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The Twisted Art of Documentary

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Oscilloscope Laboratories
A scene from A Film Unfinished, Yael Hersonski’s documentary about a 1942 Nazi propaganda film on the Warsaw Ghetto

The discovery, in the late 1990s, of outtakes from Das Ghetto revealed that many scenes in this “documentary” were actually staged. Over and over, neatly dressed Jews are made to walk past emaciated figures dying in the streets. Crowds are shown being violently dispersed by Jewish ghetto police wielding clubs. A plump young woman posing as a waitress in a luxurious restaurant—filled with other carefully selected Jewish extras dancing and eating lavish meals—is filmed standing outside, ignoring a skeletal person begging for a scrap of food. Sleek gentlemen in fur coats are lined up next to people in rags. Men and women, casting terrified looks at the camera, are made to jump up and down naked in a ritual bath.4 The diaries of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Jewish Council, describe how the Nazi film crew staged scenes in his own apartment, with someone impersonating him having meetings with men dressed up as Orthodox Jews.

The footage also contains horrifying scenes that we now know were part of daily life in the ghetto: whimpering children being forced by policemen to shake out a few bits of food from their ragged clothes, emaciated corpses being piled into mass graves. We almost never see any Germans, but it is enough to glimpse the faces of people passing the camera, full of terror and loathing, to know that they are there. As soon as the filming, which took thirty days, was over, Czerniaków was ordered to draw up lists of people to be deported to the camps. Almost none of them survived, including Czerniaków himself, who knew what awaited the Jews in Treblinka and took cyanide.

The question remains why this propaganda film was made, and why it was never finished. Turning one’s own crimes into propaganda is, after all, an eccentric thing to do, even for the Nazis. Perhaps the Germans wanted to convince people that the terrible conditions in “Jewish residential areas” were the fault of the Jews themselves, of their rich and callous leaders, and of their brutal ghetto police. If even the Jews treated their own people like Untermenschen, then the Nazis had the perfect right to remove this blight from the world. Most probably it was something along those lines. But why did they feel the need to make this case? Why did they even wish to show the horrors of the ghetto in the first place?

It may have been part of the systematic humiliation of their victims, before rushing in for the kill. Such humiliation is often the prelude to mass murder: think of the Serbian rape camps in Bosnia, or the horrors visited by Hindus and Muslims upon one another in 1947, or the massacres in China, Cambodia, and Rwanda, among many other places. The desire to degrade people before killing them probably speaks against any notions of inherent “exterminationist” mentalities.5 Rather, it suggests that people have to overcome certain barriers before they can exterminate fellow human beings willingly. First they must destroy their victims’ dignity and reduce them to groveling wrecks, no longer quite human. The film may have been made with that purpose in mind. We know that the Germans treated the Warsaw ghetto as a type of zoo, with special tours laid on for curious visitors, who were permitted to lash out at the wretched denizens with whips for their amusement.6 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto came from all classes and nations. Some had been German citizens. The more the victim resembles the murderer, in culture and background, the greater the need for degradation, hence, possibly, the peculiar cruelty of civil wars.

In any case, one of the great merits of Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished is that she doesn’t press any answers onto the viewer. She doesn’t pretend to know precisely what the Nazis were thinking when they commissioned or made this awful film. What interests her is not to make a particular political or moral statement, even though politics may have inspired a certain line of cinematic inquiry. Hersonski, an Israeli in her thirties, is after something else, which has to do with the nature of cinema, with being a witness, with recording reality, and how it affects filmmakers as well as the audience. In her own words:

What I’m fascinated by is how [the Germans] documented their own evil. That’s fascinating to me because there is this cliché, a truthful one, about filmmaking as an act of observing, like a peeping tom. It’s not voyeurism, but standing there and staring.7

Having grown up with films and photographs of the Holocaust, she fears that we have become numb to the images of horror. She writes: “I mean, we see it as far away, black and white images of history, as dry illustrations, as objective documentation—as allegedly objective documentation—like it got done by itself.” What she demonstrates with great finesse is how subjective our perceptions actually are. She shows the same footage from utterly different points of view: that of the cameraman, Wist, whose recorded testimony is read by an actor (Wist died in 1999), and that of several survivors of the ghetto who are now living in Israel. We watch the survivors watching the film, sometimes covering their eyes when the pictures (or the memories) become too painful. Their comments are mixed with readings from ghetto diaries, including Czerniaków’s.

