If, as critic and filmmaker Dai Vaughan writes, the “documentary response”—the perception of the image as “signifying what it appears to record”—lies principally in the reaction of the viewer, then the Nazi propaganda film of the Warsaw ghetto discovered in East German vaults after the war succeeded in eliciting just this response from historians and film scholars who for years took the material as a reliable document of historical veracity. For Vaughan, the recorded image always has a documentary as well as a fictional function, but the ethical task of the documentarian is to the foreground the artifice in such a way that the viewer doesn’t take for reality an image that contradicts the essential “truth” of the film’s subject. Of course such designations as “reality” are notoriously slippery and even the most “verité” of movies is filled with directorial manipulations that shade the project toward fiction. But it’s only in the work of the propagandist that these categories become deliberately confused, the filmmaker attempting to confuse the viewer into taking for truth the patently false.
All of which makes the Nazi film titled simply The Ghetto, a project that mixes obviously staged scenes showing Jews living the high life with seemingly “documentary” glimpses of the most abject misery, such a fascinating object of study. In A Film Unfinished, director Yael Hersonski takes the propaganda movie as her text, annotating ample footage from the work with the verbal reactions of a handful of the ghetto’s survivors, readings from diaries, journals, and official documents of the time and the testimony of one of the filmmakers who worked on the project.
Shot over 30 days in May 1942, the footage that survives is a strange hybrid whose final purpose is difficult to fully discern. Certainly staged scenes in which Jews enjoy a meal at an upscale restaurant or arrange flowers in a posh apartment (“Where did you ever see a flower?” one survivor comments. “We could eat a flower.”) serve their propagandist purpose, as do their inverse, perversions of Jewish rituals, as when a man performs a brutal circumcision at home instead of at a hospital or emaciated men and buxom women are forced to take a nude ritual bath. But why, then, does the film contain such haunting images as reeking piles of garbage clogging up residential courtyards or a shot of bearded beggar man in rags walking down the street, a bubble of nitrate deterioration creating an ambiguous halo around his head? As the film’s narrator puts it, the “intentions of the propagandist” remain oblique.
But two discoveries helped shed light on the original filmmakers’ process. The first was the uncovering in the 1960s of the name of one of the cameraman, Willy Wist, who was tracked down and forced to testify about his filmmaking methods. The second was the discovery, in 1998, of 30 minutes of outtakes from The Ghetto which revealed the degree to which the Nazis deliberately staged many of the film’s scenes, even those that seemed to be little more than random exposés of misery, a process that Hersonski explores by showing us several takes of the same “scene.” But just as all documentary contains some element of fiction, so there is often an element of documentary truth in narrative and no matter how carefully the filmmakers orchestrated the dumping of horrendously thinned bodies into mass graves, the footage tells us plenty about the state of the ghetto. It’s when the viewer can no longer tell the difference between obvious lies and hard facts that the deliberate confusions of the Nazi filmmakers succeed and the documentary response becomes problematic.
No less a shrewd manipulator than the German directors she set out to expose, Hersonski uses her editing console to tweak the footage to suit her purposes, as when she freeze-frames on an image of a man digging through garbage to highlight the pathos of a face peeking out from a discarded photograph. And like the Nazi filmmakers, she freely stages recreations, oblique simulations of a typewriter pounding out an important document or Willy Wist being interrogated, sequences whose main purpose seems to be to vary the film’s visual look, but whose slick desaturated look clashes unproductively with the footage from the propaganda film. Finally, Hersonski is, if anything, more emotionally manipulative than the Germans, staging a final sequence in which she cuts from The Ghetto‘s most horrifying sequence—the mass dumping of bodies—to extreme close-ups of the survivors’ faces. But even if this crude, ethically suspect juxtaposition seems nearly unforgivable, Hersonski’s manipulations have the virtue of deliberate transparency. Whereas the Nazi films aimed to obscure the dividing line between fact and fiction, A Film Unfinished aims at clarification, at analysis. In true Vaughnian fashion, Hersonski foregrounds her artifice and in the process offers us a privileged look at not only a valuable archival document but at the ways in which the historical record can be manipulated as easily as a frame of film being threaded through the eager rollers of a Steenbeck.