Is there a proper way to watch a Holocaust documentary?
There must be. Because while forking down a Hot Pockets Cheese Stuffed Crust Three Cheese Pizza and swigging a can of Coca-Cola Zero as images of the starving residents of the Warsaw Ghetto traipsed across my computer screen, I started feeling rather vile. Rather inappropriate.
Possibly adding to my guilt was that as a first-generation American with a German-Jewish heritage, I was topped off with a father who'd once been rounded up by the Nazis before escaping from Hamburg. This no doubt marked my viewing deportment worse than Seinfeld's when he made out during Schindler's List.
But personal neuroses aside, Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished, which was just released on DVD, is clearly up there with the great Holocaust documentaries of all time. This is a rather odd verdict, especially since nearly all of the footage was shot by cameramen working for the Nazis.
Yes, Hersonski and her superb editor Joel Alexis have taken found footage from a Nazi film archive and cut it into an agonizing depiction of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, an area that measured less than 3 square miles. Population: over half a million Jews shoehorned into a "plague of hunger of typhoid." Date: the month of May 1942. The source: four soundless, unedited reels unearthed in a box labeled The Ghetto.
Here was celluloid left in the rough. The purpose of the unknown director was no doubt the same as Fritz Hippler's when he created his notorious "documentary," The Eternal Jew (1940): to depict Jews as solipsistic lowlifes who indifferently feed off the rest of society and even off of their own.
So what do we see? A concoction of the real and the staged.
The real is partially composed of ravenous children and their elders shrinking and dying in front of the camera's lens with corpses always underfoot. Thousand of other folks, slightly more nourished, often in rags, not realizing that within three months they'd start being shipped to Treblinka, a final death trip.
The staged: well-fed Jews drinking champagne, dancing about, putting on their makeup, having luxurious funerals, going to the theater, carrying on their religious rites without any hindrances, and most of all being indifferent to the begging of the frail, barely human bodies shuffling about them.
The scary part is that if The Ghetto had been edited and released as intended, many folk would have believed its message. Hate always needs so little encouragement.
Hersonski works with a restrained narrative in the manner of Alain Resnais' classic Night and Fog (1955): the only weeping in A Film Unfinished is from one of the survivors of the ghetto who is shown watching the once-lost footage today. She has to cover her eyes as the dead are wheelbarrowed to group graves in the nearby cemetery. Her tears, she admits, are a sign of her mental health. When in the ghetto in her youth, she wasn't able to cry.
Later, when a dressed-up apartment is shown with a vase full of flowers, one survivor notes with ridicule, "Where did one ever see a flower? We would have eaten the flowers."
Painful, eye-opening, and extraordinarily necessary to view, especially by the young to whom the Holocaust is nowadays too abstract a notion to fully mentally envision in all of its grotesqueness, A Film Unfinished is an unforgettable, stirring experience that, once you've seen it, you'll want to share. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Intro to Mass Communications" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).