It was just after World War II and I wasn’t prepared for what I saw -- the evidence that remained of the slaughter of 3 million human beings: human hair, shoes, suitcases, ashes and bone fragments. The Nazis had left it there when they fled in haste as the Russians swept into the camp in the last days of the war. I was shocked and enraged.
I wrote to my mother about the experience and she wrote back: “I’m not worried about what your hatred of the Germans will do to them. I am worried about what it could do to you.”
What makes “A Film Unfinished” so remarkable is how dispassionately the film maker handled her task. There’s no rage here. This is an unemotional, objective presentation of what the young Israeli woman, Yael Hersonski, found in the archives of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel.
In the spring of 1942, the Nazis shot a propaganda film in the ghetto of Warsaw, a part of the city the Nazis walled off after they conquered Poland. Here, hundreds of thousands of Jews were contained until they were shipped to the Treblinka camp, where they would be gassed to death.
Exactly what the Nazi propagandists hoped to accomplish through this film is not clear. It was titled simply “The Ghetto” and several cameramen were dispatched from Berlin to shoot it. Many scenes showed well dressed Jewish people passing beggars and starving people in the street. They passed many corpses. The intention apparently was to show that rich Jews didn’t care about the poor.
There were scenes showing the Jews depicted as rich dining in plush restaurants and dancing. In sum, the scenes shot by the German cameramen were phony, pure propaganda -- although the exact purpose was probably lost to history, buried with the crazed brains of Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, and Himmler, administrator of the death camps.
I asked the film maker what the purpose of the film was, as she saw it. She said she didn’t know. There was nothing left behind in the archives of the Nazis. But she found some evidence that the Nazi producers thought, somehow, this work could be used as a teaching tool for future generations.