In the spring of 1942, a Nazi official code-named Gold Pheasant began making a film in the Warsaw Ghetto - a three-square-mile holding cell crammed with a half-million starving Jews. That population shrank daily, as families put out their dead every morning, abandoning them on the sidewalk for garbage crews.
The film, simply labelled Das Ghetto, was not an objective documentary. Why would Nazis film their own atrocities? Gold Pheasant had German soldiers choreograph fictional scenarios meant to perpetuate the Nazi caricature of Jews.
The fittest prisoners, recent captives, were forced to perform in elaborately staged fantasies, pretending to savour sumptuous meals and enjoying nights on the town. Watching Das Ghetto we see (or think we see) a prosperous Jewish woman wander into a butcher's shop, ignoring ragamuffin children - skeletons with hands outstretched.
Das Ghetto's message is clear: Look, how the rich, avaricious Jew exploits even his own kind.
Yael Hersonski's new documentary, A Film Unfinished, reveals the design of Nazi propaganda. We see different takes of the butcher-shop scene. In other outtakes, footage not meant for the public, German soldiers are shown to be the film's real directors, harassing performances out of spooked players.
Mysteriously, a month into shooting, Das Ghetto was discontinued. The rough cut was discovered in East German archives in 1954. In 1998, another reel - outtakes that made clear the film's vile disinformation - turned up.
Filmmaker Hersonski has reassembled Das Ghetto, providing clarification and context by dipping into the outtakes and interviewing five survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, who respond to the propaganda film they lived through but have never, until now, seen. The director also tracked down the evasive mid-1960s testimony of one of the Nazi cameramen, Willi Wist. In addition, voiceover commentaries have been drawn from the clandestine diaries of long-dead victims of German war crimes.
The result is a harrowing, unsettling journey - a terribly moving document. The most compelling sequences allow survivors to refute their torturers' lies. In one staged sequence, we are shown through a luxury Warsaw Ghetto apartment - room after room decorated with carefully arranged flowers.
"Where did one see a flower?" scoffs a survivor, a woman in her 80s. "We would have eaten a flower."
A Film Unfinished fails to solve some of the mysteries of Das Ghetto. Gold Pheasant isn't identified. And we never figure out why the Nazis abandoned the project. It would be nice to think that the lie stuck in their throat.
Why Hersonski, an Israeli director, completed A Film Unfinished, showcasing the monstrous lie that is Das Ghetto, is easier to understand. It is important to bear witness to history - even horrible times - to inoculate the world against future danger.
Hersonski makes this message clear in one of the film's triumphant moments, providing a voiceover quote from the diary of a Warsaw Ghetto victim - a man who hasn't eaten in five days, but continues to work, scribbling in a notebook. Periodically, friends ask: "Why are you doing this? Will you ever publish it? Will your words ever reach the ears of future generations?"
His response: "I feel that continuing this diary until I am no longer physically and emotionally capable is a historical mission that must not be underestimated."
A Film Unfinished
- Written and directed by Yael Hersonski
- Classification: 18A
A Film Unfinished screens at Bell Lightbox until Sept. 29. Visit tiff.net or call 416-968-FILM for show times, ticket prices, box office hours and location.
Special to The Globe and Mail