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“Unfinished” Business

August 20, 2010

Is this scene from the Warsaw Ghetto real or staged? A Film Unfinished raises questions about truth, history and documentation.

I recently interviewed the director of A Film Unfinished for indieWIRE. This essay is my opportunity to explore in more depth some of the issues with the film and its portrayal in the media that had been gnawing at me.

In A Film Unfinished, young Israeli documentarian Yael Hersonski painstakingly details the history of “The Ghetto,” a collection of Nazi footage from the Warsaw Ghetto that has served as the basis for much of our visual understanding of that wretched waystation on the road to the Final Solution. Few laymen have seen the entire four reels of “The Ghetto” before. But it has been commonly known to Holocaust historians, and pieces of the footage have been widely redeployed in other Holocaust documentaries. Indeed, Hersonski, upon first seeing the footage four years ago, immediately recognized a number of images from other Holocaust documentaries.

But in 1998, 30 minutes of additional footage from the “documentary” came to light. These outtakes revealed that some (much?) of the imagery from “The Ghetto” was staged by Nazi propagandists in an attempt to portray Jews in an unsavory and stereotypical light. The avowedly secular head of the Judenrat (the ghetto’s Jewish government) was forced to take down pictures from his office and replace them with photos of rabbis and place a giant candelabra on his desk for a staged meeting with religious elders. Fully bearded, yarmulke-wearing Jews were ordered to recreate Jewish rituals, perhaps to provide a visual record once the race was wiped out. Most despicably of all, the Nazis gathered up the best-dressed and best-fed Jews in the ghetto and made them act out vignettes that would demonstrate the disparity between the rich and the poor in the ghetto and the rich Jews’ callousness to their impoverished neighbors. In one outtake, well-dressed waitresses in the ghetto’s nicest restaurant are shown repeatedly walking by the outstretched hands of ragged, emaciated beggar children. In A Film Unfinished, Hersonski reveals that what was assumed to be a documentary was really the raw material for a vilely anti-Semitic propaganda film. (As if one would expect anything better from the Nazis…)

In many reviews and stories on the film, the revelation of the new footage in 1998 and its implications on the earlier footage is treated as a moment of significant historical import. Lisa Schwarzbaum, of Entertainment Weekly, writes:

…as director Yael Hersonski explains with dignified authority in her profound and vital documentary, those scenes of ”real life,” once prized by historians, weren’t so real. A missing reel, discovered in 1998, demonstrates the degree to which the Nazis manipulated the ”nonfiction” they photographed.

In Time Out New York, Keith Uhlich writes:

For years, images and sequences from the film were drawn on as infallible glimpses of history. But as shown by Yael Hersonski’s wrenching documentary, the truth is much more muddled and horrifying.

And in her essay Truth Lies Somewhere Between, about the murky relationship between truth and fiction in A Film Unfinished, Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop, Manohla Dargis writes:

Over the decades excerpts from this and other similar ghetto movies have been used in well-intended documentaries about the Holocaust, which invests them with a level of factuality they cannot support. These images don’t reveal the whole reality of Jewish life in the ghetto during the war; they show how the Nazi propaganda machine wanted Jewish life to be immortalized. …

Ms. Hersonski’s documentary demolishes the truth claims of those Nazi images. To an extent, it is the ineluctable weight of the Holocaust that allows her to engage such questions at all. The issue of truth, unless Michael Moore is in the vicinity, is often left off the table when it comes to discussions about documentary cinema, perhaps because critics don’t have the time, resources or inclination for the requisite fact-checking or because the issue is at odds with our postmodern age, in which the truth is said to be conditional. Part of what is so gratifying about “A Film Unfinished,” which is often painful to watch, is its ethical insistence that there are true things in the world, and that it is necessary for us to know them.

