In the red velvet seats of a cinema, an 80 year-old woman sits cloaked in the light from a projector. The bright shine of the screen highlights the age in her face, wrinkles accentuated by a frown of anger. On the screen is a young woman in 1942, surrounded by a lavish apartment, placing a flower into a vase. The old woman scoffs, eyes fixated on the film. “Who had a flower? We would have eaten the flower.” She sighs, and her anger settles into sadness. Both the young woman in the film and the old woman in the cinema lived in the Warsaw Ghetto- and both were victims of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Deep in the archives of Nazi film propoganda, a single box labeled The Ghetto contains four reels of unedited, silent film. These films are meant to detail the lives of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1941-1942. However, upon interviewing both Holocaust survivors and former Nazi cameramen alike, we learn from director Yael Hersonski’s film that these reels contain many elaborately staged propaganda scenes.
A Film Unfinished displays the unedited, raw film of this Nazi propaganda project as its foreground. Accompanying the eerily artificial shots of exhibitions of Jewish wealth and prosperity in Warsaw are accounts from both sides of the horror.
The detail that may be the most shocking to viewers is the Nazi film’s inclusion of the typical images of the holocaust that people in a post-war world are used to seeing. Instead of completely fabricating scenes of the lush life of Warsaw Jews, many of the scenes in The Ghetto show frighteningly real details. Young boys, skin-and-bones with sunken eyes, stumble with hunger on sidewalks that are riddled with both near-death women with crying babies and actual corpses strewn between buildings. But amidst the death and decay of Warsaw walk the protagonists of the Nazis’ propaganda film. They are women in fur hats and coats, wearing lipstick, rouge, and high heels. They walk down the street, ignoring the boys at their ankles begging for food. The cameras follow these women, with their chins up, curls bouncing behind them, leaving the starvation in the background. This, according to the testimony of one of the cameramen, was the real objective of the film: not to deny the horrors of the ghetto, but to show how little the rich Jews cared for their own kinsmen.
As well-dressed ladies click by in their heels, a woman on the sidewalk holding a baby screams eerily silently on the film. One of the survivors instantly recognizes her- remembering how she would scream for food every single day. Several of the survivors express feelings of dread for seeing people they know on screen. One of the women even explains how she fears she’ll catch a glimpse of her mother in the film. Layered on top of visually reliving the horrors of Warsaw in 1942, the true fear in the woman’s voice is at seeing part of her reality forced into the fiction of The Ghetto. Old women sitting in the cinema in their own lipstick and rouge are telling the stories of their beginnings as skin-and-bones beggars in the street. Yael Hersonski recognizes the fear and anger of these survivors, and does not hide it from his audience as the Nazis did. And soon after starting to watch A Film Unfinished, you too may find yourself experiencing outrage similar to that of the survivors.
For those interested in the details of daily life within the grand scope of a historical tragedy, A Film Unfinished unearths information we may not be taught in school. It does not cover the full events of the war or the Holocaust, but rather the deeply personal stories from a short period of months in the Warsaw Ghetto. This documentary, as well as the original film reels, contain many graphic depictions of death, violence, and brutality, including nudity. If you are sensitive to any of these possibly triggering views, this may not be the film for you.
For more information and to watch the film visit the OVID.tv page for A Film Unfinished.
Images courtesy of OVID.tv
About the Author:
Margaret Rose Smith is an aspiring writer and museologist currently pursuing a BA in Creative Writing and Art History at the University of Chicago. Born and raised in Chicago, she’s spent a large amount of time in the halls of the Art Institute, both to study the history of art and to gain inspiration for future writing projects. In her spare time, Peggy enjoys sewing, collecting vintage Donald Duck merchandise, and petting her two cats.