How Yael Hersonski Finished ‘A Film Unfinished’

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Reels of footage from May 1942 of the grisly, ghastly, gasp-inducing Warsaw ghetto — the minuscule zone of the Polish city in which more than 400,000 Jews were herded during World War II as the demonic “Final Solution” of the Nazis began to take shape — have been known to researchers for years.

For filmmaker Yael Hersonski, however, what was equally revelatory and inspiring was a reel, long forgotten but discovered in 1998, that contains multiple “takes” of shots seen in the ghetto footage, plus shots of cameramen “staging” those scenes, over and over and over.

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In other words, the supposedly anthropological act of documenting the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis was, in fact, Reich propaganda. This leads to a suite of questions, some of which Hersonski decided to ask as she put together a documentary about the documentary footage — and the footage that showed what wasn’t documentary footage at all.

For example, who were the cameramen who shot the footage — especially the one in particular who so briefly steps before the camera? What did they know and when and how did they know it? What did they think? By what moral code could they undertake such a task?

And, in my view, there is another question: Were those filmmakers war criminals? Look at the image up above. Look at the man on the left. Was he just doing a job or was he, in fact, enabling the horror of the Holocaust to unfold?

A Film Unfinished, which achieved tremendous buzz at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the award for World Cinema Documentary Editing, is a meticulously layered exploration of the footage, the footage of the footage, and of several other aspects that are startling in their simplicity, humanity and originality. First, and most memorably, Hersonski located survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and ultimately invited five of them, all now in their 80s, to sit in a movie theater and watch the footage of the ghetto as well as the outtakes — filming them as they watched as the Nazis deliberately, and with typical malice, blur the lines between reality and fiction. Interspersed with these filmed glimpses is testimony by Willy Wist — the cameraman in question, who died in 1999 — as reenacted by a familiar and convincing German actor. Interspersed with that are voiced-over narratives culled from the personal diaries of Adam Cherniakov, who was the head of the ghetto’s Jewish council, and Heinz Auerswald, who was the commissioner of the ghetto. What is so astonishing here is the balance, the ability of Hersonski to let the elements all speak for themselves, to allow the camera to deliver the information, as opposed to the director overlaying an agenda. It’s a remarkably bracing film — and, yes, it does contain the ghetto footage in its entirely, just interspersed as described.

There’s also another question here — posed as part of the press materials — that proves to be almost more salient than all the rest: “How could an image, shot from the point of view of the perpetrator, truly reflect the reality of its victim?”

A Film Unfinished is playing is theaters around the country and around the world. Click on the link to find a location near you.

The Clyde Fitch Report: I’ve seen A Film Unfinished twice now and one question really gnaw at me: How was the cameraman finally identified? How do you coax him to get on camera?

Yael Hersonski: Willy Wist died in 1999, so I decided to reenact the scene of the interrogations with him. Even to call it “reenacting” isn’t accurate: we took two German actors, one of whom is famous in Germany, and decided to just have him deliver the text because Willy Wist’s was a rare testimony, and were made by exactly the cameraman who shot in the images we see in the film. It’s one to one. In other words, I didn’t to miss the opportunity to emphasize the existence of this kind of testimony. Also, it helped me with visual breaks. This way, I didn’t have to show the Warsaw Ghetto footage all at once, because all at once I think it’s unwatchable. Instead, I enabled the viewer a fresh gaze during the 89 minutes of the film by creating visual pauses from which you can return to the footage.

CFR: So if that was the actual cameraman, Willy Wist, could you have been in a room with him?

YH: Certainly.

CFR: Do you think he was a war criminal?

YH: I don’t think I’m qualified to answer. I can tell you that the system did not perceive propaganda filmmakers as war criminals and cameramen, reporters, filmmakers were not put on trial for being Nazi propagandists. You know, it was a whole nation involved in this war, so it’s historical — it was a point in time in which you really have to understand how the system couldn’t deal with a massive quantity of people involved with the crimes and the nature of the genocide. How can you squeeze all of that into judicial terms?

