Just when you think historians have unearthed as many images as can be mined illustrating what happened to the Jews of Europe during World War II, a new can of film emerges and becomes a catalyst for a re-reading of a vintage Nazi film marked "Ghetto." Containing scenes from inside the Warsaw Ghetto shot in May 1942, A Film Unfinished opens at Film Forum this week. A fascinating compilation of "Ghetto" footage with diaries, letters and testimony of those who were there, Warsaw Ghetto survivors, this documentary does not so much shock with stock pictures of walking skeletons, piles of bones, bodies heaped in the streets and on carts, but with the lingering gaze of individuals as they are victims twice, having been rounded up for ghetto squalor, a prelude to their murder, but now forced to pose for Nazi propaganda. The Germans authorized this film back in the day, a proud testament to their design for genocide, and now they are the principle funders for this first-time release.
Here are some indelible moments: A group of naked women walk gingerly into a pool of water. Not yet emaciated, the women become useful, depicting "a ritual bath," common in the life of observant Jews. A survivor, now in her 80s, remembers a film being made in the midst of ghetto misery, asking: "What if I see someone I know?" Outtakes of officers, and of cameramen at work, staging shots to show "the good life" enjoyed by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
As Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski pointed out at a special screening attended by Elie and Marion Wiesel, Tovah Feldshuh, Yoko Ono, Gabe Pressman, and others last Wednesday night at MoMA, this footage was used in other films, but here, seen in context, the viewer is overwhelmed by the pain, humiliation, embarrassment, and abject circumstance of these women who had been corralled off the ghetto streets and forced as "actors" in this piece of Nazi promotion. Would any agree to be photographed in this private, modest act? To see this footage in real time is to witness the Holocaust unfiltered through dramatic re-enactments. The World War II era is known to us through skillfully shaped scripts and deft cutting techniques by talented and well-meaning artists. The look of some of our most famous Holocaust films, like Steven Spielberg's mostly black & white Oscar-winning Schindler's List, comes from a study of this early Nazi documentation.
Despite the fact that it contains no scenes of sex or violence near the graphic display of your typical Hollywood action vehicle, the rating for A Film Unfinished is "R." Perhaps nudity is a factor, although I would argue for the less prurient "naked" for this material. The market limiting "R" is reflective of the film's power: The truth is so much more visceral, bewildering and disturbing than any fictional account. As much about the crafting of history, A Film Unfinished is another important document in understanding that, as its title suggests, the Holocaust is a subject that remains unfinished.
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