THERE'S NO SHORTAGE of Holocaust films out there, but it's rare to find one that challenges our fundamental historical perception. Israeli director Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished does just that (and don't worry, not in some creepy revisionist way), with a systematic analysis of the hour-long, unfinished Nazi propaganda film Das Ghetto, long thought to be a relatively reliable record of what life was like for Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. A reel of film emerged in 1998 that challenged this assumption, proving that many of the film's scenes were actually rehearsed. Das Ghetto, then, is not an unfiltered look at life in the Warsaw Ghetto, but a look at that life as orchestrated to suit a specific propagandistic objective.
The purpose of Das Ghetto—as best as Hersonski can discern from old diary entries and interviews with one of the film's cameramen and Warsaw Ghetto survivors—was to demonstrate Jews' inhumanity to Jews. Better-dressed residents of the ghetto were asked to walk heedlessly by starving beggars and to step over corpses strewn on the sidewalk. In one scene, a theater full of Jews are kept for hours with no food or bathroom breaks, ordered to act as a responsive audience to a play, laughing and applauding with contrived spontaneity. In another, ghetto residents are forced to conduct religious rituals (a circumcision is performed on a baby so undernourished it was feared he wouldn't survive the ceremony) for footage that it's surmised would "prove" to the film's Gentile viewers the pervasiveness of the Jewish faith and the necessity of its eradication.
As the documentary's narrator observes, Nazi Germany was an "empire infatuated with the camera, that knew so well to document its own evil." A Film Unfinished asks its audience to consider the extent to which propaganda distorts the truth—and, in that distortion, reveals another truth altogether. The reality ultimately depicted here is a grotesque and horrifying one, as Jews are forced to clumsily play-act toward their own destruction.