reel.
     Voices abound: those of the survivors, one of the filmmakers, a cameraman who shot “The Ghetto,” at least insofar as his reminiscence is enacted based on official testimony, read-aloud entries from the diaries of Warsaw Jews, and so forth. This multiplicity of voices accumulates into an aural facsimile of an exquisitely cut dark jewel.
     It is clear from the Nazi film’s outtakes and additional footage that much material in the other four reels is staged: crowd scenes composed of well-dressed, seemingly well-fed Jews; rich Jews at posh parties while poor Jews starve in the street; living Jews oblivious to corpses of Jews in the street. Jewish poverty, Jewish corpses: such elements refute the propagandistic aim to show that Jews didn’t “have it” so bad, and this may be why “The Ghetto” was abandoned before completion. Were Germans anticipating their denying the Holocaust? Did they find it impossible to hew to a clear argument, given the mendacity and convolutedness of their enterprise?
     Were Germans themselves confused about their aims? Much seems ambiguous. When the 1942 cameraman insists he had no idea that the Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants would be sent to their deaths, I absolutely believe him. But what does what he says actually mean? That in 1942 he had no such inkling? Or that he convinced himself he had no such inkling in the face of subsequent evidence of the Holocaust, not to be burdened by a sense of his own complicity?
     The “truth” behind certain “images”: regarding Nazi oppression of Jews, this theme is more brilliantly pursued in Dariusz Jablonski’s Photographer (1998) documenting reality and its cover-up in the Lódź Ghetto. That earlier film helps make Hersonski’s seem frail and familiar. Still, it is worth witnessing its bearing witness to a profound segment of twentieth-century history that keeps shadowing us.

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