“A Film Unfinished” may not be the strangest making-of documentary you’ve ever seen. It may, however, be the most affecting.
The film that Israeli director Yael Hersonski takes as her subject is also a documentary, of sorts. It’s an hourlong rough cut of a silent Nazi propaganda film, shot over 30 days in May 1942 inside Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and titled simply “The Ghetto.”
“A Film Unfinished” doesn’t so much finish “The Ghetto” as it does place the earlier movie in its proper context, incorporating long-missing outtakes that reveal staging of scenes that were once thought to be authentic by many historians.
But revealing the secrets hidden in the raw footage is not Hersonski’s most powerful weapon. Like the filmmakers behind “The Ghetto,” she, too, uses staging, in this case filming an actor in the role of Willy Wist, the only cameraman who worked on “The Ghetto” to have been identified by name.
In the years following World War II, Wist testified at the war crimes trial of the officer responsible for liquidating the Warsaw ghetto and its half-million inhabitants. Hersonski uses Wist’s actual testimony in that trial – part equivocation, part wrenching honesty – to underscore the bizarre contrasts in the Nazi film.
Hersonski, powerfully, also films a series of contemporary Polish “witnesses” – now-elderly survivors of the ghetto, who were kids in 1942 – as they watch the Nazi film today. She doesn’t show us what they’re looking at, just their faces.
In the end, “A Film Unfinished” doesn’t really need to add anything to “The Ghetto” to put the final touches to it. The eyes of those whom Wist and his crew filmed – alternately hollow, haunted and horrified at being made complicit in their own character assassination – speak most loudly of all.