Friday, May 7, 2010

A Film Unfinished

This was a hard film to watch. It showed all 62 minutes of film captured by Nazis in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto. The footage was never edited into a film, so there were a series of scenes, but no indication of how it would finally have been put together or narrated.

This movie's footage is often used in other movies but it has never before been shown in its entirety. (Ironically, a snippet of the movie appeared in the movie War Games, which I saw the next day, proving this very point!). But this was a movie about a movie. The filmmaker, Yael Hersonski, had dug into how - and why - the film had been made.

Notebooks of the Jewish 'commander' of the Ghetto (not sure what his official title was) describe the arrival of the film crew and the staging of the scenes of the movie. This man was to later commit suicide the day he was ordered to select the people who would be transported to the concentration camps.

The cameraman, Willy Wist, is discovered to have testified at war crimes trials. An extra reel was discovered with various outtakes and some colour film, apparently by one of the other cameramen which had Wist in a frame and enabled identification.

Most touching were the interviews with survivors of the ghetto. Hersonski focused on their faces as they watched the film. Their anguish was echoed throughout the audience.

By May of 1942, many Jews from Germany had been transported to Warsaw and crammed into the existing ghetto; then the ghetto shrunk and the barrier made impermeable on threat of death, so that there were terrible conditions of overcrowding and privation. Food supplies were paltry (I particularly 1/5 egg per month per person on the list) so people were dying of starvation, and each morning brought fresh corpses on the sidewalk.

The hypothesis is that the film was shot for one of two reasons. One could have been to show how miserable the Jews were, and to later point out what a good thing it was that the Germans had exterminated them. The second might have been to juxtapose the Jews who were still comfortable and not starving against the miserable masses and point out that the Jews themselves had no mercy or kindness for other Jews who were suffering. They were shown dancing as in the photo below.

One scene was filmed several times to show wealthy Jews walking by disregarding the corpses on the street. The corpses were tossed onto open tumbrels, with pseudo-comedic touches as the bodies kept falling off. This was followed by a horrific scene showing two Jewish gravediggers deep in a narrow grave, catching skin and bone corpses as they slid down a ramp, and stacking them together as tightly as possible. The bodies were carefully covered with heavy paper or cloth, presumably ready for tomorrow's batch.

This film won the Hot Docs Best International Feature Award. I highly recommend it, but bring your fortitude with you, as well as perhaps a Kleenex.

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