Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Film Unfinished (Oscilloscope Films, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was called A Film Unfinished, a recent Israeli-produced documentary that managed to find a surprisingly new angle on the Holocaust. It was based on a peculiar production called Das Ghetto [The Ghetto] that was shot by a film crew Germany sent to Warsaw in 1942 to make a movie about the Warsaw Ghetto — only the film was left unfinished in the vaults at the UFA studios in Babelsberg, edited to about an hour’s worth of running time but with no added sound. The film was rediscovered in 1954 by East German film archivists (the Babelsberg studios were located in what became East Berlin and allowed to fall into disrepair, though since the reunification in 1990 they’ve been brought up to date technically and are now an international production center again) and the footage was used in serious anti-Nazi documentaries as an illustration of the horrors of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Only in 1998 an American film researcher, Adrian Wood — who was going through the Babelsberg archives looking for outtakes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia — came upon two additional reels of outtakes from The Ghetto that showed in depth just how heavily staged the footage had been and at least hinted at the agenda of the Nazi propagandists who launched this project in the first place and got the film as far as a silent rough cut before it was abandoned. A Film Unfinished contains all four reels of the edited version of The Ghetto, includes some of the outtakes to illustrate how the scenes were staged, and incorporates on-camera testimonies from some of the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto who were still alive (which means that they were children when the horrors of the Ghetto were taking place — Charles lamented that this movie wasn’t made in the 1970’s or 1980’s when some people who experienced the Ghetto as adults would have still been alive). What’s more, in 1969 the German officer who had been in charge of the Ghetto was put on trial by the West German government for war crimes, and as part of this proceeding the court called as a witness Willy Wist, a cameraman who had worked on The Ghetto and was the only individual ever identified as having taken part in the project.

A Film Unfinished includes sequences reproducing Wist’s trial testimony, with an actor playing him and speaking the lines from the court transcript, and intercuts this with the actual German film as well as the testimony of the survivors — who were keeping their own records with the only means they had access to: pen and paper. Judging from what I’d read about the movie beforehand — including comments by its director, Yael Hersonski, about the ways filmed images can be and have been manipulated not only by their creators but by those who have come after them (in the “director’s statement” in the press kit Hersonski writes, “Since the war, these images, created by the perpetrators, have been subjected to mistreatments; in the best of cases they were crudely used as illustrations of the many stories; in the worst, they were presented as straightforward historical truth”) — I expected more about the history of The Ghetto’s footage and its uses by subsequent filmmakers who, unlike the Nazis themselves, were interested in using it to make the Nazis and their actions as repellent as possible (as the press kit notes, post-war documentarians picked the footage showing people dying in the streets and corpses being buried in mass graves, but not the scenes showing rich, or supposedly rich, Jews enjoying lavish meals and stepping over the poor Jews dying in the streets).

Instead it’s much more a movie about objective truth that tries to use The Ghetto footage both to illustrate the journals the Jews incarcerated in the ghetto left behind and to ponder the enigma of just why the Nazis shot the film in the first place and what they hoped to accomplish by this. This is a bigger enigma than for virtually any other surviving example of Nazi propaganda, not only because the film was never finished or publicly released but because virtually no documentation of its making survives — a real surprise in a culture like Nazi Germany which obsessively documented just about everything it did (in the process creating much of the evidence that was used in the subsequent trials of the Nazi leaders, officers, bureaucrats and servicemembers who survived the war). Not all the Nazi archives survived — at least some of the more reality-based members did realize the incriminating nature of the documents and tried to destroy some of them, and others were lost to bombing raids and the fortunes of war in general — but enough did that we have in-depth documentation of virtually all the major Nazi propaganda films, including who greenlighted them and what Joseph Goebbels and his lieutenants hoped to achieve by them.

