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A Film Unfinished
Time Out New York Project: Issue #777, August 19-25, 2010
Dir. Yael Hersonski. 2010. N/R. 88mins. In German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish and English, with subtitles. Documentary.
Ghetto is an unfinished piece of Nazi propaganda, four reels of raw footage “documenting” life in Warsaw’s Jewish enclave. For years, images and sequences from the film were drawn on as infallible glimpses of history. But as shown by Yael Hersonski’s wrenching documentary, the truth is much more muddled and horrifying. Outtakes and additional footage reveal that many of the scenes (such as those of the Jewish populace living an engorged life of luxury) were staged. More troubling are those points where reality and fiction were blurred: For instance, actual starved corpses lying on the street were repetitively used as pick-’em-up, put-’em-down props.
Hersonski shows us the four reels in their back-to-back entirety, and builds a subdued aural-visual symphony around them. Five actual survivors sit in an empty theater watching and commenting on the footage. (“What if I see someone I know?” one of them asks tentatively.) In semiabstract reenactments, Wim Wenders regular Rüdiger Vogler plays Ghetto cameraman Willy Wist, nervously testifying to a war-crimes interrogator about the things he saw. Excerpts from eyewitness diaries are read in counterpoint to the images, adding further complicated layers. It will test your faith in humanity, but Hersonski’s film is nonetheless a brilliant reminder of the importance of bearing witness.—Keith Uhlich