This review as written for DVDTalk.com in 2010; it is reprinted here with the text updated to reflect 2017.
Hollywood can keep making horror films and raconteurs can keep spinning yarns about haunted houses, but nothing will ever be as spooky as real life.
The documentary A Film Unfinished is both a ghost story and a cinematic archaeological project. Yael Hersonski's movie is an excavation of several cans of film left behind in an East German vault by Nazi propagandists. Labeled with the title Ghetto, the footage shows the Warsaw encampment that was the home to thousands of Jews for a good portion of the war. Shot in May 1942, mere months before the Germans would shut the ghetto down and send most of the prisoners to their deaths, the remaining hour of film, abandoned during editing and absent of a soundtrack, is bizarre and disturbing. Little official record exists about Ghetto, why it was made or why it was jettisoned. Yet it serves as a potent document of the conditions in the giant prison, and of how the Nazis tried to curate their own historical records--to the point that we must still question everything we see.
A Film Unfinished essentially takes all of the remaining material--including a more recently discovered reel of outtakes and one cameraman's personal movies, shot in color--and puts together the footage with what little is known about the original project. Hersonski uses three major sources of information to try to understand what the Germans were hoping to accomplish: the personal diary of the Jewish warden charged with overseeing the camp, the secret journals of prisoners, and the testimony of Willy Wist, a cameraman whose name appeared on the few official documents relating to Ghetto that still exist. The journals are read in voiceover, while the deposition of Wist is reenacted by two actors who mostly appear just out of frame. Wist was either a man living in denial, who had blocked out what happened, or a guilty co-conspirator trying to outrun his past, as he alternately feigns ignorance and seems troubled by the few things he admits to remembering. The sober way in which he talks about the assignment goes against the smiling image of the young man who accidentally gets caught by his comrade shooting home movies. (Hersonski regularly pauses the Nazi film when part of the film crew appears in the frame, highlighting their placement like a prosecutor presenting evidence.)
One of the things Wist remembered was also A Film Unfinished's most controversial scene. The documentary was released without a rating because the dunderheads at the MPAA objected to the nudity in scenes in a ritual bath. One group of men and one group of women are stripped and herded into an underground bathhouse. Barely able to disguise their shivers in the cold water, they dunk themselves repeatedly. It's perhaps the most disturbing segment of the movie, particularly as we learn that these scenes, just like all of the scenes in Ghetto, have been staged. The bathers are gaunt and malnourished, and this scenario was only concocted to humiliate them. There is nothing prurient to be gained by watching it, so any objection to its harsh truth is just misguided. To have left it out would have done history a disservice.
From what Hersonski can gather, Ghetto was meant to achieve two goals: to show that conditions in the Warsaw ghetto weren't as bad as some might claim, and to suggest that the Jews starving in the streets were the fault of the greedy upper class living on the fat of the land while everyone else suffered. Thus, the crews filmed the worst poverty as it really existed in the streets and then turned around and staged opulent get-togethers where healthy-looking prisoners were seen to be having a good time. To counteract what we see, Hersonski not only finds pertinent passages in the written first-hand accounts, but she also gathers a handful of survivors who watch the found footage and react to what they see. They were all children during the war, so the memories are painful and sometimes seeing their faces, filmed in the dark of a movie theater, can be painful as well. They are shocked by how the Nazis tried to twist their miserable existences into things they were not. Thankfully, there are also cathartic moments. At least for a couple of the witnesses, this trip to the past brings some healing.
Unsurprisingly, A Film Unfinished is a somber affair. Hersonski treats the material with a quiet reverence, maintaining an even tone in the narration and using Ishai Adar's moving ambient score as a gentle lifeline to lead the viewer through what is particularly difficult material. There are no huge answers at the end of the movie, no great explanation as to why one group of people would do such a thing to another group of people, why there would be this sickening compulsion to film it and mold it and turn truth upside down. I suppose, though, that's because there are no answers that could make sense, no matter how clear-cut. What motivation would be satisfying? What endgame would actually make any of this seem rational? All we can do is watch and learn and feel, and hope against hope that, as a global people, we will never allow such darkness to fall across our world ever again.
We hope...and yet that haunted feeling lingers. Particularly reconsidering this film in the harsh light of 2017, when Nazis and racists walk the American streets once again. Perhaps if more people see movies like A Film Unfinished, though, they will join the numbers that have already emerged to stand against them.