A Film Unfinished: Director’s Statement by Yael Hersonski

The Holocaust confronted humanity not only with inconceivable horrors, but also for the first time, with their systematic documentation. More than anything else, it is the photographic documentation of these horrors that has changed forever the way in which the past is archived.

My interest in the archival footage from the Holocaust stems also from the fact, that World War II not only confronted humanity with inconceivable atrocities, but also produced, and carried, for the first time, a systematical, obsessive cinematic documentation of that horror.

I traveled to Jerusalem, to the Yad Vashem Visual Center to watch the entire 62-minute rough cut of the Nazi propaganda film “The Ghetto” for the first time. The effect was shocking.

Only when seeing the complete sequence can one understand the manipulation of its making, the evil behind it and the distorted manner in which these images were (mis)used during the post war years – in dozens of documentaries, and in the form of recycled bits and pieces. Within the context of those documentaries, it seemed that the fragmented sequences could only suggest that the partial reality framed inside them reflected the true reality of Jewish life inside the Ghetto. But how could an image, shot from the point of view of the perpetrator, truly reflect the reality of its victim?

In most cases this manipulative point of view, which ironically was burned as part of collective imagery of post-war mourning, was never discussed. My shock stemmed also from the fact that after so many years being an Israeli citizen, bombarded with so many films and images that concerned the Jewish Holocaust, I still didn’t know anything about this film. The film was well-known to film archivists, museums and filmmakers from all over the world, and was available for research at the German film archives. Yet “A Film Unfinished” is the first documentary that shows this footage almost in its entire length, and exposes its actual intensiveness.

Several days after watching the Warsaw Ghetto film for the first time, I traveled to Berlin, where the footage is still preserved. I’d decided to study German for the sake of the research, and met the German film archivists in order to learn more about the history of the footage. I was told that the Warsaw Ghetto film, at least as far as the German film archive is concerned, was perhaps the most mysterious footage of the third Reich that had survived (90 per cent of the footage shot by the Nazis was destroyed during last days of the war). After more than 70 years, no one among the archivists (mainly Germans and Americans) was able to find even a single document to reveal the identity of the film’s initiators, the purpose of the making, nor the reasons for the timing of the shooting or why the film was never completed.

According to my conversation with the archivist who later became the head of the DDR film archive, only when he watched the Warsaw Ghetto film for the first time did he begin to understand what went on inside the Jewish Ghettos.

The first time a filmmaker made use of several minutes from the Warsaw Ghetto footage was in 1961. Only scenes that showed great misery were shown. The staged scenes in which we see Jews living in luxury were totally ignored.

Almost 40 years later, in 1998, two crucial events happened:

The first one occurred in an American air force base, inside a film vault. The British film researcher Adrian Wood was looking for footage that dealt with the 1936 Olympics games and noticed two film cans lying on the floor titled “Das Ghetto”. Wood, who has years of experience with Holocaust footage was very familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto film, and thus could immediately recognise that the reels belonged to the main film. It contained two sequences – all together 30 minutes of outtakes left on the editing floor. The outtakes exposed not only the number of takes that were taken by the Nazi film crew, even in the case of the seemingly documentary scenes of extreme poverty and death, but also moments in which cameramen accidentally entered each other’s frame.

Secondly, during the 60’s a German historian who was doing research about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising inside the Polish archives came across an entry permit to the Ghetto, dated from May 1942 – the actual time of the shooting. The entry permit was given to Sonderführer Willy Wist, a cameraman. It was the first and only occasion when the name of one of the film’s cameramen was revealed. During the Post Cold War era, the united German film archive tried to locate Wist, with the aim to discover more about the filmmaking. Letters to all Wist relatives in Germany were sent asking after the former cameraman. All Wist families replied the same: “we don’t know him”.

In making the film, the accuracy of every detail was of immense importance to me. Every document, typed or handwritten, every page of diary, every archive corridor and staircase which are being shown in the film are the authentic ones, and the languages in which the diaries were written were kept in their origin: Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew.

Nine survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto remembered the filmmaking. It was our plan to invite each one of them into the darkness of the cinema hall, and to confront them with the horrifying footage, which was something I feared not all of them could withstand. They were over 80 years old, courageous souls in fragile bodies, filled with memories they were compelled to store away in order to keep on living.  What I in fact intended to show them was the scenery of their childhood when they experienced some of the most horrendous events in their lives.

I’ve decided not only to explain to them in the most detailed manner what they were about to watch, but to invite only the ones who were absolutely certain that they’d be capable of doing it. I was relieved to realise that five of them were more than willing to come, and even more relieved to realise they had their own urgent interest in the film: they wanted to be the last to comment on the silent images, for they were there.

I admit that these days of filming the survivors watching the footage were the most difficult ones for me in the course of the entire filmmaking. After every session I found myself physically numb, and mentally knocked out.  I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the survivors themselves must have felt after such an incredibly intense situation. The four women who were filmed watching the footage are still living in Israel. The only man who took part in these testimonials died last year.

Director Yael Hersonski edits documentary and fictional drama programmes for Israeli television. A Film Unfinished, winner of prizes at the Sundance, Jerusalem and Hot Docs film festivals, is her first feature documentary film. It will screen at the Bermuda Documentary Film Festival on Sunday October 24 at 1 p.m. in the Tradewinds Auditorium of the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. Click here to see trailer. Tickets are available now at www.bdatix.bm.


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