Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Film Unfinished, or how to stage sickening propaganda

We can all agree that Nazi's are damn evil.  That's the kind of fact like 'the sky is blue' or 'a clock is right twice a day.'  For a period of twelve years they came, they saw, and made a mess of the world, certainly not least of which for Jews.  Documentaries have come and gone over the years about the Nazi atrocities during the war, some more harrowing and sticking-in-the-mind than others (Resnais Night & Fog being the go-to example as the first to show the horrors).  But it's always valuable and important to discover things not known before, and in this case Yael Hersonski's documentary on the 1942 Warsaw Ghetto footage is so harrowing to watch because she doesn't do much except let the film clips - and some useful narration from survivors and a diary from the Warsaw Ghetto circa May 1942 - speak the volumes they need to.

The footage, originally found as titled "The Ghetto", was considered to be the most concise and complete footage of what life was like in the ghetto.  But little clues in the film reels, and a whole lot of outtakes, reveal that it was shot as propaganda material, staged "scenes" and set-pieces with the Jews as have-no-choice players.  The SS ordered a camera crew (the cinematographer, Willy Wist, is interviewed in the film and is the only surviving cameraman from the crew) to go into the Ghetto and shoot with small groups and sometimes larger ones for what life in the Ghetto was "really" like to show to Gentiles who weren't quite sure what was going on with the "Jewish Problem" at the time.  More than that, not perhaps but definitely thinking in the long term, it was seen as a way to show the future Aryan race what these horrible Jews were like.  Or, conversely, that this Ghetto-life wasn't so shabby after all...

Staged scene of reverie and dancing
Barely a moment, it seems, by testimony of the survivors that the director has in the screening room watching the silent black-and-white footage, was truly natural as "objective" footage like that of Night & Fog.  This could be evidenced simply by the outtakes, where shots seemingly as simple as a woman walking into a food shop to buy some "goose" (really horse meat) takes a few takes to get just "right" somehow.  But it's more than that; one can see the pain on the faces, hiding only so much the fact that to the side of them were guards ready to fire on command if they didn't do exactly as they were told.  Most egregiously it would appear that the SS had the Jews that weren't quite starving to death put in nice clothes and acting out scenes where they were in a fairly nice apartment with several rooms and flowers having a wonderful meal.  One of the survivors comments, "Who had flowers in the ghetto?  We would've eaten a flower!"

But how did they deal with the hordes of people starving, begging, living just barely in the meager conditions set in the Warsaw Ghetto?  Contrast, naturally: have the more well-off Jews stroll by the beggars without giving them a cent.  Wist is up front with how he was given the orders - sometimes, he notes in a shockingly pragmatic manner in retrospect, without regard to how the 'scenes' would be lit - and basically made most times a kind of neo-realist effort.  That is if the neo-realists took un-reality to a sick dimension and without the point in the artistry.  In perhaps the most shocking scene we're shown the abject humiliation of a group of several emaciated Jewish men put into a large bath, and then a group of several not-so-emaciated women put into the same bath.  That this was even considered to be shown to the public, any public, boggles the mind like little else.

To be sure Hersonski gets to the footage of all the dead bodies and them being rounded up and buried (which, as dutifully as anything else, were shot by the camera crew).  But her point isn't to shock with the corpses, which one can get well enough in a short documentary form by Resnais.  What's so disturbing in A Film Unfinished is the lengths to which the Nazis took to creating artefice by torture.  Some moments shown seem so clear to tell as being staged like the Jewish audience for the song-and-dance show (narration telling us that they sat there for hours without food or lavatory).  But others are trickier, such as dozens of Jews running in the streets from something or other, it really being guns fired off, to show... how panicky they could be(?)  Most heartbreaking of all is to hear the one survivor tell the tale of being ordered to not look at corpses on the ground (at least as filming was in progress), and how one day she just tripped and fell face to face with one and it finally hit her how doomed she was.

This year documentaries have had an unintentional streak of dealing with reality vs. fantasy, and more specifically how media itself becomes like another character, from the matter of artistic hype (Exit Through the Gift Shop) to the powerful danger of social networking (Catfish) to faux-real-celebrity (I'm Still Here).  A Film Unfinished has a kinship to those documentaries, but is dead serious about its intentions.  This isn't a film that fucks with its audience about 'is it real or not?'  The film cans, unearthed and scratchy and worn by age, fucks with the viewer well enough on its own.  I'm reminded of the French critic Andre Bazin's observation about how almost every film is in its own way a documentary (i.e. Laurence Olivier's Hamlet is about how Olivier acts out Hamlet as much as it is "Hamlet").  

One sees this twist in how image is used to distort reality with the footage shot by Wist and his crew, how terrified the people are on screen, and forced by point of (more immediate) death to do what they're told for the sake of the camera lens.  One of the survivors at one point asks point blank, "They wanted to show contrasts - who cares?  Sure there were contrasts, we weren't always miserable, but we had to stay alive and keep our dignity."  This may be true, but the footage shot by the Nazis goes to such extremes to point to deconstruction of a people - through ritual (circumcision, praying), through class differences ("rich" vs "poor") and as general low-as-life - that there's little else like it in film history.  It's a documentary about a "fiction" made out of a documentary done in the gravest of circumstances.  What Hersonski provides the world is miraculous.  

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