At the end of WWII, 60 minutes of raw film were discovered. Shot by the Nazis in Warsaw in May 1942, this footage quickly became a resource for historians seeking an authentic record of the Warsaw Ghetto. However, the later discovery of a long-missing reel, including multiple takes and cameraman-staged scenes, complicated earlier readings of the footage. A Film Unfinished presents the raw footage, carefully noting fictionalized sequences, and probes deep into the making of a nowinfamous Nazi propaganda film.
How do you make a creative documentary about a propaganda film while at the same time respecting the history portrayed in it? And without risking the pitfalls of propaganda when it comes to credibility and transparency?
This must have been on the minds of the makers of A Film Unfinished, a film about a propaganda film on the Warsaw ghetto and on its cutting-floor scenes. A Film Unfinished is advertised as a film uncovering the mystery of a lost reel of film. In May 1942, the Germans shot a film in the Jewish ghetto of Poland’s capital Warsaw. This film, called The Ghetto, found only a decade after the war, was apparently used as an authentic record of life in the ghetto by consequent generations of historians. Some 45 years later, an additional reel was found which, according to the filmmakers, showed a number of different takes of scenes from the ghetto film.
Conclusion: What the film historians had believed represented an accurate image of life in the Warsaw ghetto was staged and is in fact propaganda. Despite the intentions of the filmmakers to unmask staged scenes in what has been perceived as authentic and accurate documentary material, A Film Unfinished is itself problematic. It lacks transparency, obviously answers to a preconceived narrative, and does not fundamentally contest the very film it is saying to unmask – making it propaganda in its own way. A Film Unfinished is constructed from many elements. There is the film known as The Ghetto; witnesses who watch this film, comment on it and share their memories of the ghetto; staged scenes of an interrogation of one of the cameramen of The Ghetto, Willy Wist; and staged scenes of the SS commander Heinz Auerswald, responsible for the ghetto, typing reports for his superiors. In between there are scenes of film reels being taken out of their cans and put on a projector and of a man walking through a building. And then there are the additional outtakes from the mystery reel.
The soundtrack includes a myriad of voice-overs: an omniscient narrator; one representing the head of the Jewish Council in the ghetto, Adam Cerniakov; a voice representing Auerswald; and a number of voices representing people who kept diaries in the ghetto. The film starts with that omniscient voice-over, introducing the film The Ghetto while we see images of a film depot with stacks of film cans. At this point, I go into suspension-of-belief mode. I once followed a course in propaganda film as part of my film studies. One of the most important features of propaganda film is the separation of images and sound and an omniscient narrator who discloses what or whom we are watching in the images: “Here is professor so-and-so who said this-andthat”.
Simply watch a ‘newscast’ from, let’s say, North Korea, and you’ll get the point. In A Film Unfinished, this is done more subtly: the voice tells us about the existence of something, followed by images and sounds which, as a consequence, we believe represents that something. For instance the voice-over tells us about the Jewish Council and its head, Cerniakov, who we are told kept a diary. We see a hand carefully placing small notebooks – a staged scene. We then hear a voice in Polish talking about the filming activities of the Germans, accompanied by images that reflect scenes the voice is talking about. The sequence of images and sound makes us believe someone is reading from Cerniakov’s diaries. Something similar happens when cameraman Wist is introduced: the omniscient voice-over tells us that there are court transcripts of his testimony against Auerswald – we watch staged scenes of an interrogation and believe the interrogation of Wist is re-enacted, based on the transcripts. However, whether we literally hear the transcripts being ‘read’, or the diaries, is unclear.
A Film Unfinished is obviously made according to a script: the images and sounds serve to tell a preconceived narrative.
Scenes from The Ghetto ‘illustrate’ witnesses’ testimonies: when one of them talks about packing up and moving furniture, we see scenes of a family pushing a cart bearing their possessions. Also, the film contains added sounds, for example of a doorbell and a front door being shut, but also of noise on an old film strip. Neither the film nor the captions give us much information about the staged scenes: only two actors are mentioned. The voice-over tells us that little is known about the film; it had no credits and the only traceable person associated with its making was cameraman Willy Wist. Later on however, it proposes numerous ‘facts’ which to me seem more like unfounded interpretations. Such as the remark that the staged scenes represent “repeated attempts to stage moments over and over again until a take seemed credible enough.” However, we simply don’t know why certain scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor.The omniscient voice-over tells us that The Ghetto was a rough first draft and the longest Nazi propaganda film ever filmed in the Warsaw Ghetto. That sounds impressive, but what does it really mean?
Willy Wist apparently did not know what the filmed material was used for (he only knew it was developed in Berlin). When Wist is introduced though, the voice-over informs us he tried hard to cover his tracks and destroyed a lot of film material. How do these relate? One of the witnesses recounts how people took care of themselves, despite the circumstances, and tried to hold onto their dignity; her own mother made sure she washed every day and brushed her teeth. How does this relate to the staged images of well-to-do and well-dressed ghetto inhabitants? Wist is said not to have had any real opportunity to talk to the ghetto Jews he was filming, but later he did manage to speak to German Jews and observed they were hopeful. What is going on here? After two reels of The Ghetto, interspersed with the other elements, the staging of scenes is introduced. The filmmakers present several takes of the same scenes, from different angles, and make their point about The Ghetto being propaganda. The extra scenes are intercut with the original The Ghetto. So where does one film begin and the other one end? Are all staged scenes included and discussed? How many takes were there and of how many scenes? The confusion this causes is not thematised. Most of The Ghetto is still presented as an undisputed record of life in the ghetto. It is not hard to imagine that the scenes of life in luxury are staged. But shouldn’t we then question all the scenes? While criticizing parts as propaganda, A Film Unfinished presents the rest of The Ghetto as just as uncontested and undisputed as it has always been.
A Film Unfinished tries to show how filmmakers staged mass scenes of people being chased away by the police. The basis for the claim that these scenes were staged is the inclusion of a cameraman in the image. The still published here represents this sequence. The voice-over directs us to the German cameraman on the left. But look closely at the man on the right, the one that is being taken away. Look closely at his face, his mouth.
He doesn’t look too disturbed, does he? In the scene, this man halfheartedly but too dramatically tries to free himself from his two companions.
One could easily believe he is acting. The fact that a German soldier filmed in the ghetto is not so surprising: the Germans filmed a lot and strongly believed in the power of cinema for propaganda. The witnesses acknowledge this. (And how can a film made in Nazi Germany not be propaganda?) To me, the man’s behavior and expression provide stronger evidence of the staging of this event, his arrest, for the film.
What surprised me most was that the world famous example of Nazi propaganda about Jewish life in a ghetto, Terezin: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement,1 is not even mentioned in A Film Unfinished. Theresienstadt was used to mislead the Red Cross into believing the Jewish people were treated well and had a fairly comfortable life there. And it was this film that was used in my course on propaganda film and which made me suspicious of omniscient voice-overs. It has been researched and discussed extensively. Why is there no reference to this notorious piece of work? The claim that A Film Unfinished probes deeply into the making of a propaganda film is rather ambitious. Too ambitious I would say. What remains is a film about the Warsaw ghetto, well made, with care and attention for detail, but problematic because it uses propaganda techniques itself and lacks transparency. It is propaganda in its own way. Going by its own marketing, A Film Unfinished does not deliver.