A Film Unfinished
What is historical truth and how can documentary sources deceive us? For years after World War II, museums, chronicling the horrors of the Holocaust, displayed a series of documentary images from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. These stills, depicting Jewish suffering, seemed the truest visual evidence of Nazi horrors and the wartime Jewish experience. But, A Film Unfinished shows, these images were taken from a Nazi propaganda film, Das Ghetto, intended to harness a very different "truth"—Jewish cruelty, depravity, and lack of mutual concern—by meticulously staging scenes, since overlooked, of supposed Jewish excess and wealthier residents ignoring their dying brethren. Yael Hersonski, building on research undertaken at the Yad Vashem Film Archive and drawing on a combination of diaries, letters, and German archival documents, as well as two late-discovered reels of outtakes, pieces together both the mechanisms of deceit and the historical experience of both Jews and Nazis who experienced the process of filmmaking. Some of those sources had a stunning lineage of their own: they had been hidden in a set of milk canisters dubbed the Oneg Shabbos Archive, a desperate and prescient attempt at documentation by those who knew they would not survive the war. A Film Unfinished is a film about the Holocaust, the Nazi regime, and the manipulation of the Warsaw Ghetto as a symbol. But I find that it is also a stunning and pedagogically rich introduction to the craft and challenges of writing Jewish history: the process of sifting through multiple types of documentation from a variety of sources and the work of understanding the ideologically laden and sometimes intentionally deceptive ways in which some of those sources were constructed in the first place.