CFR: Still, the human part of you wants to say, “You were there” and therefore, “You are guilty.”

YH: But I’m asking myself a different question. I’m asking myself: What is my ethical position when I’m sitting very comfortably in my living room and seeing whatever is happening a few kilometers from my city in the occupied territories?

CFR: What is the answer to that?

Yael Hersonski
YH: I don’t have an answer. What can I do? No, it’s not a rhetorical question. I’m seeing this and other events unfold — I’m watching it, I know about it, I know it’s there. I’m not talking about politics right now, by the way, just images of people suffering. And, as the images of people suffering in my own country go, you become a witness. Then what do you do as a witness? It’s a terrible question — it’s a haunting, torturing question. It’s our essential question. I think that it was also a major reason why I made this film — because the Holocaust not only confronted humanity with an inconceivable horror but it also did mark the very beginning of the systematic implementation on film of that horror. And I think that something changed in our perception — I don’t know even how to define this something — after we saw images from the camps, something that we hadn’t witnessed before. It seems that documentation became more technically advanced, more massive, since then. Well, as long as this bombardment of images becomes more intense, we will become more and more incapable of really seeing suffering, or war.

CFR: Do you think we’re numb to it?

YH: I’m sure that we’re numb.

CFR: What do we do about it?

YH: I don’t know. But I want to raise the question because we are numb, also, my own generation in Israel. I had a feeling before I made this film that my own generation, the third generation of Holocaust survivors, were so intensely watching these documentaries with the same footage every year and feeling that we don’t care to look at them anymore. I mean, we see it as a far away, black and white images of history, as dry illustrations, as objective documentation — as allegedly objective documentation — like it got done by itself.

CFR: Like we forget there’s something behind the camera shooting this?

YH: Exactly. When you understand that, when you understand the specificity of the filmmaking — when you understand there’s a moment that the cameraman stood behind the camera and someone stood before him and felt something — then the specificity of this moment you can identify with. You cannot identify with the Holocaust, as such. Titles and clichés are tools — educational tools — that distance me from the historical event. Not only distance me but cause me a certain blindness.

CFR: You also have five Holocaust survivors on film watching the film. That’s the last living link to that history — they were there. Like when you see the young man doing that dance and one of the survivors knows his name — “oh, that’s Rubinstein,” she says — and she even knows what he’s singing as he dances, something about how everyone is equal.

YH: That was the first time someone ever identified real people in that footage. This is the main task of Yad Vashem — to look at the footage, to identify people in it in order to let their families know of them. Now, this footage of the Warsaw ghetto is maybe one of the most known Holocaust footage that exists. It was such an amazing experience. We knew that something very important was happening.

CFR: It was real — the footage.

YH: Absolutely. As a filmmaker, I hope this is only the beginning. I really think I’m not even starting to understanding the power of the image.

CFR: Is there footage of the survivors watching the ghetto film that you chose not to use for reasons that were personal to the survivors?

YH: No.

CFR: I’m asking because I was so struck by the survivors’ reaction to the images of bodies being picked up and dumped into mass graves.

YH: Yes, they all reacted very strongly to that.

CFR: How did you find the survivors in the first place?

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YH: Yad Vashem has lists of Holocaust survivors and I think we called everyone who’s alive and among them on the list. More than five people remembered the filmmaking but not all were sure they wanted to experience the screening. Even if they hesitated, even if they weren’t completely sure about it, I preferred not to invite them because I felt that I cannot take the responsibility of what might happen to them — they’re all over 80 years old. I didn’t want to exhaust them. I didn’t want to torture them.

CFR: What do you think the five survivors got out of watching the film?

YH: It was an opportunity to see the place where they were born on film more than the experience of being shocked or appalled. There were moments in which they smiled. For me, those were the best moments because it showed me how each viewing is never about one line or narrative; it’s always something more complex. There were positive as well as negative emotions — a full human experience of living there, being there, knowing this place and now having the incredible opportunity to see it from such a different angle after 70 years.

