Interview with director of A Film Unfinished

By Sala Levin

A Film Unfinished, a new documentary from Israeli director Yael Hersonski, is composed mostly of images you’ve likely already seen.  Many of the scenes here–children forced by Nazis to give up the potatoes they’ve attempted to smuggle into the ghetto; emaciated corpses lying abandoned in alleyways; the sheer mass of people trying to make their way through unbearably overcrowded streets–have been widely used in Holocaust films.  But A Film Unfinished adds another dimension to these familiar images of life in the Warsaw ghetto: other, lesser-known scenes, in which well-dressed people attend elaborate dinner parties and go dancing in spacious halls.  Footage discovered in 1998 revealed that these scenes of upper-class life, and even some scenes of allegedly more-typical daily life in the ghetto, were staged by the Nazis, some of them filmed multiple times, from various angles.  In A Film Unfinished, Hersonski asks: what were the filmmakers trying to achieve with this manipulated juxtaposition of prosperity and poverty?  Moment sat down with Hersonski to talk about the film.

How did this project come to you?

I always felt that the footage from that time was not used as it should have been—that it had much more of a testimonial value that one should examine.  I had a feeling that now, thinking of a time when no witness will be left to remember, and we will be left only with this footage, it’s much more urgent to try and understand the nature of it.

I spoke to one of the most experienced producers in Israel and she had just finished this vast archival project at Yad Vashem [Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum], so she knew what existed inside the film archive [there].  She gave me a list of films I should watch, and among them was the Warsaw ghetto footage. It’s such a known film among film archivists that every Holocaust memorial museum has it—it’s accessible.  What was so amazing when I saw it for the first time was not only the intensity of the images, but also the fact that some of the images I knew before because I had seen them in so many films.

It’s interesting that you say that, because I was watching the film with my mother, and she kept saying, “I feel like I’ve seen these images before.”

It’s interesting to hear that people are not even sure [if they’ve seen the images].  When you see it in the full context the effect is so different that you’re not sure if you’ve seen it before or not.

There are five survivors in the film who are seen watching, reacting to, and commenting on the Warsaw ghetto footage.  I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about them.  How did you find them?

In Israel we have Yad Vashem, and every ghetto has its own organization of survivors. So we had names of people, many of whom had died already, and we called all the rest.  I was speaking with them to try to understand whether they remembered this specific film-making.  It was important to me not to have them talking about cameramen they saw somewhere [in the ghetto], but about this film.

My expectations were not to find more than maybe two people [who remembered the filming and were willing to talk about it], because this film is of the most horrific time of the ghetto. The ghetto had already existed for two and a half years, and this was the last stage.  It was more or less two months before they started to send 70 percent of the people to the gas chambers in Treblinka.  So [the film] was [shot] at the very last moment of the ghetto in its most crowded form.

I found more than [the five survivors who are featured in the film] but there were ones who were hesitating about whether they should watch it at all. It’s a physical experience for them, and its not still photography—it’s a moving image, and I totally understood that it’s not something that everyone should [watch]. Those who were filmed were the ones who really felt urgency to have the final word over these silent images. Everyone has his own story, but the ones who were [filmed] had the ability to make the viewer much closer to this reality.

Why is there so little of the survivors’ personal stories in the film?  We don’t even know their names until the end credits.

I felt that their stories are not part of the testimony of this film. [All of the survivors] understood that what they’re trying to do here is to construct a new soundtrack to the images, which will open the frame to a much wider landscape and will permit us the ability to watch what’s outside the frame. And I didn’t want to make a film about the horror of the ghetto, because it’s already been done.  You can’t tell all of those stories. I wanted to focus on one story, and the story I was focusing on is certainly the story of the film-making.  Telling the stories of the witnesses would have been a distracting element, and it would have been much harder to talk about the film-making, because what is the film-making when you compare it to their lives?

The movie’s been given an “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America.

Yes, and we tried to appeal it.

But it was an unsuccessful appeal.  Did you ever consider taking out any of the more graphic footage to get a different rating?

Never.  I’m not going to change anything of the film’s truth to make it lighter or softer.  That would be historically wrong.  Students who wish to see this film can watch it with their parents.  It’s too bad that they limit high schools.  [Films with “R” ratings are often not allowed to be screened in school classrooms.]  You know, Schindler’s List was rated “R.”  There are films that are much more horrendous that didn’t get “R” ratings; most of this film is about daily life and not mass graves.

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