Every film is a documentary to some degree, because even the most stage-managed productions record their participants at specific times in their lives. Yael Hersonski’s documentary A Film Unfinished is about an unusual one-hour film found in an archive of Nazi propaganda: a piece called “The Ghetto,” which was meant to show Germans and Poles the depravity of the Jews in Warsaw. Between the staged scenes of well-dressed Jews whooping it up in lavish apartments, the filmmakers also shot footage of shoeless urchins, starving scavengers, piles of garbage, puddles of sewage, and naked corpses being piled on carts. No one knows exactly what the finished film was trying to prove, beyond some trumped-up point about the Jews’ economic disparity and callous indifference to it. But for historians—and for people who lived through the Holocaust—“The Ghetto” has become an invaluable resource, as an inadvertent record of what life was like before the pogrom.
Hersonski shows “The Ghetto” a reel at a time, and supplements it with readings from the diary of a man who “acted” in the film, testimony by one of the cameramen, interviews with survivors as they watch the film, and a few dully literalist insert shots of film being threaded through a projector and hands writing in journals. It’s an austere approach to a fascinating subject, and not necessarily the most provocative direction Hersonski could’ve taken. It feels like there’s something missing from A Film Unfinished: some commentary from scholars on the importance and meaning of “The Ghetto,” or some discussion of how cinema can both distort and reveal truth.
Still, A Film Unfinished is affecting as a rare document of a terrible place and time, and those who lived there. Former Warsaw ghetto-dwellers speak movingly about how the Nazis supplied the local market with geese during the shooting of the film, and how fondly they remember the street performers who entertained them, even though the filmmakers often set them in front of people dying in the gutters. And one woman says she’s scanning each frame of “The Ghetto,” hoping to see her mother. Because while the Nazis faked scenes of circumcision, weddings, and ritual baths, and changed the décor in some rooms to make them look more stereotypical, the people in those scenes? They were real.