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A new film examines footage staged by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto

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A still from A Film Unfinished. (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

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.

For Hersonski, the key challenge was to find an appropriate way to package the four 35mm reels of archival material. “[Hersonski’s cameraman] spent most of his time thinking about how we could create something that will not harm the image and will allow the image to stay all the time foregrounded,” she said at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, where the documentary had its European premiere. The film had its U.S. premiere at Sundance in January, where it was awarded the festival’s World Cinema Documentary Editing Award.

Intercut with the original footage are interviews with Ghetto survivors located by Hersonski—four women and one man—who were children when the Nazis came with their cameras. “Although it was the largest Ghetto in Poland, only a few survivors remained alive after the uprising. And among those few, we succeeded in finding the few who remember the making of this film, which was for me inconceivable,” Hersonski said.

Finding ways to break up the original footage was not without its complications. One solution was to reenact the testimony of a German cameraman. “To my point of view, it’s almost impossible to watch the 62 minutes [of silent footage] without a stop,” the director told a Berlin audience member troubled by the reenactment. “I knew I had to invent a solution to make pauses between the scenes in order to let the viewer refresh his sight.”

And she has succeeded in sculpting an engaging documentary around the footage from the Ghetto. The film is well paced, unhurried, and, in its final minutes, contains a jarring reprieve: recently discovered 16mm color footage of the Ghetto that had been taken by a cameraman in his spare time.

The biggest ethical challenge presented by the material, Hersonski said, was devising a sensitive scheme for its presentation. “I had to show what they did,” she said. Still, some scenes—including a staged circumcision—had to be omitted. “I decided that there are some things that if they will be shown do not add something essential to the film but would just be a matter of bad taste,” she said.

The documentary still contains scenes of nudity and has been given an R rating, a decision that was appealed, unsuccessfully, by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, whose distribution company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, acquired the film in April. “In a world where young people are bombarded with meaningless entertainment, it’s unfortunate that a film with real educational and historic value would be denied to them by an organization that is supposed to be working to help them,” Yauch said after his failed appeal.

Yauch may have been echoing the filmmaker, who, in discussing the film, also focused on the question of media-saturation. “I have the feeling that we are bombarded with images that are taken from many places in the world, including the Middle East, of course. And it is very difficult to consume emotionally what we see,” she said.

For Hersonski, World War II represented a turning point in how atrocities were captured on film. “Something changed in us,” she said. “I wanted to go back to that time and take this footage as a case study in the way we think about what we are seeing documented.”

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.

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The Warsaw Ghetto was created by the Nazis in 1939 or 1940. Jews take pride in the uprising in 1944 after seeing millions already killed and they knew what fate awaited them.

The Poles were as bad as the Nazis but just think how history would have been if the Jews fought from the beginning if only with knives and pots and pans.

Bill Levy

how can i see this documentary in the UK?

Judith says:

Where is the documentary available in Israel?

naomi weinberg radtke says:

I want to know where I can see this film in the San Francisco Bay Area. Do you have any information?
I have been to Warshaw, in the ’60’s, and to Dachau also. Visited Memmigen in Germany, where
my Father, Harry Weinberg, was held prisoner of war as an injured U.S. soldier, by the Germans.

I would very much like to see what really went on in Poland. The Menorah with our fellow Jews pulling
away, gives no impression of what really went on in The Ghetto.

Maria says:

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was in 1943, what Bill Levy mentions was the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 undertaken by the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa)

tillkan says:

It sounds like the stupid Israeli line about there being fancy shopping malls in Gaza.

kol hakavod to yael hersonski says:

I have seen this documentary. It literally took my breath away for two hours. I have been haunted by it ever since. Go and see it, but be warned, it is not for the faint-hearted. Not since watching Night and Fog over fifty years ago, have I been so disturbed.

TheDevilCanDance says:

Interesting that no one is mentioning how some Jews treated other Jews like animals…..Always so easy to blame the Goys for everything.

educated says:

To- The Devil Can Dance: If you re-read the words the director, you will see and understand the’mock staging’ for the camera (by the nazis) of scenes that depict some Jews’treating other Jews badly…the operative word here is MOCK STAGING. The Jews did not treat their less fortunate neighbors badly, as a matter of fact, it is Jewish tradition and a sacred blessing to act with “Roch Manas” (doing good deeds with kindness and generosity) toward others less fortunate than one’s self…whether those people be Gentile, or Jewish.

David2 says:

BIll Levy says “The Poles were as bad as the Nazis.”

History will say that nothing was as bad as the Nazis. To say otherwise is hyperbole.

TheDevilCanDance says:


Yes indeed, the Ghetto police never existed…..

Robin Margolis says:

I am always glad to hear that additional documentation of the Holocaust, like this film, has been discovered. Our peoples’ sufferings should never be forgotten, and every scrap of evidence of their acts of suffering, survival and heroism should be saved.

On the other hand, I was disturbed by the suggestion in the essay and by “educated says” comments suggesting that all Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto helped each other and that the rich Jews did not discriminate against the poor Jews.

Unfortunately, if you will read the memoirs of Warsaw ghetto historian and resistance leader Emmanuel Ringleblum, “Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto,” available as a paperback on, you will see a far different picture.

The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, much to Ringleblum’s indignation, were stratified by class, Warsaw inhabitants differentiated themselves from Jews exiled from the provinces to the Ghetto, etc.

Ringleblum — who was eventually killed by the Nazis — records how some wealthy Jews, sadly, did think of themselves first, and let some of their poorer brethren die in front of them.

