I just saw the independent documentary A Film Unfinished. In May of 1942 the Nazis sent a film crew to the infamous Warsaw ghetto they’d created for Polish Jews. For decades that footage stood as a record of life in the ghetto. It depicts contradictions that many felt represented the complexity of living in such a challenging environment.
Much later another reel of the film was discovered that cast the perspective of the original into question. It shows the filmmakers staging various critical scenes designed entirely for propaganda to both cast Jews in bad light and to convey that life in the ghetto wasn’t as bad as the rumors.
The original film, of four reels, was never completed (thus the title of the documentary) and without any background it was never fully clear what the full purpose was. The additional found reel, they say, changes everything.
My biggest issue with the movie is that I wonder just how much it really did change perceptions. We already knew Nazis could be absolute monsters. We already knew they’d used all manner of propaganda. I don’t know anybody other than crazy deniers that believed anyone living in the Warsaw ghetto was living the high life.
What’s more is that much of this film makes a huge deal of snippets of film showing German soldiers with cameras in their hands. It was always understood that the military was behind filming in the ghetto so what the film presents as a smoking gun moment doesn’t come across as such.
Aside from that the film is a powerful work. It finds yet another way to recount this sad part of our history. The challenge here is that many of us have what I can best define as Holocaust Fatigue (including Jewish friends of mine). I didn’t initially see the wonderful film The Pianist simply because I couldn’t fathom another account of the period. Here we see things close up and the staged scenes don’t matter because the truth rings through. We also hear from several survivors who have to explain how crushingly dehumanizing the entire affair was and how it still resonates with them every day.
While I believe the movie does misfire on its stated impact I think it rises above that to present a noteworthy work despite itself and it does provide some level of proof for deniers (though few, if any, are open-minded on the topic so that’s likely of little consequence).