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.
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