The Ghetto remains a mystery not only because only one person who actually worked on it was ever found, but because it’s impossible to look at the footage and wonder how on earth anyone could have turned this raw material into a movie that would communicate the Nazis’ message. The people in the movie are awesomely beautiful, their faces stoic masks of people who had already suffered a great deal and realized that they could be in store for even worse horrors than they had experienced — yet also people who believed that there was still hope for them and they would ultimately be redeemed somehow. Towards the end one of the “witnesses” who survived the Ghetto said that most Jews in the Ghetto in 1942 believed the “deportations” the Nazis were ordering were just that — relocations — and they’d end up in Madagascar or somewhere else where they’d be safe and allowed to put some semblance of normal life back together; and much of the ineffable sadness with which we watch these images comes from the fact that we know what they don’t: that the “deportations” were actually to Nazi death camps where they would be murdered en masse.

Some of the Nazis’ agenda is obvious — among the staged scenes are shots of rich Jews eating lavish meals at a fancy restaurant (according to one survivor these scenes went on for hours and the people in them had to look like they were enjoying themselves while their relatives and friends were starving to death) and walking by the people dying in the streets and turning their backs on the beggars. The filmmakers even staged an elaborate sequence showing a demonstration in the Ghetto being broken up by a Jewish police force — and a few of the people in the scenes seemed to be smiling or surreptitiously waving at the cameras, not so any of the Germans would notice but just tantalizing hints to anyone who might see this that they didn’t take it seriously and the viewers shouldn’t either. There are plenty of instances in the film that show how the Nazis were skewing reality in the ways one would expect — like the scenes allegedly showing Jewish ritual baths in which the Nazis found the oldest, skuzziest-looking bathhouse available and had men and women taking the baths together (which of course wouldn’t have really happened) and a peculiar scene of a funeral for which the Nazis requisitioned the fanciest horse-drawn hearse in the Ghetto and included a coffin. (“What Jew ever gets buried in a coffin?” one of the survivors said while watching this sequence.) The bulk of the 1942 footage was in black-and-white but one of the cameraman sneaked in some Agfacolor film and at one point the images in A Film Unfinished go from black-and-white to color — which just ramps up the intensity of the beauty and the cruelty, the utter monstrosity of the Nazis and the nobility of the people resisting them just by trying to stay alive against the ceaseless onslaughts.

A Film Unfinished fascinates on many levels: the determination of both the Nazis and their victims to document what was going on; the intimidation of the people forced to cooperate with the film — after all, they knew that the Germans could kill them at any time with utter impunity and, as one of the survivors notes, they were always scared when Germans appeared in the Ghetto for any reasons, but they were also a bit relieved when these particular Germans came bearing cameras rather than guns — and the bizarre cluelessness of the Nazis themselves both in shooting this movie and in thinking it would somehow be useful propaganda for them and their cause. The Nazis clearly spent a lot of time and energy creating this movie — yet it’s entirely unknown, except for Wist’s participation, just who was involved in making it — and in Wist’s courtroom testimony he recalled that he was receiving orders from a man whose name he recalled only as “Goldpartridge,” who wore a brown uniform (either a Nazi Party or S.A. uniform, which would have put him well below the Wehrmacht and the S.S. in the Nazi pecking order), and who appeared to be the closest thing the project had to a director, except he was also almost totally unknowledgeable about film and was constantly ordering Wist and other cameramen to shoot in locations where there wasn’t enough light. (Ironically, the darkness of some of the scenes makes them more powerful; the dim lighting just adds to our sense of these people’s suffering.) “We could not find any documentation that concerned a film production, not even one invoice,” Hersonski wrote. “In the case of Nazi bureaucratic documentation this is certainly quite rare.”

Just how the Nazis thought this in-depth documentation of the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto could be manipulated into helping their cause and leading viewers to see it in a favorable light is a mystery — and yet there are certainly other examples of the Nazis commissioning propaganda films and then having to withdraw them or restrict their release because they backfired. The 1943 film Titanic seemed to have got greenlighted merely because the script included a German officer on board the ship who was the only one who warned of the danger from icebergs and tried to stop the accident from happening, and either Goebbels or whichever person on his staff who O.K.’d the script didn’t see anything more than, “German good — British bad,” but Titanic is actually a movie about an insane hierarchy whose pursuit of a world’s record led to a ruinous accident, and it’s likely the real reason the film was never released in Germany until after the war (though it was shown in occupied France) was that once it was finished Goebbels realized that people would make the parallel to the Nazi leadership having promised the German people world domination and delivered total destruction.

