Interest in the project
“A Film Unfinished first emerged out of my theoretical preoccupation with the notion of the “archive”, and the unique nature of the witnessing it bears.”
The Holocaust confronted humanity not only with inconceivable horrors, but also for the first time, with their systematic documentation. More than anything else, it is the photographic documentation of these horrors that has changed forever the way in which the past is archived. Atrocities committed by the Nazis were photographed more extensively than any evils, before or after. Yet since the war, these images, created by the perpetrators have been subjected to mistreatments: in the best of cases they were crudely used as illustrations of the many stories; in the worst, they were presented as straightforward historical truth.
With the prospect in mind of a time when no survivor will be left to remember the events, I tried in this to examine the silent footage, which alone will remain; to critically inspect the potential of the photographic image to bear witness as well as the limits of its ability to do so.
In what ways can archival footage filmed by the perpetrators testify to the suffering of the victims? And in the case of Nazi propaganda footage, where does cinematic manipulation end and reality begin?
For me, it begins with the victim’s gaze into the camera. That gaze contains what is perhaps the only emotional truth not crushed under the wheels of propaganda, the only truth that cannot be possessed and that remains forever, as if to testify: “I was there, I existed in this world that words cannot describe.’”
I wanted to expose the message enfolded in this captured gaze, but at the same time also to question the 21st century viewer’s perception of the past; to undermine his confidence in his knowledge of history and reinforce his emotional ability to see beyond the layers of time.
“A Film Unfinished” first emerged out of my theoretical preoccupation with the notion of the “archive”, and the unique nature of the witnessing it bears. The type of archive that intrigued me the most is perhaps the one that belonged to a new language, that of the 20th century: the film archive. I’ve always sensed that archival footage, unlike the paper document, bears a much more layered testimony regarding the reality it documents, a testimony that remains forever open for investigation. Thinking of the time when no witnesses will be left to remember, when the archives will remain our only source of understanding our history, I was haunted by the idea of exploring the silent images – not as illustrations enslaved by different stories – but as story tellers themselves.
My interest in the archival footage from the Holocaust stems also from the fact, that World War II not only confronted humanity with inconceivable atrocities, but also produced, and carried, for the first time, a systematical, obsessive cinematic documentation of that horror.
In order to understand better the way we perceive the infinite number of images which are being broadcast into our living rooms, computers and mobile phones from dozens of satellites, images of our present reality and its catastrophes, I chose to go back, to the historical point in time, where it all began; for I strongly believe that after the world had witnessed the horror documented during the liberation of the extermination camps, after screening the cinematic evidences displayed at the Nuremberg trials – something was changed in the collective consciousness. Images were no longer as they were before.
Locating the footage
“Thinking of the time when no witnesses will be left to remember, when the archives will remain our only source of understanding our history, I was haunted by the idea of exploring the silent images – not as illustrations enslaved by different stories – but as story tellers themselves.”
In 2006, after phrasing my ideas and aims into a theoretical short essay, I’ve sent it directly to Noemi Schory, one of the most prominent and experienced producers in Israel, in order to hear her thoughts. It was less than one year after she had completed a vast project for the new visual center of the Holocaust historic museum in Jerusalem (Yad Vashem), which consisted of over 100 archive-based short films.
She was familiar with almost all the footage that exists in the visual archives, and gave me a list of materials to watch, which she found capable of corresponding with my initial ideas. She had also introduced me to a diary that was written inside the Warsaw Ghetto by a 15-year-old Jewish girl, who described, among other things, a Nazi film crew making a propaganda film inside the Ghetto. I didn’t realize yet, that this propaganda film will eventually become the subject of my project.
One month later I traveled to Jerusalem, to the Yad Vashem Visual Center to watch the entire 62-minute rough cut of the Nazi propaganda film for the first time. The effect was shocking.
Reactions to the footage
“My shock stemmed also from the fact that after so many years being an Israeli citizen, bombarded with so many films and images that concerned the Jewish Holocaust, I still didn’t know anything about this film.”
Only when seeing the complete sequence can one understand the manipulation of its making, the evil behind it and the distorted manner in which these images were (mis)used during the post war years – in dozens of documentaries, and in the form of recycled bits and pieces. Within the context of those documentaries, it seemed that the fragmented sequences could only suggest that the partial reality framed inside them reflected the true reality of Jewish life inside the Ghetto. But how could an image, shot from the point of view of the perpetrator, truly reflect the reality of its victim?
In most cases this manipulative point of view, which ironically was burned as part of collective imagery of post-war mourning, was never discussed. My shock stemmed also from the fact that after so many years being an Israeli citizen, bombarded with so many films and images that concerned the Jewish Holocaust, I still didn’t know anything about this film. The film was well known to film archivists, museums and filmmakers from all over the world, and was available for research at the German film archives. Yet “A Film Unfinished” is the first documentary that shows this footage almost in its entire length, and exposes its actual intensiveness.
Several days after watching the Warsaw Ghetto film for the first time, I traveled to Berlin, where the footage is still preserved. I’d decided to study German for the sake of the research, and met the German film archivists in order to learn more about the history of the footage. I was told that the Warsaw Ghetto film, at least as far as the German film archive is concerned, was perhaps the most mysterious footage of the third Reich that had survived (90% of the footage shot by the Nazis was destroyed during last days of the war). After more than 70 years, no one among the archivists (mainly Germans and Americans) was able to find even a single document to reveal the identity of the film’s initiators, the purpose of the making, nor the reasons for the timing of the shooting or why the film was never completed.
