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Film Unfinished, A (DVD Review)

5 Mar, 2011 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Street 3/8/11
Box Office $0.3 million
$29.99 DVD
Not rated.

Leave it to German verisimilitude nearly 70 years ago to one-up the current fascination for posting videos of abhorrent human behavior on TV or the Web.

With its cinema at a cultural epoch before Adolph Hitler and his anti-Semitic National Socialist Party drove filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood, it’s not surprising the Nazis would commission a propaganda film (Das Ghetto) aimed at depicting “normalcy” in the Warsaw ghetto — a gated three-square-mile area where 500,000 Polish Jews were forcibly relocated prior to their deportation to concentration camps and the “final solution.”

Or was it the party line? The new documentary A Film Unfinished incorporates a 30-minute abandoned outtake reel found in 1996 to cast troubling new light on Ghetto — which was considered the only visual depiction of Jewish life under Nazi authority upon its discovery in the former East Germany in the 1950s.

Israeli director Yael Hersonski showcases restraint detailing the numerous takes Nazi filmmakers employed in the spring of 1942, oddly interweaving staged street scenes and dinner parties with images of abject despair, hunger, human degradation and even death.

With voiceovers read from ghetto commissioner Heinz Auserwald’s detailed notes and the personal diary of local Jewish Council leader Adam Cherniakov, Hersonski methodically exposes the exacting detail Nazi filmmakers took to create an illusion.

Post-war testimony from Willie Wist — the only Nazi cameraman ever publicly linked to the film — adds color but, naturally, little personal responsibility. Additional context is perhaps best provided by the facial expressions from five ghetto survivors Hersonski brings in to watch the reels. To what end Das Ghetto was originally made for remains largely a mystery — even to them.

Among the bonus material is a disturbing news reel created by the U.S. War Department (and directed by Wilder) intended to show German citizens the horrors committed at the concentration camps. Viewer discretion is advised.

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