Review: A Film Unfinished DVD

STUDIO: Oscilloscope | DIRECTOR: Yael Hersonski
RELEASE DATE: 3/8/11 | PRICE: DVD $29.99
BONUSES: Billy Wilder’s short Death Mill, interviews, study guide
NR | 90 min. | Documentary | 1.78:1 widescreen | Digital stereo

RATINGS (out of 5): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

A Film Unfinished movie scene

The truth behind footage from the Warsaw Ghetto comes into question in A Film Unfinished.

The fascinating documentary A Film Unfinished has an equally intriguing history.

In May, 1942, a film crew of Nazi soldiers shot soundless footage of street scenes in the Warsaw Ghetto. Some of the images are flattering, showing women and men in stylish clothing enjoying Champagne; other scenes show the results of famine and torture, often side-by-side with the elegant shots.

The editing was unflinching and raw and appeared to tell the story of Jewish life in the cordoned-off ghetto of the time, such as it was. The hour-long 35mm footage was labeled “Das Ghetto” then placed in an East German film archive, where it presumably would be considered a useful resource for historians seeking first-hand looks at the Ghetto. And then, in 1998, came the twist…

A missing reel of the film was discovered containing different takes of the same film, filled with footage of Nazi cameramen directing the scenes and thereby changing the intention of the footage, now known to be largely fictionalized. But to what purpose? Why show well-fed, well-dress Jewish ghetto inhabitants stepping over dead bodies? And why was the film never finished?

In attempting to solve the mystery, A Film Unfinished‘s director Yael Hersonski explores what he describes as the “many layers of reality” behind the footage. He examines the film reel by reel, along with enlisting survivors of the ghetto to view the footage and make comments, all of them shocking and revealing. Hersonski also tracks down one of the Nazi cameramen who is willing to sit for an interview to recall why various sequences were shot.

It’s intense and difficult viewing — citizens simply fall dead from starvation in the street, in such numbers as they need to be collected with carts — and when you know the Nazis are staging most of this, all of it happening on the eve of mass deportations to Treblinka, you really wonder what they were doing. You might spend a long time wondering.

Among the extras on the DVD are interviews with scholar Michael Berenbaum and Adrian Wod, a British film researcher who was looking for footage that dealt with the 1936 Olympic Games in the fim vault when he discovered the missing film.

Also included is the 1945 short documentary Death Mills, directed by Billy Wilder (Sabrina) and produced by the U.S. Department of War, which includes some of the first footage shot within concentration camps after they were liberated.


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About Buzz

Buzz McClain reviews DVDs for Playboy magazine and is a former critic for Video Business magazine. But what he really wants to do is direct.