Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Film Unfinished

In a tenement building in the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews are shown living merrily day to day, their courtyard filled with an ever growing mound of human feces as they toss garbage from their tenth story windows, appearing to enjoy living amongst filth.

This scene from the extraordinary documentary “A Film Unfinished” both reminded me of and trumped what has long been my most indelible portrait of the possibilities of hatred and the powers of propaganda to cloud minds. As a child, my grandfather would sit in his big, puffy easy chair – me on one knee and my sister perched on the other – telling us how the black neighbors didn’t even use the bathroom. They would just “go all over the house.”

He wanted us to think in the most unforgettable way possible to our impressionable young minds that blacks were animals.

“A Film Unfinished” makes a truly unique use of a fortuitous discovery. Ten years after the end of WWII, researchers began to sift through the racks of footage left behind by the Nazi propaganda machine. An odd, hour long film was discovered showing the daily lives of Jews. It’s editing was rough as if something abandoned. It had no titles or credits and the cans bore the simple title “The Ghetto.”

The film’s scenes juxtapose wealthy Jews living a comfortable existence and poor, starving Jews wandering and panhandling and often dying in the streets. The footage was long considered a valuable document of how things really were during those dark times.

Two discoveries in the years since have revealed this footage to be something else entirely. A document was discovered bearing the name of one of the cameramen, Willy Wist, and he was located and interviewed. And a never meant to be seen reel of outtakes was found. These two documents combine to show “The Ghetto” to be a most sinister and carefully constructed lie, the propaganda purposes of which we can only now surmise.

Healthy looking Jews, the few remaining, were costumed and placed in carefully redecorated and plush rooms and ordered to eat extravagant meals. They were ordered to walk down the sidewalks past starving Jews – themselves ordered to extend their hands begging for handouts – and callously place nothing in their hands.

Corpses were arranged on the sidewalks by laughing Nazi soldiers while “rich” Jews were ordered to walk past them carrying packages of food for their evening feasts without so much as glancing downward.

We learn of these filmmaking details from Wist. We learn just as much from viewing the outtakes. In scenes left on the cutting room floor, people are seen looking down at those corpses in horror – one particular little boy in disbelief. A scene of two filthy young boys looking into a shop window as a woman strolls inside to make her purchase is repeated four times until the filmmakers were satisfied with the illusion of authenticity.

The makers of “A Film Unfinished” have added one more layer to their presentation. Survivors, young children at the time, now in their 70s and 80s, are shown watching and commenting on the footage, the light flickering across their faces, fingers often covering their eyes. Watching a funeral scene, one woman says with disgust, “But Jews don’t bury their dead in coffins.”

Those scenes of Jews living amongst feces and garbage are revealed in the outtake footage for what they really are. A filmmaker is shown carefully, aesthetically arranging and rearranging a pile of garbage and toying with the idea of propping up a photograph of an elderly Jewish man atop the refuse, before casually tossing it aside.

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