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A Film Unfinished -- Film Review

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PARK CITY -- Built around a remarkable document and providing just enough supplementary material to bring it to life, "A Film Unfinished" is tough viewing but has clear value. Whether it can sustain much of a theatrical run or not, the doc could become a staple of Holocaust studies on video.

The eponymous film (which director Yael Hersonski says has never been presented in its entirety) is a work of propaganda shot in the Warsaw ghetto by SS cameramen. Lacking voiceover narration or titles, its exact intentions are unclear, but the film's juxtaposition of starving Jews with privileged ones seems intended to present the ghetto's inhabitants as an inhumane community deserving of extermination.

Combing through the journals of a ghetto social leader, the testimony of a Nazi cameraman, and newly discovered outtakes from the film, Hersonski reveals the extent to which these scenes were fabricated, with residents forced to put on a show to back up the official narrative.

Manufactured or not, the footage affords a rare look at the life of Jews who would within months be sent to camps like Treblinka; wrenching images of the starving, the filthy, and the dead underline what we already know, while scenes like one of children who have been caught smuggling food bring the period to life in fresh, heartbreaking ways. Hersonski enriches this evidence by bringing in survivors of the ghetto, who tell stories of life there while watching the film themselves.

The found footage becomes more horrific as it progresses, and by the time we see skeletal men being forced to bathe beside well-fed women, many viewers will be desperate for the doc to end. Unbelievably, "A Film Unfinished" still has one tool left: a few minutes of color footage, evidently shot by a cameraman on his own time away from the official production, that make what we've been seeing even more immediate while simultaneously giving evidence of the manipulation behind its manufacture.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production companies: Belfilms Ltd, MDR, SWR, Yes Docu, Arte
Director: Yael Hersonski
Producers: Noemi Schory, Itay Ken-Tor
Director of photography: Itai Neeman
Music: Ishai Adar
Editor: Joelle Alexis
Sales Agent: Cinephil
No MPAA rating, 91 minutes