Conversation: Director Yael Hersonski Puts New Lens on ‘A Film Unfinished’

BY Molly Finnegan  August 20, 2010 at 11:44 AM EST

In 1942, a Nazi film crew arrived in Warsaw, Poland to begin shooting footage in the Jewish ghetto — just months before its razing and the deportation of its terrorized inhabitants. A rough cut of that film survived, though it lacked a soundtrack or any other kind of explanation of the purpose of the film. For years, this unfinished document stood as one of the only remaining historical records of life in the ghetto during that time.

While the filmmakers’ original motives are unknown, the testimony of survivors and a close interrogation of the footage reveal how the propaganda film was intricately staged and cast despite being made to look like a documentary.

In her new movie, ‘A Film Unfinished,’ Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski attempts to put together a fuller understanding of the film’s purpose and production, challenging our understanding of that time by unwrapping the ways the Third Reich tried to portray Jewish life.

Hersonski joined me at our studio to discuss her film:

 
[Read the full transcript and watch the movie trailer after the jump]

JEFFREY BROWN: So, a film about the imagery, about how we see and have come to see the Warsaw Ghetto — why? What interested you?

YAEL HERSONSKI: Well, the first time I saw this footage was shocking to me, not only because of the intensity of the images, but also because of the fact that I was not aware that such footage existed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, first, before you tell us more about what it is you found out about it, what is “it”? You said it’s a 62 minute film…

YAEL HERSONSKI: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it was just called “The Ghetto”…

YAEL HERSONSKI: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it never was finished and we don’t quite even know who or why it was made, right? But what was it that you saw?

YAEL HERSONSKI: Well, this specific footage was found in East Germany in 1954 and it was probably a propaganda film made by a propaganda Nazi film unit. We don’t know why it was not completed. What we have today is rough cut of what might have become a propaganda film. It has no soundtrack, although soundtrack was recorded. We know that for sure. It has no opening or closing titles. It’s just raw footage, but still edited into an initial concept that the Nazi’s probably had.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as you say, no doubt for propaganda purposes, but in very interesting — as you show in the film — scenes of dead corpses— of corpses in the street, but also juxtaposed with people living a kind of high life, well-off?

YAEL HERSONSKI: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Strange sort of juxtaposition for a propaganda film.

YAEL HERSONSKI: We can only speculate regarding what they actually wanted to achieve, but we have a pretty good clue made by the Nazi minister of propaganda, Josef Goebels, who wrote in his diary four days before the filming began. He wrote that now when they have decided to move the Jews to the east, it’s urgent for them for the propaganda administery to make films, as many as possible, for the education of the next generations of the Third Reich. They still thought they were going to win this war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course.

YAEL HERSONSKI: So they were thinking also about the future and how they were going to represent the race, the race of the Jews, which they thought would not be part of the reality in a few years. Now, the second half of this speculation is that if this is what they wanted to do, they probably wanted to create a snapshot of allegedly Jewish daily life inside their own community, where the upper classes exploit the lower classes, and—

JEFFREY BROWN: Living really well while people are dying around them.

YAEL HERSONSKI: Living life of luxuries, and totally corrupted, immoral and indifferent to the suffering of their own people. Suffering that was caused, of course, by the Nazi occupation. But even — this is something that is interesting to discover, and I discovered it only after starting the research — that even the scenes I regarded as purely documentary or authentic one were not.

JEFFREY BROWN: They were constructed.

YAEL HERSONSKI: They were also constructed, but in a documentary filmmaking style, which is quite an advanced thinking about filmmaking back then.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, for example, you mean scenes like in the streets.

YAEL HERSONSKI: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where there’d just be people, where it just looks like the film— the camera is out getting people going about their business.

YAEL HERSONSKI: Absolutely. And this is information that was added by one of the survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto that we managed to interview and remembered the actual filmmaking. And she said that when we see a street we can’t know that they stopped it from both sides, outside the frame, and chose the exact people they wanted to enter the frame because they wanted to achieve an image, which will include the dying person on a sidewalk and the rich man or woman passing by him and not looking at him.

JEFFREY BROWN: So there is the fascination of the making of the film in that particular moment, but then there is also the fascination of what happened over the next decades. Your suggestion is that this film — even though it’s constructed — is how we all came to see life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

YAEL HERSONSKI: Absolutely. I think that during the first decades after the war it was more urgent to just show what happened, and there was not a good opportunity to discuss the nature of these images, because the amount of footage is not limitless. It’s only 10% of what the Nazi’s actually documented. 90% was destroyed during the last days of war. And we couldn’t judge the footage; it was more urgent just to show it. But no one really discussed the fact that we as if remember our own history through the point of view of the perpetrators. And when you start to talk about the nature of the images and the point the unique point of view, I think you are able more to realize what you cannot understand, but also to identify more with what you see.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course this goes to larger questions, right, about how we see and remember history, how we can trust images or not trust images. You’re in the documentary and news world in Israel, and of course, here we are the newsroom in the United States. So these are issues that are very much with us.

YAEL HERSONSKI: (6:55) Yes. Also as an Israeli we had this educational slogan— the education system was brain-washing us every year: remember it not— to remember and not to forget. And I never, even as a child, I never understood what do they mean when they say ‘remember.’ I mean was not there. I can remember the footage I see. And what sort of footage is it. And I think that maybe as a child I didn’t have the words to express it, but I always felt that there is something about these images, which is much more layered than what we are educated to understand.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what do you want the film to do? What do you want people to take from it?

YAEL HERSONSKI: I think that my hope is that in a way the viewer’s perception of footage of edited imagery — not only from the Holocaust, but the Holocaust as a case study. We are bombarded enough with images today. So I think the most gratifying thing would be that viewers could take this film and think through it on their own viewing, contemporary viewing, of the images.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one last thing: I mean it’s being released now, but I know it got an R-rating, which you were not happy with, but you lost that protest.

YAEL HERSONSKI: Yeah, we lost that appeal. Yeah, I mean I think it will limit the possibilities of students to see this film. I don’t think it will affect the theatrical life of this film. I think that this film, unlike others that used this sort footage, really discuss the ethical meaning of the use of this footage, and therefore it has also an educational value. But this is their decision and that’s how it’s going to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, Yael Hersonski is the director of “A Film Unfinished.” Thank you very much.

YAEL HERSONSKI: Thank you very much for inviting me.

 
Watch the trailer for “A Film Unfinished”: