A.J. Goldmann: A New Film Examines Footage Staged by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto

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[A.J. Goldmann is a writer based in Berlin. His articles on art and culture have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Forward.]

Months before the Warsaw Ghetto was to be liquidated, Joseph Goebbels commissioned a documentary about Ghetto life. The project was never completed, but the surviving raw footage forms the backbone of a new documentary, Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished, which opens in New York and Los Angeles next week and nationwide thereafter.

The footage, shot by German cameramen in April and May of 1942 and stored away for decades in an East German film archive, shows elaborately choreographed scenes of Jewish ritual and practice. Some feature what are supposed to be well-off Jews living alongside (and in a state of indifference to) their starving coreligionists. All the scenes are carefully staged, as we see from the multiple takes. One of the most painful shows well-fed women and starving men reluctantly taking a dip in a mikveh.

The footage itself, which Hersonski, a 33-year-old Tel Aviv native, says has never before been presented as comprehensively, is maddeningly inconclusive. Was it meant to further convince the German public of the Jews’ degeneracy? Was it to be an ethnographic document of a vanished race after the Nazis had solved the Jewish Question? Why was the project shelved? There is no script, no narration—nothing but an hour of silent black-and-white footage.

This is certainly not the Nazi filmmaking we know. It doesn’t trumpet the beauty and purity of the Volk as in Triumph of the Will; nor does it melodramatically stir up hatred, as in Jud Süß....

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