by Adam H. Becker
A Film Unfinished (2010, 90 min), directed by Yael Hersonski, is about footage shot in the Warsaw Ghetto in May of 1942. The original film, labeled on its canisters simply as “Das Ghetto,” presents itself as an ethnographic examination of Jewish life in the dire day-to-day existence of several hundred thousand Jews, forced to live within a walled-in space of three square miles with little to eat. It depicts, among other scenes, life in the market place, Jewish rituals — from a bris (circumcision) to bathing in a miqveh (ritual bath) — and the enforcement of order by Jewish security personnel. If not for one hitch, it would be a relatively straightforward depiction of the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, a place in which conditions anticipated the unforeseen eradication of much of the Ghetto’s population suffered not long after at Treblinka.
The hitch is this: the original footage was shot by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. Although the footage was never used, it seems that the Nazis planned to make a film about the disparity between the rich and poor in the Ghetto. Opulent dinner scenes are interposed with shots of the emaciated bodies of starving Jews in the street. The meaning is clear: the Jews, a parasitic population who needed to be rounded up and put into the Ghetto for the safety of others, are so vile that when corralled together they turn upon their own. Yet again the Nazis point us to the extreme of their malignant brilliance. Whereas we expect those who commit great crimes to hide their deeds, to cover them up, and to lie about them, for “Das Ghetto” the camera was brought by the perpetrators to the scene of their own crime.
Throughout Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished, transcripts are reenacted from a 1960s court interview with Willy Wist, the one cameraman known to have participated in the project. He repeatedly states that many scenes were difficult to shoot because of an absence of light, which figuratively alludes to exactly what the proud Nazi propagandists wanted: more light. Instead of discretely leaving the Ghetto in the dark, an embarrassment to be ignored or left unexposed, light was shed upon it in order to “clarify” why the Jews were suffering the way they were.
This Nazi project, “Das Ghetto,” supplies us with a lesson in representation, featuring the use of the symptoms of oppression – poverty, depravity, helplessness – as justification for that very oppression. In this way it clearly resembles the kind of ethnographic interests typical of Western scientific projects in the colonial periphery in the 19th and 20th centuries. It demonstrates the collusive intermingling of classification, control, and annihilation. Anthropologists, missionaries, and bureaucrats often produced memoirs, studies, films, and photographs in an attempt to archive cultural forms that their own colonialism was destroying, while sincerely bemoaning their loss.
A Film Unfinished is a foray into the Nazi archive. The film itself begins and ends with the camera roving through a basement of film reels. Hersonski explicitly aims to challenge the historical verity of “Das Ghetto,” which in the past was taken as a simple, immediate reflection of life in the Ghetto. The later discovery of additional footage, which includes outtakes and shots of the Nazi cameramen staging scenes, demonstrates the extent to which the footage is a highly controlled glance at Jewish suffering and, sometimes, is simply fiction. This makes A Film Unfinished an attestation to important issues pertaining to the archive and how history is constructed and re-presented.
However, at times the documentary engages in a sentimentality unnecessary in Holocaust story-telling. Anyone working within the basic norms of our ethical and political culture now understands what the stakes are in addressing the Holocaust. Do we need a melancholy voiceover? To be shown Ghetto survivors hiding their eyes as they are shown footage of raw piles of human flesh jumbling into a pit? We get it. It is the Holocaust. No need, yet again, to emphasize the point.
Furthermore, in showing the manipulative nature of the Nazi film about Jewish cruelty to other Jews, A Film Unfinished implies the opposite, that is, that there were no factions and no hierarchy in the Warsaw Ghetto. For example, the documentary is never clear about who all the actors are in the film — some of them healthy-looking, some even slightly chubby. Did not some of the Jews eat better than others? Some Jews did collaborate. Some Jews did betray other Jews. And some Jews did later resist during the Ghetto Uprising. None of this is explicitly addressed in the documentary. Rather, A Film Unfinished seems to suggest that Jews simply suffered and then were misrepresented. In fact, Jewish agency is emphasized more in the original film, “Das Ghetto,” even if for nefarious purposes, than in the way “Das Ghetto” is treated in A Film Unfinished, which only emphasizes Jewish self-assertion when it is noble or heroic, such as in the cases of Emanuel Ringelblum, the devoted chronicler of Ghetto life, and Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Judenrat (Nazi-established Jewish council), who killed himself rather than make further decisions about who should live and who should die.
Rhetorically speaking, the problem with the Nazis is that they had bad intentions. One might recall an episode of the British television sketch comedy of Mitchell and Webb, in which a Nazi in an SS uniform notices the skull and crossbones on his cap and asks his fellow officer in naïve shock, “Have you looked at our caps recently? Have you noticed the badges on our caps have skulls on them? Hans, are we the baddies?” The Nazis were bad (also in the colloquial sense of the term) and they flaunted it.
In contrast, we are not bad because our intentions are good. We are not guilty because we do not intend for our images to misrepresent subjects, even if our images of certain ethnic and religious groups function the same way as “Das Ghetto” was supposed to. Whereas the Nazis cynically made a film clearly aimed at controlling the representation of the Jew, even memorializing the people they were voiding, our own good intentions absolve us of any sense of wrongdoing. For example, no one person or group intentionally created the image of the African American Ghetto or the horror of “black-on-black” violence” in order for many to say, “Oh, I pity them and what they do to themselves.” No one sketched out a plan for the media representation of Arabs and/or Muslims and their despotic rulers so that people would say, “Oh, those poor people! They can’t rule themselves. They kill their own. We must liberate them (and defend ourselves against them).” None of this is intentional, but these embedded assumptions are understood. The stories we tell ourselves of the suffering of certain populations are not straightforwardly planned like the inhuman cinematic instructions dispatched from Berlin.
However, if we bracket intentions and assume that unintended wrongs are still nonetheless wrong, we are able to see that the framing of events often has the same function. Full and decontextualized agency is attributed to the mediated subjects. In other words, the Jews in the “Das Ghetto” footage, and African Americans and Muslims in our current media, are represented as masters of their own fate because the historical context of their suffering is ignored. To say that people’s suffering is their own fault is to say that they are agents, protagonists in their own story. This is the case, even if ultimately they are often simultaneously deemed slaves to their own culture or racial tendency, a move that essentializes their difference from us, making conflict with them inevitable and irreconcilable.
Just as the Ghetto wall serves as a kind of frame for the story of what occurred within it — as if the Ghetto were not produced by its very closure — so also our current media frames events in a manner that justifies the violence African Americans and Muslims suffer. The framing determines that they are doing it to themselves.
The 24-hour news cycle ignores political, social, and economic history and looks only within the frame of the day-to-day. Without a knowledge of context or history all we see is the horror of other people’s lives, what they do to themselves, and the threat they pose to us. As is often the case with the Holocaust, the hyperbole of the event, its extreme totality, makes its lesson more easily legible. This is also the case with “Das Ghetto.” Its lack of subtlety reveals the elisions that most media we daily consume often allows for. By the end, A Film Unfinished includes footage from a reel that was shot on color stock, thus pointing forward to their future, which is our present, when the moving, life-like image on the screen is now the “real.”
Adam H. Becker is Director of the Religious Studies Program at New York University and Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies. His research covers the ancient and modern history of Aramaic-speaking Christians in what is now Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.