There are so many ways one could create a documentary about this topic—and director Yael Hersonski attempts most of them.
The raw material of A Film Unfinished is itself raw material: Multiple reels of long-buried footage from a planned but never completed Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw Jewish ghetto in pre-liquidation spring 1942. Hersonski does indeed show us the footage itself. She also films ghetto survivors watching the footage, providing context for the images. She provides narrated excerpts from diaries of the survivors, including a Jewish administrator of the ghetto. She tracks down transcripts from the war-crimes trial one of the original German cameramen. She even gives the whole thing a vaguely experimental air by including images of the film reels being added to and removed from the projector. In short, we get practically everything short of animation and 3-D
The footage itself is at times irresistibly compelling—an inexplicable juxtaposition of emaciated street urchins and abandoned corpses with staged footage (occasionally involving multiple takes) suggesting life in the ghetto wasn’t really so terrible after all. There’s a fascinating question at the center of this project: What the hell were the Nazis thinking when they commissioned this work? Who was the intended audience, and to what end?
But Hersonski’s deeply fragmented approach suggests that she’s too overwhelmed by what’s contained in these reels to ask why it’s there. It’s a generous gesture giving Jewish survivors plenty of time to speak. But in her compassion for those portrayed in the film, the director buries the lead.
“You Missed It” spotlights films now available on DVD that were not released theatrically in Utah. The SLC Film Center presents a free screening of A Film Unfinished tonight (May 3) at 7 p.m. at the downtown Salt Lake City Main Library (210 E. 400 South).