While making a documentary on an infamous Nazi propaganda film shot in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, Israeli director Yael Hersonski invited five Holocaust survivors to view the silent archival footage.
Now in their 80s, the former Warsaw residents watched with a curious mixture of horror and nostalgia.
“They were terrified and appalled by the images, but they also had this feeling of longing for the place where they grew up and the people they knew there,” said Hersonski, whose grandmother was one of the few ghetto survivors.
More than 400,000 Jews were initially crammed into the tiny walled section of the Polish city. Many died from disease or starvation, while most others were later murdered in concentration camps.
Survivors’ memories provide some of the most powerful moments in “A Film Unfinished,” Hersonski’s fascinating examination of the propaganda footage. Though the Nazi film was never completed, clips have been shown extensively over the years. As Hersonski learned, however, some of the scenes were staged and the exact purpose of the project is veiled in mystery.
I spoke to the 34-year-old director at the New York headquarters of Oscilloscope Laboratories, which is releasing the film tomorrow in New York and Aug. 27 in Los Angeles.
Warner: What got you interested in this subject?
Hersonski: This marked the beginning of the systematic documentation of one of the greatest horrors in history. We see people who are about to be executed in three months being used as actors and extras to help the Nazis construct their own narrative.
Warner: The film shows extremes of Jewish life in the ghetto. We see people starving and dead bodies lying on the sidewalk, but we also see a staged scene where Jews are eating this fancy dinner. What were the Nazis trying to accomplish?
Hersonski: Four days before the filming began, the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, wrote in his diary that it was important to make as many films as possible for the education of the next generation of the Third Reich. I think they wanted to present a snapshot of Jewish daily life that showed the corrupt, immoral upper classes exploiting the poor and somehow leading to the atrocities.
Warner: Your film includes outtakes that were discovered by a British researcher in 1998 that clearly show scenes being staged. What is the significance of that footage?
Hersonski: This is what evil is all about. We see children who are obviously starving being forced to look at meat in a store window. I think they shot it seven different times. This is truly atrocious.
Warner: Some of the Jews look healthy and well fed. Was that all propaganda or were there really some people in the ghetto who were allowed to keep their money and possessions?
Hersonski: I’m sure that money prolonged life, and that some had more than others. Some Nazis accepted bribes to look the other way. I’m sure food was smuggled in because, if they had to survive on what the Nazis allowed, people would have died much sooner.
Warner: The Nazis kept meticulous records, but almost nothing about this film has been found. Was this accidental or intentional?
Hersonski: Ninety percent of the Nazi films and records were destroyed during the last days of the war, either by bombs or the Nazis themselves.
Warner: You did learn the name of one of the cameramen. What happened to him?
Hersonski: He died in 1999, but we tracked down his sons. They were very kind and generous. They invited us to their homes and showed us their family albums. We could see for the first time what their father looked like in his uniform with his camera.
Warner: Your movie was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. How did the Germans react?
Hersonski: It was well received, but people were shocked. I think they needed time to digest it.
Warner: One of the lessons here is how easy it is to manipulate images. Isn’t that particularly relevant in our digital Photoshop age?
Hersonski: Definitely. It’s so easy to manipulate images today. It’s very important that we recognize the difference between what’s real and what’s made up.
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)