At this point, seemingly every angle on World War II and the Holocaust has been explored exhaustively in both narrative films and documentaries, so any movie returning to that well has to have a pretty compelling reason. Yael Hersonski finds one in the incomplete Nazi propaganda film Ghetto, which she explores in her documentary A Film Unfinished. The firsthand footage of the Warsaw ghetto is remarkable and often difficult to watch, as the Nazis filmed both staged scenarios meant to make Jews look callous and reprehensible as well as more honest depictions of the destitution and squalor of the ghetto. Hersonski includes a great deal of raw footage, including alternate takes of some scenes that show how the Nazis manipulated the images to portray the Jews as negatively as possible.
There’s so much suffering on display, in fact, that eventually the effect is just numbing. Because the horrors of the time period have been documented so well, A Film Unfinished doesn’t provide new insights so much as emphasize the awfulness of what we already know about, and that is often more exhausting than illuminating. Still, Hersonski makes interesting points about the way that images can fix our perceptions of reality, even if they are blatantly false. She uses reenactments based on diary entries from the time period and later war-crimes testimony, and these obviously constructed segments add another layer of textual commentary, although they are often distractingly awkward.
Much more affecting are the scenes of actual Warsaw ghetto survivors watching the footage in the present day, reacting with surprise and sadness to what they see. Moviegoers have witnessed dozens of depictions of these events over the years, but here we can see what it’s like to view them with the eyes of real experience.