In May 1942, 2-1/2 years after the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, a Nazi crew began filming footage for what was apparently intended as a propaganda film. The movie, which was unearthed in an East German film archive in 1954, was never completed. Within three months, the nearly half a million Jews living within the ghetto's three square miles would be shipped to concentration camps.
Although snippets of "Das Ghetto," as it was labeled by the Nazis, have been utilized in countless documentaries over the years, it is only now, with the release of Yael Hersonski's "A Film Unfinished," that we have all of the footage on view. We see not only the four soundless 35mm reels previously available but also a fifth reel, first discovered by a British researcher in 1998 and archived in a Jerusalem Holocaust museum. The fifth reel consists of outtakes clearly demonstrating that the Nazis had staged some, if not much, of the action for propaganda purposes that remain unclear.
The most egregious stagings involve wealthy Jews within the ghetto eating sumptuous meals in fancy restaurants. Did the Nazis intend to demonstrate to the outside world that well-to-do Jews cared nothing for the destitute within their walls? I doubt it. This would imply that one should have compassion for the starving and hollow-eyed walking the streets of the ghetto. The Nazis may have orchestrated the movements on those streets for the cameras, but what they could not disguise was the accusatory, uncomprehending looks in the eyes of the Warsaw Jews as they stare into the cameras.
Ms. Hersonski reproduces the testimony of one of the Nazi cameramen, Willi Wist, who was tracked down in the 1960s. He claims he had no idea what was in store for the Warsaw Jews despite filming a sequence in which their emaciated corpses are stacked like cordwood in a ditch. Because the cameramen were given strict orders about what to shoot, Mr. Wist regrets that they "didn't have a chance to express [themselves]."
Hersonski also includes voice-over commentary drawn from the clandestine diaries of Jewish Council leader Adam Czerniakow, who from 1939 until 1942 was in charge of implementing Nazi orders against the Jews. (He killed himself rather than organize the citizens' mass deportations to the camps.) His sorrowing words are a fateful obbligato to the imagery.
Five Jewish survivors of the Warsaw ghetto are also interviewed as they watch the footage unspool.
One woman wonders if she will see her mother walking down the street. Another recognizes a wildly gesturing young woman walking along Leszno, the main commercial thoroughfare: "She was screaming for a piece of bread for her baby." In one staged sequence inside a luxury apartment, we see a flower in a vase. "Where did one see a flower?" says one of the survivors. "We would have eaten a flower."
It is a privileged experience to watch "A Film Unfinished." There is no other historical document like it but, of course, its lasting value is as a human document. Hersonski has described how she choose the survivors she interviewed: "I invited only those who thought they couldn't leave this world without having the final word on this silent footage."
Near the end of the film, as she watches bodies being dumped into a pit, one of the survivors begins to cry. "I am no longer immune," she says. "Today I am human. Today I can cry. I am so happy that I can cry now that I am human." Grade: A (Rated R for graphic nudity and disturbing images.)