Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An extraordinary look at the Warsaw Ghetto

Unlike many monstrous movements throughout history, the Nazi assault on Jews was scrupulously codified by its German perpetrators. The Nazis liked to keep careful track of their atrocities, and specialized in creating propaganda about them. * So it’s hardly surprising that an unfinished propaganda film entitled Das Ghetto turned up in East Germany after the war. * In 1998, an additional 30 minutes of Das Ghetto -- filmed in 1942 over the course of a month in the Warsaw Ghetto -- was discovered. * The Nazis may have had a couple of things in mind: They seemed determined to show widespread misery, which they’d blame on Jews, and they attempted to demonstrate, in scenes that they staged, that insensitive rich Jews ignored the plight of their more beleaguered brothers. * Because the film never was finished, the precise intent of the Nazi filmmakers remains unknown. But A Film Unfinished -- a documentary about Das Ghetto -- does two things exceptionally well: It shows the obscenely crowded conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto and the wanton Nazi disregard for Jewish life. It also proves that the Nazis were determined to make something cinematic out of the ghetto experience, something that presumably would bolster the party’s twisted rationale for its monumental crimes. * Israeli director Yael Hersonski assembles the film with snippets of commentary from ghetto survivors, some of the few who escaped the Nazi murderers. * Much of the footage is set against readings from the diaries of Adam Cherniakov, the head of the Jewish Council who attempted to appease the Nazis while ameliorating Jewish suffering, as futile an endeavor as ever there was. Cherniakov committed suicide in the ghetto in 1942. * The impact of a movie such as An Unfinished Film is difficult to describe. It left me speechless, haunted by its images. An addled man dancing in the streets. Dead bodies on sidewalks, a sight that became so commonplace passersby hardly noticed. Carefully staged humiliations. * Hersonski adds fragments of sound to some of the silent footage and the result gives a staggering immediacy to the film. A sense of doom hangs over every frame, knowledge of how the story ends for so many of the faces captured in Warsaw's congested streets. Hersonski liberates these ordinary faces from the vaults of history, enabling them to walk straight into our consciousness. THe result is as moving as it is essential.

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