But these critics’ claims don’t hold up to scrutiny. The most familiar-looking scenes from “The Ghetto” are not the ones Hersonski deconstructs. Few of us have seen images of smiling, fit young ghetto Jews sunning themselves, or of nattily dressed bourgeois Jews dining over smoked fish and pastries. Instead, our memories are of the presumably unstaged scenes: dead bodies lining the crowded streets, children caught in the act of smuggling vegetables, the deadened eyes of impossibly thin adults dressed in rags. The uncovering of the new footage in 1998 is scarcely earth-shattering—it only serves to alter the understanding of footage that few had seen in the first place, not of footage that was embedded in the global collective consciousness.

The fact that audiences have been shown one type of footage but not the other raises its own set of politically sensitive questions about the selectivity of historiography. If, as Hersonski seems to claim, historians took the original film at more or less face value, why were the scenes that were shared with the wider world strictly depictions of poverty, hunger and death? Presumably, if historians assumed the original footage was not staged, the scenes of Jewish luxury should have been just as valuable a part of the historical record. But those images didn’t make it into Night and Fog and the countless Holocaust docs that followed. Most charitably, we can understand the rarity of these scenes as evidence that historians and documentarians understood that they were highly anomalous or staged—making Hersonski’s warnings about the ethical dangers of taking “The Ghetto” at face value redundant, if not unnecessary. Less charitably, we might see the non-dissemination of the scenes as evidence of a political-historiographic orthodoxy on the Holocaust that insisted that Jewish suffering in the Warsaw Ghetto was universal. (A point that the liquidation of the ghetto in 1943 appears to bear out—but which doesn’t address how its prisoners lived for the two-and-a-half previous years.) Seen in this light, the cinematic historiography of the Holocaust is shown to be a process of selectively choosing the evidence that best fits a pre-existing narrative, rather than a sharing of all the evidence, no matter whether it alters our notion of the Holocaust as the ultimate, absolute and universal horror.

While Hersonski never addresses this particular issue directly, the format of her film brilliantly foregrounds the difficulty of extracting truth from incomplete historical records—as all records necessarily are. Hersonski weaves together excerpts from diaries of ghetto residents, transcripts from the Nuremberg Trials, Nazi bureaucratic records, additional personal footage shot by Nazi cameramen and most powerfully, contemporary real-time commentaries from ghetto survivors watching the Nazi footage in front of Hersonski’s camera. As they view the footage, they critique and connect with the scenes, providing personal and emotional detailing to terrible images that threaten to become rote. Their emotional responses to the suffering are most moving—when they shield their eyes from the scenes of piled dead bodies, there is a painful psychological immediacy—but the most historically interesting bits of their commentary are their responses to the scenes of Jewish wealth. They don’t deny that there were wealthier Jews in the ghetto; in fact, several of the survivors affirm that they existed. They point out how few of them there were (one says maybe 20 people in the ghetto’s population of 400,000 could afford to go to the restaurant seen in the footage), but they acknowledge their existence. This testimony offers a more nuanced portrait of ghetto society while not denying that life for the overwhelming majority of ghetto residents was utterly wretched. Just as importantly, their testimony highlights how all historiography is necessarily a process of selective accounting, and always bears a volatile relationship to the truth. While Dargis is right about Hersonski’s “ethical insistence that there are true things in the world, and that it is necessary for us to know them,” Hersonski is also insistent that there can never be a one-to-one correspondence between history and truth. As she told me in an interview, “Certainly the film is about the nature of documentation itself and the inability to capture reality as such. … Always capturing one aspect, or more than one aspect, but never the thing itself. … It’s something beyond language and image.”

A Film Unfinished is less important for correcting a historical misconception, as a number of critics claim, than it is for its attention to the problems of historiography. Professional historians understand these problems well, but untrained consumers of popular history have a much dimmer understanding. On the one hand, a historian must make decisions on what evidence to share, and those decisions are inevitably partially motivated by ideology. On the other hand, it is possible to arrive at a “best version” of the truth by judiciously and objectively piecing together all the available evidence. A Film Unfinished is a reminder that every historical account is, by its nature, unfinished.

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