“A Film Unfinished” Gets Finishing Touch
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Those wily Nazi’s were masters of propaganda. They practically succeeded in convincing parts of the world that there was no Holocaust. They turned Germanic director Leni Riefenstahl into a party-line filmmaker. And they commissioned films that told the story the way they wanted it to appear.
Of course, the U.S. did the same thing, kinda. Frank Capra, the lovable director who gave us “It’s a Wonderful Life,” cranked out a series of short films titled “Why We Fight.”
Sure, ours were right and true. But they were designed to sway public opinion.
I once had a conversation with Clifton Fadiman (that grandfatherly host of radio’s “Information Please” and a founding member of the Book of the Month Club) about America’s secret propaganda board during World War II, where noted editors and publishers agreed to publish that which was best for the war cause. “We hated to do it, but it seemed like the best way,” he said, shaking his head sadly.
Further proof of the Nazi’s propaganda machine recently came to light with the examination of some old film footage that had been left lying about in a forgotten canister in a vault at an Air Force base in Ohio. It showed scenes from an unfinished Nazi wartime film comparing the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto with wealthy Jewry living the high life. But as these lost outtakes demonstrate, much of the film was staged. You can see Nazi cameramen directing its “actors” how to behave, firing guns to arouse screams, creating false memories of life in the ghettos.
You might call it Hitler’s version of “Why We fight.”
However, in this case, the raw footage has been incorporated into a new documentary called “A Film Unfinished.” And it’s currently exposing the truth about Nazi propaganda at the Tropic Cinema.
Now why would young moviegoers, not even born in the ’40s, choose to see a documentary about some dusty old war? Viet Nam already seems ancient and Desert Storm is blowing away in our recent consciousness while we worry about Afghanistan and avoid roadside bombs in Iraq and turn a suspicious eye on Iran.
Director Yael Hersonski says, “When I embarked on this journey I was bothered by our contemporary ethical status as passive (Israelis, in my case) viewers, as citizens who imagine they know ‘something’ about their reality, for they watch the media reports, but in fact remain paralyzed in front of the limited television screen and its edited images.”
So she decided to return to that “crucial starting point in the history of cinematic documentation of human atrocities,” and by approaching it as a study case to learn something about people’s ability to determine the truth of history.
We can only know what we witness. “Something like 95% of the imagery of the Holocaust was shot by the perpetrators for their own purposes,” notes Hersonski. “We have the documentation of the liberation of the camps by Americans and others but while the war was going on the only ones to take pictures were the Nazis themselves.”
“A Film Unfinished” features testimony by Willy Wist, one of the Nazi camera operators who filmed scenes for what was to be titled “Das Ghetto.”
Hersonski also interviews Holocaust survivors. “We found four women who were still alive. This was the most urgent part of the filmmaking so it was the first thing we did. I invited each one of them alone to screen the footage to make it as intense as could be so maybe they would remember things even they did not know they knew. It was one of the most emotional and exhausting part of making the film. And of course it was hard for them. But these women felt it was urgent for them to interpret this silent footage as those who were there, who were hiding from the film crew, to have the last word, the final word over these images.”
Like a serial killer keeping souvenirs of his crimes, the Nazis had a passion for documentation. As Yael Hersonski puts it, “They took their own atrocities and shot it as if it was caused by the Jews. The most powerful propaganda is not entirely lies; they know how to combine what is true with what they want the story to be.”
It’s a difficult film to watch. But an important one.
[from Solares Hill]