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Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Film Unfinished: The Making of a Nazi propaganda film

Last semester I watched several documentaries and films including the "The Kings Speech", "The Linguists", "The Ax Fight", "The Birdcage", amongst many others. Documentaries allow use to gain a perspective through the eyes of the filmmaker. It's true. Sometimes there is an agenda, yet sometimes, the footage is entirely raw and leaves you feeling a bit uncomfortable and perplexed. This is certainly my reaction to the documentary, "A Film Unfinished".

A Film Unfinished, by Yael Hersonski, explores the making of a 1942 Nazi propaganda film of the Warsaw Ghetto two months before its liquidation, in a Nazi operation known as the Grossaktion Warsaw. It premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the "World Cinema Documentary Editing Award".

The footage is highly disturbing.  Hitler had an extensive collection of these propaganda films stashed in what appears to be a vault. It's ironic really that so much was documented, and yet, so many individuals still question the validity of the events that occurred under Hitler's turbulent reign. In this lost footage, the Nazi's have presented their subjects in such an odd way. It looks staged to be honest. They've made these people look like they were carrying on everyday tasks, not bothered by their condition of living. Pulled in rickshaws to local shops for goods and dancing on the streets.

A Jewish Council was set up in the Ghetto by the Nazis, just like it had always been done before. Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Jewish Council, was set up in the inside, to manage what was essentially "a holding pen" for the final destination. He wrote extensively about his role in the film, documenting the details in his journals.

The documentary also features many of the survivors, watching the footage in a theatre, and sighing at the staged antics of the Nazis.

One survivor remarked, "I keep thinking that among all these people I might see my mother walking".

Germans would often show up in the Ghetto, "usually for unpleasant reasons and usually shooting.  So when they were filming it was much more positive". 

For years, the identity of the filmmakers went undiscovered, until a lead in the 1960's lead to the name Willy Wist. Willy was one of the cameramen for Das Ghetto, but he took great pains to cover his tracks.

If I had to chose one scene or one moment in the film that stopped my heart, it was the filming of the cookies on a neatly placed tray, in the middle of a feces pile. Starving residents were handed cookies in their bed, and you could plainly see, they were near death. Starving. The sight of a cookie was all together surprising. Another facade of this staged propaganda film.

It's difficult to watch A Film Unfinished and not have an immediate reaction to the footage. You may remember where you were the day the events took place. You may have even had relatives there at the time. This is a film that certainly demonstrates a false sense of security.

If you'd like to watch A Film Unfinished, it's available on Netflix for streaming. It's also available for sale on Amazon.


Film by Yael Hersonski
Edited by Joelle Alexis


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