He also recorded how each group of Jews struggled to survive, sometimes at the expense of other Jews — ranging from Jewish gangsters who made sure that they themselves were fed, some wealthy Jews serving high in the Jewish Councils of every ghetto who saw that they personally did not starve, Jewish policemen who accepted temporary safety and food as aiders of the Nazis, etc.

Ringleblum fully credited and documented Jews of all social classes and backgrounds who did engage in mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) on behalf of their fellow Jews.

“educated,” I appreciated your desire to defend our fellow Jews, but they were human beings, but it is better to say to people like the “devilcandance” that all of us — Jews and non-Jews — should try to emulate those Jews and Polish gentiles who behaved well, and pray that we ourselves are never put to such a test.

Joanna Bankier says:

The Warsaw ghetto was created by the Nazis in October 1940.

The young Israeli filmmaker, Yael Hersonski, creator of “Unfinished movie,” is understandably uncomfortable with the idea that there might have been differences between rich and poor in pre-war Poland that persisted in the Warsaw ghetto.

But that the old Nazi film footage shows staged scenes of Jewish wealth in the ghetto, does not mean that the Holocaust immediately made existing social differences between Jews disappear; nor that desperate people did not sometimes take to living it out in the face of the horror they have been thrown into.

However survival depended not on money but on chance, and, with a few exceptions, the 200.000 Jews who came back alive from having fled to the the Soviet Unition and the few thousand who survived in hiding among the non-Jewish population, in the end, 3.5 million Jews went to their death in more or less the same manner.

Robin Margolis, above, wisely refers to Ringelblum’s diary as a source of a less distant, mythified view of the destruction of European Jewry.

contact San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: for information where the film is showing

TheDevilCanDance says:

Robin Margolis

Thanks for the feedback.

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Joanne Bankier and DevilCanDance:

Joanne Bankier: Thank you for the additional information. I hope that the film is very successful!

DevilCanDance: You are welcome.

A few misconceptions in the comments section:

Bill Levy:

while it is true that there were Poles who aided the Nazis or profited from the persecution and murder of their Jewish neighbors, and it is true that Polish police and fire brigade units served in support capacity to the German and Ukrainian troops during the siege of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Polish Home Army, the Polish Communist People’s Guard, and unaffiliated partisan groups all entered the battle and attempted to aid the fighters of the ZZW and ZOB (as well as smuggle weapons and open up escape routes.) In fact the Home Army actually entered the Ghetto and fought alongside the ZZW at one point.

Do not say that “the Poles” were as bad as the Germans. It is slander.

When we speak of the class disparities in the Warsaw Ghetto, it is important to remember that while Judenrat made many terrible decisions, they were not necessarily always selfish choices. They did what the leaders of Europe’s Jewish communities had always done when under siege without the ability to fight back: tried to determine what sacrifices had to be made in order to preserve the larger community. They entered into the situation imagining that the Nazis, like their predecessors had the simple goals of humiliation, deportation, enslavement, and extortion: to this end, they would police the Ghetto until the danger had passed– by the time they realized that the true agenda was extermination, it was too late to change strategy. In fact, one of the first things that the ZZW and ZOB had to do was assassinate the Jewish police.

My grandparents were saved by “the Poles”, specifically two colleagues who risked their lives to hide them. Draw your own conclusions.

Jonathan Goldberg says:

Thank god for the last couple of comments.

70 years on in our lovely houses overflowing with food, let us not make any judgements about how people behaved in what was a hell on earth. The Ghetto with 400,000 people was not much bigger than a modern day shopping mall with insufficient food, no heating in that cold Polish winter and so on. 400,000 people and some people did not behave like comic book heroes. Come on. It is not for us to judge.

As for the Poles, that is one big subject and you cannot generalise about a nation.

What worries me is that people will see this film and not realise it was all staged. There are photographs somewhere taken by a German soldier, I think called One day in Hell. These are a much better thing to be distributed.

Jonathan, the whole point of the documentary, A Film Unfinished is to show how much of the footage of the German propaganda film was staged.

Otherwise, you’re welcome. The more I looked into this, the more I understood that at least some Poles saw the Jews in the ghettos and camps as their partners in struggle.

Klara says:

It is hard to believe that some ignorant people
are still bringing up the jewish gheetto police
to show that it was the jews who treated other jews
in the camps badly. Who created the “jewish police”
on the first place? It was probably the most demonic
invention of the nazis to make other jews do their dirty
work for them. Those who were working in the crematoria area
had to burn the bodies of their family members who were
murdered in the gas chambers.
What do these casual observers know about suffering and pain?
They are trying to absolve the nazis of their crimes and blame
those who suffered so much instead.

Melissa says:

Klara, I completely agree! What an absolute nightmare it must have been and still is for some…

P. scg., says:

It has become fashionable to turn victims into criminals and to apply to times beyond our comprehension rules of behaviour which would work in a more or less “civilized” moment, where there is food, warmth, a police one is mostly not afraid of, rules of law. And while I know that I would never have wanted to be part of the Judenrat, it is certain that some of those members tried to help others. Jews are like all of you, some wonderful people, some OK people, some appalling people. the only thing that puts us apart from the non-Jews is being Jewish. Otherwise, we are like all of you.

I’ve said that least 802072 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Aw, this was a really nice post. In idea I want to put in writing like this additionally – taking time and actual effort to make a very good article… however what can I say… I procrastinate alot and not at all seem to get something done.


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A new film examines footage staged by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto

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