Last Friday, the Sundance Institute hosted the third annual “Shabbot at Sundance” party in or patrons, filmmakers, community members… and me. What started as a Friday evening dinner for 20 a few years ago has grown into a buffet, outreach, and mingling event for ten times that number.
Held high above the town, at the Park City residence of Sundance Institute patrons Nancy and Mark Gilbert – influencial early supporters of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign—a Shabbat Shirah full moon illuminated the winding, steep, and at points icy, road up to their home. Attendees included leaders and programmers of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, members of the regional Jewish community, philanthropists, a Utah state senator, a regional mayor and deputy mayor, as well as filmmakers.
After a blessing over the wine and the large, braided challot were happily passed around, Kevin Asch, director of “Holy Rollers” (a feature film about Hasidic drug mules) was invited to say a few words, followed by Sundance Institute leaders, who discussed the history of their outreach to new filmmakers in the Middle East, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. In 2010, they revealed, the Sundance Institute will travel to Israel to lead workshops for three Israeli female filmmakers in whom they see great potential. Next to speak was Yael Herzonski, director of “A Film Unfinished,“ a Germany/Israel co-production about found film footage from the Warsaw Ghetto, which went on to receive the festival’s world cinema documentary editing prize.
“A Film Unfinished” is the story of a movie that was never completed; apparently it was intended to serve as propaganda for the Third Reich, an empire that was in love with the camera and documented its own atrocities. The Warsaw Ghetto, before its destruction in 1942, was the squalid home for half a million Jews living in three square miles, where poverty and typhus were rampant.
A decade after the end of WWII, East German archivists discovered a secret vault in the forest filled with film canisters. Among the canisters was a one-hour film titled, “Das Ghetto 1942,” a rough first draft cut of a film about the Warsaw Ghetto, without any notes or soundtrack. The filmmakers’ intentions are no longer known: Perhaps the plan was to use it to show the life of Jews and justify their liquidation?
The found footage, in four small reels, had been used by archivists and documentary filmmakers over the past several decades to show what life was like in the ghetto. The images— previously accepted as reality—have now been proven to be a cinematic deception, as the Nazis had staged nearly all the scenes.
Hersonski’s documentary shows this film in its entirety for the first time, as well as a reel of outtakes depicting staged takes from various angles, unintentionally capturing glimpses of SS cameramen behind the scenes.
In another scene, three rabbis arrive at the office of Adam Czerniakov, the head of the Ghetto’s appointed Judenrat council, to petition him on an issue. A peculiar, lit menorah sits on his desk, as if Jews use menorahs for reading lights. But it was a staged scene; an actor played Czerniakov. How did Hersonski know it was a fabrication? Because Czerniakov’s diaries, which were found after the war, detail how SS filmmakers took over his offices and his apartment, and filmed throughout the ghetto in May 1942. As the Nazis began the ghetto’s final liquidation three months later, Czerniakov committed suicide after hiding his diaries.
After Hersonski’s grandmother, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, died four years ago, the filmmaker searched for materials that could tell her more about her grandmother’s story. There was not much material, not even at Yad Vashem. But Hersonski had heard of the archived footage and, upon viewing it, was stunned by the images. Thus began her project to illuminate the fraudulent footage. “The images speak their own testimony,” Hersonski said at the Shabbat dinner. “We learn about the victims mainly through the images taken by the perpetrators. This was not an easy journey to make this film and to watch these images every day for a year,” she added. “I wanted to present it as a powerful documentation. Even though it is staged, the gaze and eyes of the people being filmed express the truth that cannot be denied by the cinematic manipulation.”