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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Hersonski discusses ‘Unfinished’ documentary

Published: April 8, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

Innumerable documentaries have attempted to grapple with the specter of the Holocaust. Some elegize the victims and celebrate its few heroes, while others probe the roots of evil. “A Film Unfinished,” a documentary released late last year, takes a slightly different approach, offering a deconstruction of the Nazi propaganda machine at its worst. Israeli director Yael Hersonski appeared at the Wasserman Cinematheque last Sunday to discuss her film with members of the Brandeis community.

Hersonski’s film focuses on the mystery surrounding “Das Ghetto,” an uncompleted Nazi propaganda film that presents itself as a documentary about Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto. Shot mere months before the ghetto’s destruction, the Nazi film depicts the ghetto’s culture as being wholly unequal and fundamentally corrupt; in short, it covertly attempts to justify the extermination of the European Jewry.

While other propaganda films were well-documented after the war, a twist occurred in the uncompleted film’s history. In 1954, roughly-edited footage from “Das Ghetto”—about 62-minutes worth—was uncovered in the East German archives. While the authorities initially acknowledged the film as propaganda, the rough footage quickly lost its context; scholars soon accepted the footage as a legitimate record of ghetto life, ignoring the clips of Jews dining lavishly that seemingly clashed with history.

In a sense, “A Film Unfinished” is an attempt to solve a mystery of sorts, as Hersonski slowly builds a case against the historical legitimacy of the ghetto footage.

The single most damning piece of evidence featured in the film is a lost reel of outtakes from “Das Ghetto” that was discovered in Ohio in 1998. These outtakes reveal the elaborate staging employed by the Nazi filmmakers; certain scenes were completely fabricated and the filmmakers shot multiple takes of some scenes again and again. Clearly and unsurprisingly, the Nazi crew had an agenda.

Hersonski’s documentary served as a tightly-focused rebuttal against the mishandling of these disturbing images. Rather than pander to our emotions, Hersonski allows the documents employed—including the testimony of ghetto survivors and the recently uncovered cross-examination of one of the Nazi filmmakers—to speak for themselves. The effect is chilling and extremely unsettling, particularly when one considers how people allowed these images to lie to them for decades.

After the screening of the film, Hersonski sat down for a question-and-answer session with Professor Paul Jankowski (HIST).

“I never thought I’d make a film of the Warsaw Ghetto, but when I saw how manipulated this film had been [I had to make my own documentary],” Hersonski told the audience.

In producing the film—a process that took nearly five years—she explained that she wanted to understand why “no one asked who framed [the film] this way” and why it had become so widely accepted among scholars as “an objective documentation of the victims.”

Hersonski also reflected on “Das Ghetto” in the context of general Nazi propaganda.

“[The propaganda film] demonstrates the Nazi paradox, their need to annihilate the evidence and their uncontrollable desire to document,” she said.

One of the questions which puzzled her in creating the film was why it had been created in the first place. A similar propagandistic documentary, “The Eternal Jew,” had bombed less than two years before production commenced on “Das Ghetto.” Hersonski argued that the film came out of a desire among the Nazi elite to “decontextualize” their Jewish victims and to “use it as a kind of a false snapshot of a community that is immoral and corrupt,” thus justifying their horrific actions.

Yet Hersonski believed that the piece of propaganda itself helped her disprove the original filmmakers’ point.

“I always felt there was much more to show than the Nazi filmmakers wanted to show,” she said.

“The frame will always show more than they wanted to show. There’s two gazes: the gaze of the cameraman and the mechanical gaze of the camera.”

This mechanical gaze captures the anguish in the faces of Jewish actors forced to perform on camera for the Nazis. In one horrific sequence, Jews given nice clothing by the filmmakers were forced to walk past corpses on the ghetto sidewalks and were instructed to ignore them, furthering the propagandist’s thesis of gross inequality.

When it came to incorporating footage from “Das Ghetto” in her own documentary, Hersonski encountered some resistance.

A segment in the Nazi film shows Jewish men and women separately partaking in a ritual bath. In the recently recovered outtakes, these residents of the ghetto are shown being corralled into the baths against their will.

“This isn’t about Jewish ritual life, but of the sadism of the human beings [doing the] filming,” Hersonski said, noting that she had originally encountered the footage in an exhibition where it was labeled as being a genuine depiction of Jewish religious life.

“Maybe for the first time these women [in the baths] were shown as human beings and not just as victims,” she said in an earlier interview with The Hoot.

“I wanted to create a moral way of viewing these images.”

Using this footage of the naked victims raised some questions within the Jewish community.

Orthodox Jews in Israel requested that she create another version of her documentary in which the nudity be edited out. She found this request “a bit appalling,” believing that this created a false illusion of a world “without nudity [and] without death,” she told The Hoot.

The use of this footage also stirred controversy within the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which gave the film an R rating. The film’s distributer, Oscilloscope Laboratories, appealed for a PG-13 rating, believing that this would give the film maximum exposure, but the request was denied.

While Hersonski employed footage from almost every major segment of “Das Ghetto” in her own documentary, she chose not to include clips from a scene involving the examination of ghetto residents suffering from severe skin diseases.

“[It was] the fact that their faces were not shown … just the diseased part. The message was clear to me: This body is a disease … someone was saying that this individual should be exterminated.”

In making the film, she was also conscious of her own identity as an Israeli filmmaker and as a citizen critical of the discourse that surrounds the Holocaust in her native country.

“I always felt the national ritual around Holocaust Memorial Day … was taken away from the survivors by the state to use it for its own purposes,” she said.

“Everything became politicized, generalized, a fetishization of a narrative.”

In making the film, she expressed the desire to make a documentary that was willing to ignore the conventions of Holocaust films and documentaries.

“I was trying to do the exact opposite of being confident,” she said.

“I wanted to open it again and examine it in a space that cannot [rely on] knowledge.”

In creating such a thought-provoking film that questions the validity of images that surround us, she achieved just that.