The cameraman, an owlish-looking man in glasses, whose own image suddenly appears in one of the outtakes of the ghetto streets, as though by accident, does not come across as a deliberate liar, but as a man who lived his life in shocked denial. He was, in his own word, “shattered” by the experience, and tried to distance himself from it as much as he could afterward. Aware of the “terrible conditions” in the ghetto, he claims that he never had any inkling of the ultimate fate awaiting the Jews. They themselves had no idea, he recalls with great conviction, even though his contacts with the Jews can hardly have been intimate. When it comes to Wist’s own complicity in acts of sadism, such as the filming of naked people forced to humiliate themselves and others in the ritual bath, he hides behind technicalities, talking about the difficulty of filming in low light.

The survivors, filmed by Hersonski, mostly stare at the images in numbed silence, afraid, as one of them says, of recognizing her own mother in the crowd. One of the women can’t bear to look at the piles of corpses being dropped into a great hole in the ground, like rubbish in a garbage dump. She explains that when she lived in the ghetto, as a young girl, she grew so used to such things that it hardly affected her anymore, except once, when she tripped over a corpse and found herself with her face pressed against the face of a dead man. The memory of her mother comforting her with the extraordinary luxury of a crust of bread and a speck of jam still brings tears to her eyes. And she cries now when she watches the film. “Today,” she says, “I am human. Today I can cry again. I am so glad that I can cry and I am human.”

And what about us, the viewers who were neither victims nor complicit in the crimes? In some ways, this is the most painful question raised by Hersonski’s film, because there is an element of voyeurism in watching atrocities, whether we like it or not, and yet it is important to be reminded of man’s capacity for inhumanity, and not to forget what happened in the past. I can remember a debate in the German press almost twenty years ago, when an exhibition about the Holocaust was held at a villa in Wannsee, outside Berlin, the very spot where the logistics of genocide had been planned on a cold morning in January 1942 by brandy-drinking Nazi officials. Photographs were displayed on the villa’s walls of cowering women, stripped of their clothes, lined up in front of freshly dug pits in Poland and Lithuania moments before being shot. The pictures were taken by German killers, as mementos, a last humiliation before the murder of their victims.

Should we be watching this now? Should these women be humiliated once again by our gaze? Weren’t we all being turned into Peeping Toms too? It was decided by the organizers of the exhibition that the importance of showing historical evidence, of making sure people didn’t forget, was greater than the dangers of prurience. Hersonski, by making her film, clearly thinks so too. But implicitly, she takes the dilemmas of witnessing horrors further. Seeing what the Nazis did is one thing, but what about watching images of atrocities taking place in our own time? Mass murder and torture can now be seen in photography exhibitions, magazines, movies, the Internet, even on the evening news.

Talking about her film, Hersonski made this link with the present quite clear: “What is my ethical position when I’m sitting very comfortably in my living room and seeing whatever is happening a few kilometers from my city in the occupied territories?” Her point is not that Gaza is like the Warsaw ghetto and she does not suggest that Israeli behavior can be compared to Nazi mass murder. The question is how we respond to images of human suffering, especially if we can be held in some way responsible:

Then what do you do as a witness? It’s a terrible question—it’s a haunting, torturing question. It’s our essential question. I think that it was also a major reason why I made this film—because the Holocaust not only confronted humanity with an inconceivable horror but it also did mark the very beginning of the systematic implementation on film of that horror.

Hersonski believes that the bombardment of photographic images has numbed us. Others have thought this, and then changed their minds.8 It was not a problem that occurred to the makers of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today. Filmed atrocities were still too fresh, too shocking. Perhaps this also explains why the Nazis refused to finish Das Ghetto. German audiences might have been so horrified by the images of Jewish suffering that the propaganda message, whatever it was, would have got lost. One hopes that this would have been the case. The impact of A Film Unfinished is surely sufficient proof that, even in our media-saturated age, filmed images can still move our feelings, if not necessarily create a better world.

  1. 4

    A new book by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (Yale University Press, 2009), reviewed in these pages by Timothy Snyder, September 30, 2010, reveals that the humiliation was carried even further: the petrified men and women were also forced to have sex. 

  2. 5

    The phrase was coined by Daniel Goldhagen in his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Knopf, 1996). 

  3. 6

    See Engelking and Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto

  4. 7

    See her interview, “How Yael Hersonski Finished ‘A Film Unfinished,’” Clyde Fitch Report, September 6, 2010. 

  5. 8

    See Susan Sontag’s On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). 

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