Friday, January 28, 2011

Recent Documentaries: Exploitative (Part 2)

At first glance, Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished is seemingly cut from the same moral cloth as Inside Job and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (see yesterday's review of both those films) Those two political films, respectively, exposed the forces behind the recent worldwide economic meltdown and laid bare the events leading to the downfall of one politician who was prepared to tackle Wall Street and its greedy minions head-on, and both came from a deep and justified well of anger. A Film Unfinished initially seems similar in tone, but actually this is one offensive documentary that left a bad taste in my mouth.

A German-Israeli co-production, but made by an Israeli filmmaker, A Film Unfinished is a look at a recently unearthed, and unfinished, propaganda film made by the Nazis and shot in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. The ghetto was eventually liquidated by the Germans in 1943, and all its remaining Jewish inhabitants killed, but only after a staunch and heroic resistance (one which lasted nearly a full month). Using footage from the never-before-seen, until now, propaganda film, which was titled Das Ghetto, and incorporating some docudrama techniques (not something I much like) of a post World War Two trial which touched on the making of the film (and also interviews with a few survivours from the ghetto), A Film Unfinished ostensibly brings something new to the subject of the Holocaust. The problem is that the movie exploits far more than it illuminates.

Director Yael Hersonski
Nazi propaganda techniques, vis-à-vis the Jews, already exist in the footage extant in a disturbing short 1944 film called The Führer Gives a City to the Jews. The footage expertly showcased how the Nazis put a glossy, 'positive' spin on the so called 'model' ghetto of Theresienstadt to obscenely demonstrate to the outside world that the Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto were well-treated and well-fed. So, bringing forth this heretofore unseen footage in A Film Unfinished, adds little to the story, except, being a feature length movie, it allows much more Nazi propaganda to surface on screen. 

A scene from A Film Unfinished
As the former Director of Programming of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, I am well aware of the ironic fact that the image of Adolf Hitler has been preserved for posterity in numerous Jewish-made documentaries about the Holocaust; the stock shot of him gesticulating to and winding up the German crowds at his rallies popped up, it seemed, in almost all of the hundreds of Holocaust films I viewed in my eight years at the festival. But that doesn't absolve Hersonski of indecently using this painful footage of the Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants for cinematic gain, even if she, no doubt, believes she's informing us of Nazi crimes in the process. The problem, I fear, is that as an Israeli, and because of the country's historical mythology of the strong, fighting Jew, Hersonski doesn't really understand how the Holocaust has impacted on Diaspora Jewry, who might react negatively to how the material is approached. (As an indicator of this unfortunately myopic view, I was actually told by a leading Israeli documentary filmmaker, a very smart guy by the way, that he didn't realize how prevalent the history of the Holocaust was for Jews here in North America until he was invited to the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.)

The issue of whether and how to show footage of Nazi atrocities is an ongoing and valid one, but I can safely say that very few of the documentaries on the subject that I've seen have crossed the line between informing and exploiting this supremely tragic subject in the way that A Film Unfinished has. (Feature films on the Holocaust are another thing entirely, with several of them, notably Seven Beauties, Life is Beautiful and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas going too far in that regard.)

The film's low point is the scenes filmed by the Nazis in a Jewish ritual bath. The lingering close-ups of naked men and women, trying to retain their dignity in the face of the intrusive camera and likely knowing their days are numbered, needn't have seen the light of day. It's such an intrusion into their privacy and so unnecessary as documentary cinema that I could barely stomach it. You're better off checking out Dariusz Jabłoński's superb 1998 film Photographer, which provided a moving, incisive and responsible photographic essay on the daily life in of the Łódź ghetto. A Film Unfinished, by comparison, only provoked me to wonder why on earth did Hersonski want to finish the Nazis' work for them. In effect, her documentary provides them one final evil victory from beyond the grave.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute. For more information go to

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