Warsaw Ghetto unearthed in ‘A Film Unfinished’

WARNING: This film is not for young viewers. But, the disturbing truths in “A Film Unfinished” make it an unforgettable indictment of a genocidal regime’s ruthless ability to twist historical truth.

“When we approach any new Holocaust film, we have to ask: What does this add to what we already know?”

Michael Berenbaum asks that question in a special introduction to “A Film Unfinished” that was added for this DVD release by Oscilloscope, the same people who brought us Banksy’s “Exit through the Gift Shop.” For decades, Berenbaum has ranked among the world’s most respected Holocaust scholars: He’s the author of “The World Must Know” and played key leadership roles in both the Washington D.C. memorial and in the massive effort sponsored by Steven Spielberg to videotape interviews with thousands of survivors.

Berenbaum is a skeptical scholar and, of course, does not recommend the ongoing flood of WWII-related knock-off videos that continue to flow through production houses. He appears on camera with “A Film Unfinished” to make an important point.

In this new documentary, historians have restored a one-hour Nazi propaganda film shot in the Warsaw Ghetto at the height of the misery. This Nazi footage was shot early in 1942, when half a million men, women and children were jammed into a typhus-riddled slum less than three square miles in size. For many years, historians had assumed that this hour of Warsaw footage, found after the war in a Nazi archive, was a documentary film of Warsaw. But, careful analysis of the entire film now reveals that it was half real-life footage and half an assemblage of elaborately staged scenes.

After years of research and interviews, “A Film Unfinished” now shows us some of the original Nazi footage along with four kinds of testimony: First, we hear from the researchers’ point of view about the discovery of the staged scenes, confirming that this original film footage was a horrific propaganda effort by the Nazis; second, we hear from Willy Wist, the one surviving Nazi cameraman about the SS direction of this film; third, we hear from the hidden, hand-written diaries of the head of the Warsaw Jewish council who was so disturbed by the filmmaking that it contributed to his suicide; fourth, and most disturbing of all, we hear from Warsaw survivors who recall the Nazi production.

Berenbaum concludes that it is this multi-layered testimony that makes this a unique learning tool. Even in the thousands of Spielberg videotapes of survivors, Berenbaum explains, each survivors’ film only represents a single point of view. In “A Film Unfinished,” we move between four points of view in scene after scene.

Why does ‘A Film Unifinished’ reveal ‘horrific propaganda’?

INVESTIGATING THE ORIGINAL NAZI FILM FOOTAGE OF THE WARSAW GHETTO: Once thought to be an hour-long collection of pure documentary footage, the SS-directed effort now is revealed as a largely staged production. One telltale piece of evidence are a small number of film frames, like this one, that accidentally capture smiling Nazi cameramen at work in scenes as they unfold.

The Nazis were masters of propaganda. Any high school student in the U.S. knows that. So, why do we say that this documentary reveals something unique? Why do we use the phrase “horrific propaganda”?

First, unlike Leni Riefenstahl’s tributes to Nazi glory, or Joseph Goebbels’ infamous “Jud Süß,” this Warsaw propaganda film, which the Nazis titled simply “The Ghetto,” used the victims like stage props. Most other propaganda films were staged under Riefenstahl’s or Goebbels’ direction like MGM spectacles, often in Nazi strongholds and huge movie studios. In Warsaw, at the height of the misery, Nazi filmmakers forced victims to stage scenes in their own shops, synagogues and homes.

Second, Nazi filmmakers were notorious voyeurs and did, indeed, film the most horrific scenes of ghetto life. For example, we see an enormous open sewer in a courtyard where starving families sift for scraps in the garbage. We see the corpses of people who fell in the streets each day. We see emaciated mothers and fathers dressed in rags begging for bread. The survivors confirm for us that—in those scenes—the Nazi film crew accurately portrayed the worst of life in the ghetto in early 1942.

However, third, we learn that the expensively staged scenes involved luxuries the filmmakers brought into the ghetto—linen tablecloths and Champagne for an elegant cafe scene, fat geese to fill out a scene in a marketplace, a gilded mirror where a wealthy woman was shown dressing herself for a day on the town. The final propaganda twist lay in editing these scenes of luxury against scenes of the direst poverty in the ghetto. The filmmakers intended to show the world that “wealthy Jews” were living comfortable lives in Warsaw, but the Jewish commuity itself was refusing to help their starving neighbors. It was the “wealthy Jews” themselves who were forcing the Nazis’ hands in “cleaning up” this ghetto.

The original Nazi propaganda film was completed in 30 days, shortly before a quarter of a million men, women and children were shipped to their deaths at Treblinka in the first huge wave of extermination from Warsaw. Around that time, the head of the Jewish council who was fully aware of the propaganda film’s attempt to blame the entire genocide on Jewish leaders themselves—committed suicide. Eventually, after a heroic uprising in early 1943, the ghetto was emptied.

A Film Unfinished,” which you can order from Amazon, is a fairly expensive DVD. There is no entertainment value here. This is disturbing material about victims ultimately forced to participate in their own vilification by their murderers. But the survivors who we see here, trying to explain this film to us, explain that the footage is valuable for anyone who wants to see the actual streets of the ghetto just before its destruction. This was a traumatic experience for the survivors to recall these scenes, but they do want people to understand what happened in Warsaw. More than that, as Berenbaum indicates, this is the kind of film that will spark important new discussion in adult classes about the Holocaust and the need to remember the past clearly. After all, for years historians thought this footage represented truth about the ghetto—instead, it was one of the most horrific propaganda efforts ever staged.

READ MORE ON THE HOLOCAUST? ReadTheSpirit is part of an ongoing effort to highlight the best in new educational materials, especially films, that are helpful to classes and discussion groups. We also have established a special webpage of educational resources on the Shoah.

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)

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