About the footage
“…The British film researcher Adrian Wood was looking for footage that dealt with the 1936 Olympics games and noticed two film cans lying on the floor titled “Das Ghetto”.”
The Warsaw Ghetto footage was first revealed in 1954, inside the East German film archive’s area in Potsdam Babelsberg, in a concrete film vault that once belonged to the Third Reich. It was just after the Soviets, who controlled the eastern parts of Berlin, had retreated to Moscow, taking with them all the Nazi propaganda footage they could locate after 9 years of sorting through the Nazi archive remains. Why did they leave the Warsaw Ghetto film to the Germans? One can only speculate. Either they didn’t notice it, or had another copy that was taken with them to Moscow. Nobody knows.
According to my conversation with the archivist who later became the head of the DDR film archive, only when he watched the Warsaw Ghetto film for the first time did he begin to understand what went on inside the Jewish Ghettos.
The first time a filmmaker made use of several minutes from the Warsaw Ghetto footage was in 1961. Only scenes that showed great misery were shown. The staged scenes in which we see Jews living in luxury were totally ignored.
In 1957 a Polish man approached the West German film archive, and gave archivists a 35 mm reel that contained 7.5min shot inside the Warsaw Ghetto.
It was an edited compilation that contained images from 1941 to 1944. Among the various elements were also bits of scenes from the Nazi propaganda film. The only difference was that they were visually inverted, so that the people who walked from the right side of the frame to its left, walked in the Polish material the other way around. The Polish man claimed that two Nazis, who were murdered a short time afterwards, gave the reel to him in 1943 inside the Warsaw Ghetto.
Almost 40 years later, in 1998, 2 crucial events happened:
The first one occurred in an American air force base, inside a film vault. The British film researcher Adrian Wood was looking for footage that dealt with the 1936 Olympics games and noticed two film cans lying on the floor titled “Das Ghetto”. Wood, who has years of experience with Holocaust footage was very familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto film, and thus could immediately recognize that the reels belonged to the main film. It contained two sequences – all together 30 minutes of outtakes left on the editing floor. The outtakes exposed not only the number of takes that were taken by the Nazi film crew, even in the case of the seemingly documentary scenes of extreme poverty and death, but also moments in which cameramen accidentally entered each other’s frame.
All attempts to identify the specific propaganda unit, or the identity of one of the cameramen according to their uniforms or faces were in vain. Many times the film crews were uniformed with general uniforms of the Nazi Air Force, or that of the Wehrmacht – and we were not able to decide who these filmmakers were. In addition we could not find any documentation that concerned a film production, not even one invoice. In the case of Nazi bureaucratic documentation this is certainly quite rare.
Secondly, during the 60’s a German historian who was doing a research about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising inside the Polish archives came across an entry permit to the Ghetto, dated from May 1942 – the actual time of the shooting. The entry permit was given to Sonderführer Willy Wist, a cameraman. It was the first and only occasion when the name of one of the film’s cameramen was revealed. During the Post Cold War era, the united German film archive tried to locate Wist, with the aim to discover more about the filmmaking. Letters to all Wist relatives in Germany were sent asking after the former cameraman. All Wist families replied the same: “we don’t know him”.
“I was relieved to realize that 5 of them were more than willing to come, and even more relieved to realize they had their own urgent interest in the film: they wanted to be the last to comment on the silent images, for they were there.”
In making the film, the accuracy of every detail was of immense importance to me. Every document, typed or handwritten, every page of diary, every archive corridor and staircase which are being shown in the film are the authentic ones, and the languages in which the diaries were written were kept in their origin: Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew.
We were extremely fortunate to have such a diligent and persistent Israeli researcher, who was calling all the survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto that still live in Israel, including some who live in Poland, England and the US. Most of them were teenagers or children in the Ghetto, and were wandering the streets, mainly trying to rescue their families. Many times it was the child, supplied with his fresh enthusiastic courage, athletic body and curiosity that supported his parents. Thus more than the parents, it was the child who would witness the film crew working in the streets.
Nine survivors remembered the filmmaking. It was our plan to invite each one of them into the darkness of the cinema hall, and to confront them with the horrifying footage, which was something I feared not all of them could withstand. They were over 80 years old, courageous souls in fragile bodies, filled with memories they were compelled to store away in order to keep on living. What I in fact intended to show them was the scenery of their childhood when they experienced some of the most horrendous events in their lives.
I’ve decided not only to explain them in the most detailed manner what they were about to watch, but to invite only the ones who were absolutely certain that they’ll be capable of doing it. I was relieved to realize that 5 of them were more than willing to come, and even more relieved to realize they had their own urgent interest in the film: they wanted to be the last to comment on the silent images, for they were there.
I admit that these days of filming the survivors watching the footage were the most difficult ones for me in the course of the entire filmmaking. After every session I found myself physically numb, and mentally knocked out. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the survivors themselves must have felt after such an incredibly intense situation. The four women who were filmed watching the footage are still living in Israel. The only man who took part in these testimonials died during last year.
All in all the stage of research was the longest one among the stages of the making of the film, and lasted almost 2 years. During this time I was able to construct a rough structure of the film, so when we started the editing phase we already had a notion how the various materials would be interwoven one in another. The only parts that were shot before we started to edit were those of the survivors watching the footage.