Holocaust documentaries make up a sub-genre all their own, and a potentially treacherous one at that. These are difficult films to critique. On one side there is the danger of fawning over a film based solely on the import of its subject matter. But on the other side there is the fear of seeming crass or insensitive should you come down hard on a film dealing with such sensitive material.
A Film Unfinished is primarily concerned with a Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw Ghetto made in 1942 and discovered after the war was over. The film, unfinished and without a soundtrack, was for decades considered to be one of the few visual documents available of what life was like for the Jews living there during the war. While still obviously propaganda, it at least offered a glimpse into the daily life of those living in the Ghetto. Or did it? In 1998 a British film maker discovered a missing reel of outtakes from the film which makes explicit how much of the film was actually staged by its makers and how the Jews on screen were frequently unwilling participants in a fiction staged for the cameras. They essentially became actors for what purported to be a glimpse into their real lives. This new evidence is supported by diary entries written by a Jewish community leader at the time as well as testimony by Willy Wist, one of the Nazi cameramen responsible for shooting the film.
Filmmaker Yael Hersonski (the granddaughter of a Warsaw Ghetto survivor) builds her story on some tried and true conventions. Interspersed with footage from both the original film and the unearthed “outtakes” are voice over readings from not only the diaries of Jews but also the written reports of the Ghetto’s Nazi commandant. Wist’s testimony has been dramatized with reenactments which lend, for better or worse, a weight that might otherwise be missing. There is more to read into an actor’ pauses, expressions and emphasis, but it also takes things out of the realm of true documentary. More interesting is the decision to film the responses of several survivors of the Ghetto as they are seen watching the footage. They search the screen for signs of loved ones long gone and provide their own memories of the film crew’s presence in their daily lives.
The documentary ends as the propaganda film does, with scenes of a mass grave being filled with emaciated bodies. The impact is visceral -- you can’t help but be shocked and moved by the images. We see the survivors covering their eyes; more than half a century later they cannot bring themselves to watch. But one woman sees this in a positive light. When she was living through these events she became callous to the suffering around her; it was her only way to survive. To be moved by these images, to be able to feel the pain and anguish once more, is to be human again.