How to make a film in the Warsaw Ghetto

The New York Times reports on the just finished Sundance Film Festival and highlights the growing fascination with the documentary form. What is truth is always a key question:

Documentaries are hot stuff at festivals like Sundance and sometimes at the art house too, even as the discussion of their relationship to the truth often lags behind. This became clear after watching a lineup of documentaries at Sundance that also included “A Film Unfinished,” an investigation into an incomplete Nazi propaganda movie that’s sometimes mistakenly labeled a documentary, and which was shot in the Warsaw ghetto in May 1942, the year before the uprising. The director Yael Hersonski, using generous clips from the Nazi movie and excerpts from diaries written by ghetto inhabitants, illustrates how the original footage was carefully staged, as evident by multiple takes of some scenes. In one section a healthy-looking woman walks past two pitiful waifs with apparent indifference, and then she does so again.

Over the decades excerpts from this and other similar ghetto movies have been used in well-intended documentaries about the Holocaust, which invests them with a level of factuality they cannot support. These images don’t reveal the whole reality of Jewish life in the ghetto during the war; they show how the Nazi propaganda machine wanted Jewish life to be immortalized. As the historian Lucy Dawidowicz once pointed out about a 1960s British film that used such visuals, there were no Nazi films about the secret ghetto schools, libraries and political organizations and none about the “valiant men and women, boys and girls” who fought in the uprising.

Ms. Hersonski’s documentary demolishes the truth claims of those Nazi images. To an extent, it is the ineluctable weight of the Holocaust that allows her to engage such questions at all. The issue of truth, unless Michael Moore is in the vicinity, is often left off the table when it comes to discussions about documentary cinema, perhaps because critics don’t have the time, resources or inclination for the requisite fact-checking or because the issue is at odds with our postmodern age, in which the truth is said to be conditional. Part of what is so gratifying about “A Film Unfinished,” which is often painful to watch, is its ethical insistence that there are true things in the world, and that it is necessary for us to know them.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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