“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” goes an oft-quoted line from William Faulkner. Yael Hersonski’s powerful Holocaust documentary, A Film Unfinished, forces its viewers to confront questions not only about the nature of evil—as all Holocaust films must—but about the very nature of the past: how the past is recalled, depicted and interpreted.
“I am constantly obsessed with the gap between image and reality, between image and human memory,” says Hersonski, the filmmaker-in-residence this semester for the Communications and Media Studies program and an award-winning Israeli television film director and editor.
A Film Unfinished is built on about an hour of mostly black-and-white footage the Germans shot in May 1942 inside the Warsaw Ghetto, the constricted urban area where hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to live in squalid conditions; by July 1942, the Germans began deportations from the ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp. The soundless footage, which apparently was never put to any use during the war, was most likely intended as Nazi propaganda. The scenes include those of abject misery as well as images of well-dressed Jews seeming to indulge in dinner parties and other enjoyable activities or in acts of callousness, such as ignoring beggar children while they enter well-stocked shops.
Eight reels of the film were discovered in the 1950s in East Germany, and many of the images—those showing suffering, or those seeming to document “typical Jewish life” in the ghetto—became part of the visual testimony of the Holocaust. Hersonski remembers watching several of the scenes as a child growing up in Israel.
But in 1998, another two reels of the film were discovered in a film vault on an American air base in Ohio that made clear the extent to which the footage on the other reels had been staged by the Nazis. Even the scenes that had been used by later generations to memorialize a lost people and a lost way of life—one, for example, of Jewish women at a ritual bath—had been designed by their captors and filmed under threat of punishment, or worse.
Hersonski puts this material together—along with nine and a half minutes of color footage that surfaced in Russia during the 1990s—and, using extensive documentation, re-creates the “cinematic circus,” as she calls it, that took place in the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. The film draws on diaries from Jews imprisoned in the ghetto, including Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Jewish Council, as well as records kept by the ghetto’s Nazi commander and testimony from one of the cameramen, given years later during a war-crimes trial.
In a series of particularly emotionally gripping moments, Hersonski records the reactions and comments of five first-hand witnesses—elderly women and men who survived the Warsaw Ghetto themselves, as children or teenagers—as they watch the original film. In fact, one of Hersonski’s motivations for starting work on the film was the death of her grandmother, herself a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, almost six years ago.
“When my grandmother died, I literally felt left with the archives,” she says. At that point, historians, archivists and others knew of the existence of all the footage, but it had never been pieced together. “I wanted to try, like an archeologist, to decipher the undecipherable code of the past.”
Why had any of this imagery ever been accepted as accurate footage—by filmmakers, historians, Jews themselves—considering its origins?
“Because the entire footage was not shown—that’s exactly the point,” says Hersonski, who is also teaching an Experimental College course this semester, Something Old to Something New: Archival and Found Footage in Documentary Filmmaking. “What was shown were scenes of starving people, dying people, a mass grave. When it focuses on the victims, and you decontextualize it, it becomes material for the mourning process, and you stop thinking about the origin of these images—because the context was changed.”
Soon, she says, viewers “think we are seeing the past as it was. That’s exactly the kind of thing I was trying to go against. We can get closer to the past by understanding the means of documenting the past,” she adds. “And only then can we know how much we will never know.”
Current technology allows even those who are not professional filmmakers an easy way to alter images. But Hersonski says the power of the image lies mainly in how it’s used, whether now or 70 years ago.
“The nature of the image is changing, of course,” she says. “But I think that still the danger comes more from the editing process than from the graphic technology of changing the image. When the story is told in a manipulative way, it’s much more difficult to discern that it’s the editing manipulating the context than proving that an image was distorted.”
Yael Hersonski will lead a director’s discussion of A Film Unfinished on Monday, April 4, at 4:30 p.m. at the Center for the Humanities, 48 Professors Row, on the Medford/Somerville campus.
View the trailer from the film.
Helene Ragovin can be reached at email@example.com.