By Brian Lafferty
September 28, 2010 (San Diego)--Playing until Friday at the Ken Cinema is A Film Unfinished. The title refers to an uncompleted Nazi propaganda film shot in the Warsaw Ghetto in the early 1940s. The majority of the movie consists of footage from the propaganda film. Director Yael Hersonski isn’t content to just show the film. Behind each shot is a story and the narrator goes into deep, articulative, and informative detail into each of them. Diaries from the overseer of the Ghetto and letters from one of the filmmakers are read.
In addition, we are not the only ones viewing the footage. Hersonski tracked down several people who lived in the Ghetto during that time and throughout the movie these brave souls watch and remember in stark detail the people they see in the film and the atrocities they experienced firsthand. They often have difficulty describing the lengths the filmmakers went to ensure “accuracy.”
In one sequence, the Nazis force the people to put on and watch a community play. The people were forced to sit and watch for the entire day without a single bathroom break. When they were ordered to laugh, they had to laugh loud and hard or they would be executed. The actors had to overact, the audience had to look happy and shout bravo and applaud at everything.
Many of the images are disturbing but not in the graphic sense. At one point, we are shown dead bodies lying on the sidewalk while passersby are forced by the filmmakers to walk past them with their heads held high. Many of the people are emaciated. Even simple shots of Jews with shaved heads and with their faces wearing blank expressions are powerful and at the same time depressing and hard to watch.
As hard to take as these shots are, the filmmakers (I’m referring to the Nazis) give them a poetic feel. There is a calmness to them. The filmmakers didn’t just roll their cameras. They managed to capture the essence of these people’s lives and their surroundings. The footage is constructed in a way that gives even the most mundane moments a certain memorability and power.
It is an aggressively depressing documentary but it doesn’t resort to injecting nihilism. I left the theater feeling like I was hit with a truckload of bricks. Yet, it works for two reasons: the victims depicted in this movie have been given dignity and because despite their dire circumstances, they were hopeful for the future, however dour it looked.