An even more blatant example was the 1945 documentary Traitors Before the People’s Court, showing the old-line Prussian military officers who had plotted to assassinate Hitler in August 1944 on trial for their lives before prosecutor/judge Roland Friesler — which got a major release until Nazi Gauleiters (regional leaders) told Goebbels to pull it because it was having exactly the opposite effect to the one intended: the officers on trial were coming across as dignified idealists facing certain death with courage, and Friesler emerged (as he does when the film is shown today) as a total nutcase. So it’s entirely possible that The Ghetto was a similarly misconceived propaganda project, and in this case Goebbels or whoever in the Propaganda Ministry realized this and pulled the plug on the project well before the film was put in releasable form.

A Film Unfinished is a bleak movie — any film that tries to deal honestly with Nazi Germany almost has to be — just horror upon horror without the sense of catharsis that made fact-based fiction films dramatizing the Holocaust, like The Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler’s List, watchable — indeed about midway through I was tempted to say, “O.K., I know the Holocaust was a bad thing. Enough already!” The fascination of the enigma behind the existence of The Ghetto and the bizarreness of the Nazis’ in-depth documentation of their own crimes against humanity just adds to the revulsion — were the Nazis really such total believers in their own propaganda that they couldn’t “read” these scenes the way any remotely human member of an audience would? Would The Ghetto, if completed, have fulfilled the Nazis’ propaganda purposes via a soundtrack that would have “flipped” the meaning of the images and led viewers to see them the way the Nazis wanted them to be seen? (There was an intriguing example of this in the early 1960’s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee released a film called Operation Abolition about demonstrations disrupting the Committee’s hearings in San Francisco in 1960 — and the American Civil Liberties Union released Operation Correction, which visually was exactly the same movie but had a different soundtrack that attempted to put the demonstrations in context and portray them more sympathetically.)

Though Hersonski would have made an even better film if she had included clips from post-war documentaries that used footage from The Ghetto to illustrate her point about the uses and abuses of motion-picture images, as it stands A Film Unfinished is a major work on several levels, not only a dramatization of the Nazi horror from a fresh point of view, yet another nail in the coffin of “Holocaust revisionism” (this film shows David Irving’s dogged insistence that the Nazis didn’t really “mean” to exterminate the Jews and that more of them died in the camps from disease and starvation than were actually executed as so much pedantic cant: whatever the percentage of Jews who died from disease or starvation rather than deliberate murder, the Nazis were responsible for all their deaths because they deliberately created the conditions that starved them and exposed them to disease epidemics in the first place) and also a meditation on just how we know what we think we know, and how even images created under such extreme conditions and showing both the highest nobility and the deepest depravity of which human beings are capable carry with them the agendas of those who created them and those who have invoked them since for their own ideological reasons.

One other thing I want to mention is that this film creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Adam Czerniakow, head of the Judenrat — the Jewish Council that functioned in the Warsaw Ghetto and essentially relayed German orders to the Jewish population and facilitated their carrying out. Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem is withering in its scorn for the Jewish Councils and the people who ran them — at times she seemed to hate them as much or more than she hated Eichmann, and to see them largely the way she saw Eichmann: as bureaucrats functioning the way they had been trained to, detached from both the morality and the consequences of their actions. In A Film Unfinished, Czerniakow comes across as a person caught in an impossible position, trying to do the best he could to save his people under impossible conditions, hoping against hope that by compromising and helping the Germans he could run the gantlet of their demands and save as much of the Ghetto’s population as possible, and aware (well before most of the Ghetto’s residents) that the Nazis’ “deportation” orders really were death sentences: in July 1942, two months after the filmmakers of The Ghetto packed up and went back from whence they’d come, Czerniakow responded to a Nazi decree stepping up the “deportations” and ordering the Judenrat to pick out and identify those who were going to be shipped out to the camps, he committed suicide by taking a cyanide capsule he had stashed for such a purpose and — as he wrote himself in his final journal entries — fully intending that as a signal to the rest of the Ghetto population that the game was up, all hope was gone and they were doomed.