In 1954 several canisters of film were found in a German archive, simply entitled “Das Ghetto”. Inside were reels of film shot in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942, mere months before the zone was shut down and the people sent off to death camps. For years this footage was considered an important historical document, as its raw footage chronicled day-to-day life in the ghetto and was unlike any footage existing at that time.
Some forty-five years later, however, another reel was found that shed new light on the veracity of the original footage.This new reel contained what appeared to be outtakes from the other reels and clearly showed that much of the original footage had been carefully staged.
A Film Unfinished attempts to answer the question “why?”. How did such a film serve the Nazi propaganda machine? And why was it abandoned midway through the editing process? The original film reels seemed to show everything: poverty and the horrors of starvation and disease along with footage of healthy citizens enjoying life. If the Nazis wanted to present a false view of the ghetto denizens enjoying a decent lifestyle, why include footage of starving children and corpses in the streets?
As it turns out, all the footage of genteel parties and wealthy Jews feasting in fancy restaurants was staged by unwilling “actors”, citizens who were routinely rounded up and forced to participate in the film, often forcing them to lose a day’s work thereby leaving them with nothing to take home to their often starving families. After some time, the film makes the answer clear: the intention of “Das Ghetto” was to show the world how the heartless Jewish aristocracy could enjoy the good life while their poor suffered and died all around them. There is even footage of people being directed to walk by corpses lying on the street without paying them any attention.
A Film Unfinished tells its story through several sources. First there is the extra footage itself; we clearly see uniformed cameramen staging scenes, doing retakes, and directing “actors”. Second, the film uses interview segments with the only documented cameraman from the project, a man named Willy Wist, who is either withholding the facts or genuinely does not remember them until presented with evidence. There are also diary readings from the supervisor of the ghetto who, when finally asked to compile a list of people to ship off to the camps, committed suicide, as well as interviews with survivors of the ghetto, all of whom were children at the time. These people provide some of the film’s most heartrending moments as the camera, in close, witnesses their reactions to watching the footage, particularly at those points which feature some of the more horrific images.
The case made by A Film Unfinished is presented in a somber and dignified manner, presenting its evidence without forcing the viewer to any particular conclusions. The end result is an incredibly powerful film that moves us, breaks our hearts, and ultimately makes us question not only the things we take for granted, but the reliability of “official” documents of all types and from all sources.
A Film Unfinished is presented 1.78:1 widescreen, though the archival footage is kept in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. The archival footage is of course in black and white, but it is presented with excellent clarity and has clearly been handled by skilled experts. The new, color footage is very clear, though most of it is shot in a dark screening room or a shadowy interview room.
The disc features a stereo mix, which is suitable as there are no huge dramatic flourishes or sound effects to worry about. The film is a quiet, dignified affair that relies on the power of the voices that tell its story, and in this it succeeds admirably. The voices are clear and easy to understand, subtly underscored by a haunting soundtrack.
Trailers: A Film Unfinished, Flow, The Garden, Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country
Interview with Author and Film Researcher Adrian Wood (14:35): Features a discussion of the film’s discovery and the research process.
Scholar Michael Berenbaum on A Film Unfinished (3:37): A short discussion of the importance of the footage featured in the film.
Death Mills (21:07): This is a film commissioned by the US War Department to combat Nazi propaganda in occupied Germany and Austria. It was directed by the great Billy Wilder and unflinchingly chronicles what the Allied forces found when they liberated the Nazi death camps.
Study Guide: This is a PDF file for educators who plan to use A Film Unfinished in the classroom.
Though difficult to watch at times, A Film Unfinished is an important and astonishing work. Even for people who don’t care (or think they don’t care) about documentaries, I highly recommend this disc. There are many films about the holocaust, and as one of the features on the disc says, each must be examined by what they add to our knowledge of the holocaust. A Film Unfinished shows us an aspect of Hitler’s propaganda machine that has never been seen before, and with government spin at epidemic levels all over the globe, its impact still has relevance.