Review: A Film Unfinished

In May 1942, the Warsaw Ghetto became a movie set. The SS filmed a combination of real scenes (crammed streets with tattered figures, corpses stretched along the edges) and staged scenes (wealthy Jews dining in sumptuous restaurants, shopping at well-stocked butchers). Why? No one knows.

In the 1960s, the East Germans found four film canisters labeled “The Ghetto” gathering dust in a bunker. Since then, bits of information have been attached to the film. A German cameraman was located and testified in court about what he knew. Jewish diaries detailing the filming were found. A few years ago, a fifth film roll turned up: it showed the Nazis creating and filming the staged scenes.

Filmmaker Yael Hersonski has synthesized all this into a riveting epitaph for the ghetto. Its people were shipped to Treblinka soon after filming, but acres of faces flash from the screen. Narration adds background and context to material from diaries and eyewitnesses. Burning home the survivors’ pain, Hersonski shows their reactions to the footage. “I can feel now, I can cry now, I am human now,” one says, trying to explain. “Then, we just went numb.” Another asks in anguish, “What if I see someone I knew?” A third: “We knew no good would come of this. Nothing good ever happened when the Germans came into the ghetto.”

The film’s far-reaching, underlying question—is it possible to see through well-crafted propaganda?—remains queasily unanswered.

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