Israeli director Yael Hersonski's "A Film Unfinished" is a movie about a movie. It's a documentary about the Nazi propaganda footage known as "Das Ghetto," shot in the walled-off Warsaw Ghetto in the spring of 1942. Hersonski says that in a world saturated with grisly images, her challenge was to render the terrible truth, buried beneath the propaganda, to viewers 70 years after the fact.
Artist: by Vic Chesnutt
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the mid-1950s, two film canisters were found inside an East German vault, labeled simply Das Ghetto. It was Nazi propaganda footage of Jews inside the Warsaw Ghetto recorded over the course of one month in the spring of 1942. There are horrific scenes of starvation, disease and death mixed incongruously with staged scenes of prosperous Jews eating in well-stocked restaurants and attending parties. Israeli director Yael Hersonski tells the story of Das Ghetto in her new documentary, A Film Unfinished. She says that in a world saturated with grisly images, her challenge was to render the terrible truth within the propaganda palpable to modern viewers 70 years after the fact.
YAEL HERSONSKI Today as contemporary viewers who experience a bombardment of images, I believe we cannot see anymore. I mean, we suffer from a certain emotional blindness towards so many images.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You kept trying techniques to remind people that this was, in fact, real. You told the story by having actors read from the journals of Jews in the ghetto who wrote about the film crews coming in.
[MAN SPEAKING POLISH]
MALE INTERPRETER: At 10 a.m., the propaganda crew arrived. They started to take pictures of my office.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then we hear an account from one of the actual German cameramen taking that footage.
[CAMERAMAN SPEAKING GERMAN]
MALE INTERPRETER: I recall that I had to film a mass grave with many layers of corpses. I cannot say how many layers there were beneath the layer which I could see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then, I think most affectingly, we hear from survivors of the ghetto who are watching this footage for the first time.
[MALE GHETTO SURVIVOR SPEAKING HEBREW]
MALE INTERPRETER: Oh, I remember that woman. She used to walk around with her baby in her arms screaming and asking for a piece of bread.
[SURVIVOR SPEAKING HEBREW]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the most surprising reaction from the witnesses?
YAEL HERSONSKI It was the moments in which the survivors were smiling. Only then I suddenly realized that they're watching now images from when they were young and still hopeful, and longing to see their dear ones. So for them, it’s not just about terror and fear but also something familiar, something they miss, which is completely gone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You noted that some of the footage from Das Ghetto has been used over the years in ways that didn't acknowledge that it was from a propaganda film in which many of the scenes were staged. Can you give me an example of how it was used?
YAEL HERSONSKI There is one scene where we see a group of women, naked, descending into a ritual bath. And I saw this scene in the Polish Memorial Museum under the title Jewish Life Inside the Ghetto. Now, this scene is anything but Jewish life inside the ghetto. First of all, the ritual itself of going into the water is done alone. It’s one of the most intimate ritual in Judaism. These naked women were surrounded by uniformed men who were pointing cameras, maybe guns, at them. And when you realize that, only then can we see the expression on these women faces. And I assure you that it would have been very difficult for you to identify this expression when you see it in the context of a museum under the title Ritual - Jewish Life Inside the Ghetto. It’s amazing but the psychological mechanism just prevent us from seeing that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't see it without the context.
YAEL HERSONSKI Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was some additional footage that was found in the late 1990s by a film researcher. How did those additional reels advance this story?
YAEL HERSONSKI Well, it was the first time when one could see the many takes. So when we see starving children standing in front of a meat shop, staring at the meat, as if the Jews inside don't let them eat, we have seven takes of these children being brought to the window to stare at the meat. I don't know even why, why the first time was not enough. I mean, they're doing it exactly the same every time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I want to ask you about your intent. As much as I take your point about this film proving that we can't trust what we see in film or photo, those kinds of messages seem to be overwhelmed by the starvation, the piled bodies. And there were times that I felt that any actual discussion of the propaganda value seemed to be beside the point.
YAEL HERSONSKI I was not trying to show that here there is a propaganda film that we didn't know about. What I was trying to show is that these images beneath the propaganda layer, which is the most superficial layer of the footage, stands reality in itself. No matter how much the cameraman thought he can control the frame, he could not control people’s faces. Their gazes into the camera express everything that they felt and their very own identity. In those moments, which I slowed down, because I wanted to emphasize these moments, we can visually feel how the cinematic manipulation encounters reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you.
YAEL HERSONSKI Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yael Hersonski is director of A Film Unfinished, which opens at Film Forum in New York City on August 18th.