For decades, historians and filmmakers hoping for a glimpse of how Jews really lived during World War II have had to rely, perversely, on Ghetto, an unfinished 60-minute Nazi propaganda movie found moldering in an East German bunker after the war. Little is known about the reasons for making Ghetto, which was shot over 30 days in Warsaw during May 1942, just as the death camp at Treblinka II was opening. But a journal entry from Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, dated April 1942, reveals that “[SS chief Heinrich] Himmler is quickly pursuing the great resettlement of Jews from German cities to the eastern ghettos. I have arranged that filming be done on a large scale. This material will later be shown for the urgent education of our people.”
The film was structured to show Jewish life and life-cycle rituals, or rather what the Nazis wanted future generations of Aryans to think they were: a scene of a sickly infant’s circumcision—never mind that rabbis would not conduct such a ritual if the child was so weak it might not survive. An elaborate funeral procession with a hearse and ornate coffin—never mind that devout Jews do not bury their dead in coffins. Nude Jewish women stepping into a ritual bath called a mikvah—never mind that it’s one used by men and that modesty would forbid the two sexes from bathing together. All of these are interspersed with staged scenes designed to show Jews to be callous and insular: Well-heeled Jews in furs blithely step over corpses that litter the streets and ignore child beggars lined up to accost them.
Yael Hersonski’s new documentary, A Film Unfinished, which will be at Film Forum later this month, shows how it was made, and the answer is familiar to anybody who’s watched reality TV. It draws on a “lost” reel to Ghetto found in the nineties containing multiple takes and scene staging. It’s the first time the material has been shown in its entirety. The new footage is chilling mostly because of the cheerily manipulated fakery the film sets forth as real.
“Images from Ghetto could be used for any movie about the Holocaust,” says Hersonski. “And because it was always a limited number of images recycled amongst filmmakers, they don’t have the full dimension of reality and its complexities.” Indeed, Hersonski’s goal is to complicate the view of Jewish life at that time, fearing that a simplistic or beatific depiction of victims makes their lives unrelatable to modern eyes. “The education system in Israel,” where Hersonski lives, “tends to try to simplify the Holocaust into ‘the victims’ and ‘the perpetrators,’ ” she says. Nuanced views of life during the Holocaust have been lacking, Hersonski says, out of a fear that any shading of behavior in the ghetto might undermine the Jews’ right to claim aggrieved status. Not in her film: Survivors talk about the horrors of the ghetto, but also about everyday life.
“This Jew dancing in the street with the torn coat is exactly the image of the Nazi propaganda. But there was also the Jew in his best suit—no one is saying that it wasn’t his last suit—walking down the street next to him … But this is something hard to understand: The poor and the rich go to the same place [in Treblinka].”
The MPAA has given the film an R rating for “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities and graphic nudity.” The film’s distributor, Oscilloscope Laboratories, is appealing that ruling. Oscilloscope owner Adam Yauch (a.k.a. MCA of the Beastie Boys) says it’s “too important of a historical document to ban from classrooms,” which would happen if it retains its R. But Hersonski says she won’t change it to get a PG-13.
Calls to the MPAA ratings board were not returned. “I am a grandchild of someone who survived the Warsaw Ghetto,” says Hersonski. “But she told me almost nothing about her experience, and when she died, I started to think about what will happen when all the witnesses are gone, when we are left only with the archive. Because it’s not that archives were not used; it’s the opposite: They were massively used.”