The place is the Warsaw Ghetto, the year 1942, and the black-and-white footage shows fashionably dressed men and women, with yellow Stars of David as accessories, having a high time at a champagne ball.
In the following scenes, emaciated kids root through mounds of garbage and excrement for scraps of food.
The puzzling and contradictory scenes are from “A Film Unfinished,” an unwitting collaboration between a Nazi propaganda crew and an Israeli filmmaker, separated by 67 years.
In May 1942, a German film crew in Wehrmacht uniforms arrived at the Warsaw Ghetto with somewhat vague orders to shoot a documentary on every aspect of ghetto life in order to show the Jewish “folk” character.
On a daily basis, the crew got its assignments from the local SS commander, nicknamed the “Gold pheasant.”
The crew stayed for 30 days and did a thorough job, alternating staged shots with actual street scenes.
The champagne ball patrons were “actors,” temporarily dressed up and fed for the occasion. Eight young women were kidnapped off the street and forced to enter a mikveh, stark naked, in a “purification” scene.
Apparently, the Germans were fascinated by Jewish rituals, painstakingly shooting a circumcision, a wedding, and the koshering of chickens.
“A Film Unfinished” received an “R” rating. Read about it here.
The crew didn’t have to stage manage the grimmer scenes: Corpses of children and adults lying in the streets, strapping German soldiers shaking down kids trying to smuggle a few carrots into the ghetto, and hand-drawn carts piled his with naked skeletons on their way to a makeshift cemetery.
After 30 days, the German crew disappeared and so did their footage, which was never processed into a film or shown in Germany. However, in 1954, four reels of the ghetto film were discovered in a vault in East Berlin, left behind by the departing Soviet occupation troops.
In subsequent years, various filmmakers extracted some of the footage for their own projects, however showing only the scenes of misery, which became accepted as authentic depictions of ghetto life.
It was not until 1998 that a British filmmaker, searching for footage on the 1936 Berlin Olympics in a film vault at an American air force base, noticed two cans of film lying on the floor, labeled “Das Ghetto.”
Inside the cans were 30 minutes of outtakes left on the editing floor, which proved instantly that the entire production had been staged by the Germans.
The outtakes showed not only that some scenes had been shot over and over again, but also moments in which the Nazi cameramen accidentally entered into one another’s frame.
In the same year, another piece of the puzzle fell into place when German authorities tracked down Willy Wiest, one of the cameramen on the project, and interrogated him.
In 2006, Yael Hersonski, an Israeli television editor and director, whose grandmother was a Warsaw Ghetto survivor, started putting the various threads of the strange story together.
For a closing perspective, her staff scoured Israel, Poland, England and the United States for survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, who could remember seeing the German film crew at work. Nine fit the bill, of whom five – four women and one man – were willing to watch the Nazi version of life in the ghetto and comment on it.
To Hersonski, 34, this was the most difficult part of the project, but it may also have been the most enlightening, for it showed that amidst the staged ghetto scenes in the film, there were kernels of truth and reality.
For instance, in a number of scenes, pedestrians walk apparently indifferently past dead children lying unattended on the street. The outtakes showed that some of the same pedestrians repeatedly walked past the same point, obviously ordered to do so by the Germans.
Yet, one survivor commented, such apparently inhuman callousness existed, as a kind of defense mechanism.
“We became indifferent to the suffering of others, otherwise it was impossible to live,” she said.
In another example, while the film’s “champagne ball” was enacted under Nazi coercion, to show the gap between rich and poor, there were indeed a few dozen ghetto inhabitants who had managed to hold on to their money and temporarily were able to enjoy some privileges.
In the end, of course, the rich suffered the same fate as their poorer brethren.
In any case, Hersonski said, “Nobody who wasn’t in a ghetto or concentration camp can judge these people.”
Hersonski is not surprised that a few factual scenes, such as German soldiers stripping starving kids of some smuggled carrots, were included in the footage.
“Propaganda consists not merely of lies,” she said. “The most effective propaganda mixes the lies with a few kernels of truth.”
Nobody knows what propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels hoped to achieve with the film or why it was never completed.
Perhaps, Hersonski speculates, Goebbels wanted to try something more subtle after the failure of “Der Ewige Jude” (The Eternal Jew), which depicted Jews as hordes of voracious rats emerging from a sewer. Although personally supported by Hitler, the film bombed, even in Germany.
So far, “A Film Unfinished” has won major awards at Sundance, as well as at other film festivals in Berlin, Canada and Jerusalem.
It opens Aug. 20 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Town Center 5 in Encino.