The popular sentiment about Holocaust grief at the movies reached a breaking point in 2008, when backlash against “The Reader” suggested that audiences had grown tired of the predetermined gravitas that seemed to infuse such stories with an immediate sense of purpose. Last year, Yoav Shamir’s perceptive documentary “Defamation” put an additional focus on the problem by following school children on a guilt-inducing field trip to Auschwitz. The kids are meant to accept the morbidity and cry for the dead rather than try to understand the forces behind their fate. Shamir rose a boldly progressive question: Does acknowledging a dark patch of history necessitate the mournful tone? Can our relationship to the past evolve under the scrutiny available to us in the present?
With “A Film Unfinished,” Yael Hersonski presents a solution, setting the stage for a cinematic filtration of Holocaust grief through empirical analysis. The Israeli director unearths the full story behind a long-neglected propaganda film that spent decades in an East German archive, where it was vaguely titled “Ghetto.” The hour long fragments actually belonged to an uncompleted 1942 production intended to present the Warsaw Ghetto as a place of immense luxury, where affluent Jews not only played into their ugliest stereotypes but flaunted them.
History obviously tells us that this was not the case, but Hersonski proves it: Using outtakes from the project, the memories of survivors and the diary of the beleaguered head of the Jewish Council, she carefully unravels the production’s manipulative intent. Her technique displays the skill of a masterful archivist rather than filmmaker, but “A Film Unfinished” certainly holds its own as a unique cinematic experience.
“From the frenzy of propaganda, the images alone remain,” Hersonski says in the voice-over that guides the movie. Indeed, the majority of the its hypnotic effect comes from the silent dread apparent in the eyes of the ghetto’s Jewish residents, seen both in their true impoverished forms and when tidied up for the camera. Shot in 30 days by a group of Nazi filmmakers, the production appears to take Joseph Goebbels’s ambitions to experimental heights. Whereas “instructional” propaganda like “The Eternal Jew” created a laundry list of reasons to justify the prevalence of anti-Semitism, the ghetto film remains eternally unformed, leaving an unpolished contrast between the reality of ghetto life and the lies that the cameramen aimed to perpetrate. Hersonski’s ability to bring this juxtaposition to light gives her movie an unprecedented outlook on the persecution that took place within the walls of the ghetto.
Her narrative is impressively constructed with more layers than even the unfinished film in question (appropriately enough, it won the editing award at Sundance). Among them: Excerpts from Jewish Council head Adam Cherniakov’s diaries, read in their original Polish, provide an essential primary source to accompany the footage. Five survivors watch clips in a screening room, picking through familiar faces and locales. An actor portrays one of the cameramen, performing dialogue from the transcript of an interview conducted with him after the war. There’s no doubting the profound depths of Hersonski’s research, and her brilliant capacity to assemble this material into a coherent narrative.
Unfortunately, her approach is susceptible to redundancies. Survivors continually shield their eyes and long-dead Jews wander the streets time and again, which occasionally normalizes the grim mood rather than giving it power. The one missing piece is the modern perspective — contemporary images of Warsaw that could have helped place the events in the context of the real world.
The strongest moments in “A Film Unfinished” arrive when Hersonski breaks down the methodology of the production, revealing multiple takes and evidence of directorial intent. The actors’ feigned comfort masks their misery, implying a form of desperation as harrowing as anything in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Saló” and certainly far more discomfiting than the imaginary concentration camps in “Schindler’s List” (at least those scenes ease the pain with steady camerawork).
Hersonski’s scholarly approach makes it less engaging on an emotional level, taking a step toward the measured approach endorsed by Shamir and others. However, it suffers from an issue at the opposite end of the spectrum from histrionic Holocaust fictionalizations: The dreariness makes the movie into a resolutely cold affair, and it’s difficult to identify with any particular victim’s anguish. But at least she enables viewers to acknowledge it.