Documentaries, as we know in the age of I’m Still Here and Catfish, can’t necessarily be trusted. But few have been as inauthentic as A Ghetto, a never-completed propaganda film shot by the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto. For decades, the soundless footage, which depicted its denizens both living the high life and eroding in abject poverty amidst piles of garbage and feces, was taken on the level—until another reel of “outtakes” of many scenes was discovered.
Further digging around into diaries and official Nazi reports revealed that the film crew, which burned celluloid for 30 days in 1942, had staged the shots, from the images of people huddling around a boisterous entertainer to Jews sitting down to a scrumptious meal to even the presence of a decorative flower (“Where did you ever see a flower? We could eat a flower,” remarks one observer).
But that’s not the haunting thing. What most eats into the brain is the purpose of the film. Why make it look like the Jews were awash in wealth but also include blood-curdling shots of miserable people (including children) wasting away? The purpose of most Nazi propaganda like Triumph of the Will or The Eternal Jew is obvious, but what’s the angle here?
The grunt work that went into making Yael Hersonski’s doc A Film Unfinished was basically done for her by historians and scholars; all she had to do is show the footage and line up the appropriate commentary, supplied by witnesses, former German soldiers and diary entries. Going through the footage reel by reel, the film takes a nuts-and-bolts approach to its subject, when it could be exploring its ideas more headily.
Hersonski creates the appropriately chilly mood, usually by slowing the footage down to a crawl or a freeze frame—a succession of close-ups of Jews turning towards the camera, the humanity beaten out of them, raises every hair on the back of the neck. But imagine what, say, Errol Morris would do with the material, and A Film Unfinished suddenly seems like a slightly missed opportunity.