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Flaunting Malignant Brilliance

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. Continue Reading →