A Film Unfinished *** ½
Directed By: Yael Hersonki.
There has never been a government who has better understood the power of cinema, and how to exploit, than Nazi Germany. From the beginning, Hitler and Goebbels knew that one way to win everyone over to their side was to use cinema – images burn into your brain much more effectively than words, and they sought to exploit this. They approached Fritz Lang to become the unofficial head of Nazi filmmaking, but he wasn’t interested and ended up fleeing Germany for Hollywood – where he made a number of explicitly anti-Nazi films. The works of Leni Riefenstahl, despite their undeniable evil intentions, have become recognized as propaganda masterpieces.
A Film Unfinished is a documentary about another propaganda movie the Nazis made – although they never finished it. It was discovered in the vault of Nazi films in the middle of a field in the years after the war and was simply entitlted “The Ghetto”. What was inside was a little more than an hour of edited material, with no soundtrack, that stands as a testament at just how much the Germans sought to influence people through cinema.
A Film Unfinished presents this material for the world to see, and offers some interesting background information in the form of a journal by one of the Jewish residents of the Warsaw ghetto forced to participate in the film, reports from the senior Nazi in charge of the ghetto, testimony of one of the cameramen (the only one ever identified) at a war crimes trial in the 1960s, and finally from some of the residents in the ghetto who have survived all these years – who watch the images and cannot believe what they are seeing.
It is clear what the duel purpose of the film was. The first was to show that life in the ghetto was not bad at all – that the Nazis may have confined the Jews to a ghetto, but were still allowing them to live their lives the way they see fit – and that everything is essentially fine. The second was to the paint the Jews as heartless and cruel – which they do by constantly contrasting the lives of those with money, and those without. The rich people celebrate in fine restaurants and parties, dress in their best clothes, arrange flowers in their spacious apartments and completely ignore the suffering of those around them. One of the most heartless scenes in the film shows corpses strewn on the sidewalk, as the Jews walk by them – sometimes even stepping over them – without even realizing or caring that they are there.
Of course, this is all lies. It was all staged – as “outtakes” on one of the reels shows us quite clearly as we see multiple takes of the same scenes to get them to be more believable. The journals of the man forced to participate paint a picture of almost a professional film being made – with actors and sets, etc. The survivors watch in horror as they see the scenes painted on the screen in front of them – this didn’t reflect the reality of life in the ghetto at all.
A Film Unfinished is a wonderful documentary, that is about cinema – about its manipulations, and how because of its primal power, it can be used for either good, or in this case, complete evil. The film was never finished probably because they didn’t have time to finish it – it was filmed in May 1942, and a few months later they started to liquidate the ghetto and send all the Jews to concentration camps. Their propaganda about life in the ghettos was therefore useless to them, and as they weren’t even pretending to treat them fairly anymore. The film is a valuable document of how cinema can be manipulated – and how you have to question everything you see.