CFR: Have you been to Warsaw?

YH: Yes. My first time time in Warsaw was a shock — the encounter with contemporary Warsaw. I couldn’t recognize it. The relation between film and reality is sometimes strange.

CFR: Do you have a viewpoint on the German character?

YH: No. I don’t have a viewpoint. I don’t like generalization and I think this film makes a point against generalizations, both in terms of the Holocaust and in terms of the German nation. I think people exist in this world and we should think about our reality in terms of human contact, not in terms of the big headlines.

CFR: Here’s why I ask: I don’t understand what there was, or what there is, in the German character that allowed the Third Reich and the Holocaust to happen. I can look at history and I can look at the German depression of the 1920s and the World War I reparations and so forth as the root causes — these things we know. I’m talking about something deeper: How does a nation become so compliant and complicit?

YH: It remains an open question.

CFR: Or, not to put too fine a point on it, you’re looking at this footage of the Warsaw ghetto and you see German police hitting men and women, hurting them, not regarding them, as we know, as human being. How could they do that?

YH: I can’t explain it. What I’m fascinated by is how they documented their own evil. That’s fascinating to be because there is this cliché, a truthful one, about filmmaking as an act of observing, like a peeping tom. It’s not voyeurism, but standing there and staring.

CFR: It’s an act of anthropology.

YH: Anthropology, documentation, as well as just curiosity. You have to understand that the ghetto was a sealed area: the signs indicated that inside there was sickness and death. It was mysterious; it was something that aroused great curiosity. I remember once I read a monologue written by a still photographer. He said he knew he was risking his life by just entering there because he thought he was going to get a disease and die. But his curiosity was so immense that it exceeded his fear that he would get a disease and die. He wanted to be in very perverse contact with what was happening. So this cameraman, Willy Wist, was sent there, and I believe him when he says he had no idea what he was about to see. I don’t know if I believe him when he says he knew nothing about what happened inside the ghetto until after the war ended. But shooting the film was his mission. People got inside because they were curious. I don’t know if they really understood what they were seeing — the size of the catastrophe.

CFR: Wist might have been a little disingenuous about his feelings.

YH: The way Wist described his own feeling when he said it was really difficult for them to shoot in the ritual bath comes very close to what maybe they experienced. There was a moment of being open emotionally to confessing something — then he said their trouble was because lighting conditions weren’t good. At that point, I understood something: the technique of filmmaking enabled all of the cameramen to hide behind this mask, to not become attached emotionally to whatever was going on. That’s easier: if Wist became emotionally attached, he would have faced a big problem just being there.

CFR: If you could have met Willy Wist, what would you have asked him?

YH: It’s an incredible story because when I started, research experts and archivists said, “You came too late. You’re wasting your time because everyone is dead now and you’ll have nothing new to tell.” If Willy Wist were alive today, I don’t think we could have found him because he didn’t want to anyone to ask him any questions. After he died, his sons — two sons — were as if released from his presence and could feel more empathy. And when we called them — we found their phone numbers in the German white pages — they were so kind and so generous and they invited us to their home. We saw for the first time their family album. And we saw, for the first time, Willy Wiss, the cameraman who enters the frame at one point in the film — I could identify him as Willy Wist. It was a one in a million chance that would happen.

  • Jen

    Everything was Reich propaganda. It doesnt surprise me that they would stage and restage something until it looked right. This was all Goebbels. He was a perfectionist taskmaster and H*tler’s lackey. Great article Mr. Fitch!

  • It’s not just the staging of “documentary” footage by German propagandists at the time, it was also the use of appropriated film. Another (finished) documentary, Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) lifted footage from the Yiddish and Polish language film Der Purimspieler (notably, a drunken Purim celebration) and misrepresented it documentary footage.