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A Film Unfinished

August 26, 2010 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The contemporary relevance of a discarded Nazi propaganda film.

If you thought that nothing new could still be said about the Holocaust you need to see Yael Hersonski's remarkable recently released documentary A Film Unfinished.

It is a movie about a movie that makes us re-examine what we thought we knew about the Warsaw ghetto.

A decade after the war, a rough assembly of about an hour's worth of footage shot by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 – shortly before the inhabitants began to be transported to Treblinka and herded into “the showers” – was discovered in four film cans labeled “The Ghetto.” For reasons never fully understood, the Nazi movie was never completed. There was no sound, no narrative, no indication of who shot the film or what its purpose was. Nevertheless, the footage became a frequent resource for later documentarians and Holocaust historians.

What had always seemed disturbing and more than a little surprising were scenes of seemingly well fed Jews living a rather pleasant life in the Ghetto even while surrounded by emaciated corpses lining the streets. The well-heeled appeared to dine out and attend the theater and synagogue with impunity, stepping over the dead bodies on the street as if they were an inconvenient form of litter. It looked like Nazi cruelty found its counterpart among wealthy Jews, filmed as they turned a blind eye to their unfortunate brethren who begged on the streets and died there of hunger.

Or at least that's what the film showed us – and that's what became “the historic record.”

It took until 1998 when a fifth reel turned up. That one showed multiple takes of the scenes supposedly depicting elegantly dressed Jews in well stocked restaurants, callously unconcerned by the suffering surrounding them. It turns out that the distortions of reality the Nazis wanted to establish as the truth of their reign of terror were filmed either with actors or Jews threatened with severe beatings and death for failure to convincingly portray their pre-assigned roles of deception. While the record of horror was real the depiction of the simultaneous existence of privileged Jews insensitive to the plight of the rest of their people was totally staged.

What makes this so fascinating in retrospect is the way it allows us to understand the profound conundrum confronting the Nazi propaganda machine as it considered whether to complete the film on which they expended so much effort. In one sense what they had intended was brilliant. They wanted to mitigate their evil by demonizing their victims. How could the world condemn their actions if Jews themselves remained so unmoved by the fate of their compatriots? Yet to make the message meaningful the filmmakers had to show at least some of the barbaric consequences of forcing half a million starving Jews into a three square mile walled-in area with insufficient food and sanitation. To finish the movie meant the Nazis had to leave a record of the corpses, of the stacked bodies, of the daily horrors faced by the Jews of the ghetto.

Was it worth showing but a small portion of their crime in order to have the satisfaction of implicating, albeit falsely, a supposed wealthy remnant of Jews whose passive acquiescence and continued hedonistic lifestyle proved the contemptuous character of this nation?

Better to bury the record of actual evil even if they lost the opportunity to besmirch the concept of Jewish compassion.

My guess is that the reason the Nazis never finished the film or used it for its intended propaganda value is that they decided it wasn't worth the gamble. The movie might have engendered hatred for the despised upper-class Jews, but its admitted depiction of some of the horror of ghetto suffering could perhaps have sparked some sympathy for its victims. Better, they reasoned, to bury the record of actual evil even if they lost the opportunity to besmirch the concept of Jewish compassion.

What can only sadden us today is the realization of how for many decades the propaganda ploy the Nazis rejected by pointedly never completing or releasing the film nevertheless achieved a life of its own after the first reels were found. As soon as “the documentary” was discovered, its depiction of life in the Warsaw Ghetto was granted the historians’ seal of authenticity. Life for many, they said, obviously was not that bad. The elite did not at first suffer at all. The privileged showed no pity for their fellow Jews. And weirdly enough, years after the Germans gave up on misleading the world with this film, the horrible lies that the Nazis wanted to promulgate eventually ended up gaining credence!

Yael Hersonski masterfully demonstrates how historians were misled. But there's a far greater and more important point that needs to be recognized. It is ultimately what makes A Film Unfinished so contemporarily relevant. And, as obvious as it may seem, a truth still so blatantly disregarded.

The Nazi movie makers worked on the premise that what appears on film is automatically deemed to be true. Seeing is believing is more than an idiom; it is an axiom defining human behavior.

Photos don't lie – but photographers can and do.

More than half a century ago the Nazi regime understood the power of photographic images. Photos don't lie – but photographers can and do.

In the 1940s, the Nazis used that insight to stage manage history for their benefit.

In 2010 technology has granted us the ability to crop and alter photos in ways previously unimaginable. And yet we still tend to believe that our eyes do not deceive us.

Today's wars against Israel are fought as much in the press as on the battlefields. Images have become icons, often with catastrophic results.

Click below to watch trailer of A Film Unfinished.

Remember the name Mohammed al-Dura? To a billion people in the Muslim world it is an infamous symbol of grievance against Israel and—because of this country's support for Israel — against the United States as well.

Al-Dura was the 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot and killed during an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators on September 30, 2000. The final few seconds of his life, when he crouched in terror behind his father, Jamal, and then slumped to the ground after bullets ripped through his torso, were captured by a television camera and broadcast around the world. Through repetition they have become as familiar and significant to Arab and Islamic viewers as photographs of bombed-out Hiroshima are to the people of Japan — or as footage of the crumbling World Trade Center is to Americans. Several Arab countries have issued postage stamps carrying a picture of the terrified boy. One of Baghdad's main streets was renamed The Martyr Mohammed Aldura Street. Morocco has an al-Dura Park.

In one of the messages Osama bin Laden released after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he began a list of indictments against "American arrogance and Israeli violence" by saying, "In the epitome of his arrogance and the peak of his media campaign in which he boasts of 'enduring freedom,' Bush must not forget the image of Mohammed al-Dura and his fellow Muslims in Palestine and Iraq. If he has forgotten, then we will not forget, God willing."

But almost since the day of the episode evidence emerged to prove that the official version of the Mohammed al-Dura story is not true. It now appears that the boy cannot have died in the way reported by most of the world's media and fervently believed throughout the Islamic world. Whatever happened to him, he was not shot by the Israeli soldiers who were known to be involved in the day's fighting. The photo was staged, part of a coordinated fraud.

So too we now know were many photos of supposed Israeli atrocities. The camera didn't lie but the cameraman did.

A Film Unfinished is a fitting title for a movie whose message is meant to remind us that there are still many with us today whose mission is to pervert truth by distorting images. If Yael Hersonski has made us more aware of the need to distrust the purveyors of propaganda who want us to believe everything we think we see, she has amply succeeded.

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