Saturday, September 25, 2010
An increasing number of documentaries blur the line between fact and fiction. “A Film Unfinished” (opened September 24 at Landmark’ Ken Cinema) makes a point of explicitly exploring that line.
In a sense, “A Film Unfinished” is a documentary about a documentary, and it questions whether we can accept what a filmmaker presents at face value. About a decade after World War II, some sixty minutes of footage shot in May 1942 by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto surfaced in East Germany. The footage was labeled “Das Ghetto,” and it became something of a resource for researchers. Soon images from the film were being used to show what life in the ghetto had been like. But then years later, additional footage from the film was found. This “raw” footage included multiple takes, staged scenes, and images of the filmmaker at work. Seeing the footage in the raw raises question the truthfulness of the images and the historical accuracy of the German film. The ripple effect felt from this discovery calls into question the credibility of any work that made use of information from this German film.
Filmmaker Yael Hersonski looks to dissect this long-missing footage trying to determine what scenes were staged and questioning for what purpose. Some of the images appear genuine. We see people emaciated by lack of food and dead bodies piled high in mass graves. The images are sometimes so shocking that we wonder at how anyone could film them and not be moved or film them and not foresee how it implicates them in crimes against humanity. Yet other scenes appear obviously staged, like a dinner party that presents a fictionalized window on Jewish life in the ghetto, inaccurately showing Jewish urbanites enjoying “the good life” and turning a blind eye to other Jews who might be suffering. There are also staged scenes of Jewish rituals.
In order to determine the truth and meaning of these images, Hersonski relies on a variety of sources. There are readings of various diaries (including one from a man who “acted” in the film) from people who lived in the Ghetto and describe what life there was like. Hersonski also interviews ghetto survivors as they watch the film and try to connect it to what they remember. And finally there’s testimony from one of the film’s actual cameramen who tries to explain what they were trying to do in shooting the film. Plus there is a voiceover narration prompting us to ask more questions as we watch, and speculating on what the Nazi’s motives might have been in creating this particular propaganda film.
Hersonski has a fascinating subject but her approach may not be the best or most probing. There’s a saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words?” And at times I felt like Hersonski should let her pictures tell the story and not add constant narration that distracts us from really examining the images before us. There are times when I just wanted to look at the faces before me and take in the images without hearing speculation on what the Nazis might have intended to convey with that particular shot. I do want the f Hersonski’s film to question the images and to make us look beyond the mere surfaces but this works better when she lets her witnesses do the talking. The film’s narration often feels intrusive and forces the director’s perspective on us rather than letting us do some thinking for ourselves.
The film works best when we get to take in the images and then hear from the witnesses be they the survivors Hersonski interviews, the diary readings, or the recollections of the cameraman. There are some deeply emotional moments here as when a women survivor begins to cry at the images of the dead being brought out in carts. She notes that she is glad that she can finally cry and can reconnect with her humanity after having felt the need to shut down her emotions in order to survive.
But Hersonski fails to consider how both the visual record of the Nazis and the memories of survivors and participants can both be unreliable. Her film could have become a provocative exploration of more than just this one piece of Nazi propaganda. It could have explored how we document history and how reliable or unreliable these sources are in creating an accurate picture. Everyone has a perspective and a subject point of view that they bring to the table whether they are filmmakers, propagandists, or survivors. It might have helped to have someone put this film into a larger historical context too. After all almost all the visual documentation we have of the Holocaust comes from the Nazis themselves who were meticulous documentarians, and it’s ironic that we have looked to them for historical information.
“An Unfinished Film” (in German, Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish with English subtitles) is a compelling film more for its remarkable content than for the specific way filmmaker Yael Hersonski assembles her material. But documents like this are vital in exploring how history is recorded and remembered.
Companion viewing: “Night and Fog,” “The Sorrow and the Pity,” “Shoah,” "Letter to Jane"
Be listening this Wednesday September 29 to KPBS-FM's Film Club of teh Air on These Days when we will discuss the documentaries "A Film Unfinished" and "Catfish."