Posts Tagged ‘Yael Hersonski’

When I woke up this morning, the first thought that came to mind was that the ninth anniversary of September 11 was over. Thank God.

It has seemed to me that our collective observation of the anniversary has become a bit hollow and repetitive without deepening our appreciation of the incredible horror and losses the day involved. And why focus on the horrific deaths, I wondered sincerely, when the lives that preceded them were so vibrant, so much more worthy of our attention. I was also troubled by the fact that, as the years pass, more and more kooks come out of the woodwork, seizing upon the anniversary as a tool to foment misunderstanding, mindless nationalism, and racism.

Then I went to see A film unfinished, a documentary, by Yael Hersonski, about Hitler’s propaganda machine. A film unfinished, as the name suggests, is a film about a film. I was unaware, when I went to the movie, of how greatly Hitler relied on film to manipulate images and control the German population. I knew about Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Apparently, before they succumbed to the Allies, the Nazis stashed hundreds—perhaps thousands—of propaganda films in an archive hidden in a forest. And that is a fraction of what was made.

A film unfinished describes the making of a “documentary” about the Warsaw ghetto in 1942, just a few months before mass deportations to concentration camps began. The Nazis hired cameramen to film daily “life” in the ghetto—but with a twist. They focused on contrasts between the Jews who were still relatively comfortable (those who still had some money left) and those who were completely destitute and clearly starving. The Nazis framed this “docu-drama” so that it appeared that some Jews were starving because other, more fortunate Jews were monopolizing all resources. The reality, of course, was that all of the Jews were confined to a few blocks of the city, with few of their belongings and little money remaining, because of the actions of the Nazis, not the Jews.

Shifting shadows

The footage from 1942 is haunting. Most of the inhabitants who appear on the film are, at a minimum, gaunt. Many look directly into the camera, their eyes full of sorrow and mistrust. The deteriorating film has left shadows that drift across the frames. In one frame, a shadow on a woman’s cheek resembles a bruise, then creeps slowly across her face and vanishes. The images of children are the hardest to watch. There is no flesh on them. They sit on doorsteps or walk slowly, lacking any lightheartedness or playfulness, their heads enormous on stick bodies.

One of the many scenes that affected me deeply showed a group of people at a restaurant in the ghetto. The Nazis had instructed a local leader to arrange for relatively well-fed Jews to report to the restaurant at an appointed hour wearing their best evening clothes. This local leader was a Jew by the name of Adam Czerniakow, head of the Warsaw ghetto Jewish council, who kept a journal about life in the ghetto, including details about the shooting of the propaganda film. When the Jews reported to the restaurant, they were presented with multiple courses of fine food and wine. (The cost of this elaborate meal was later deducted from the money allotted for rations to the ghetto, which were already extreme—e.g., 2.4 eggs per person per year.) The Jews at the restaurant were instructed to eat and smile, dance and smile. In the unedited footage, the camera follows one couple dancing. I watch them sway and turn together, graceful despite the charade they are forced to enact. All of a sudden the camera dips, and I catch a glimpse of their shoes, which are scarred and muddy, betraying their real circumstances. Outside the restaurant—and also filmed—are the starving. A number of relatively healthy Jews positioned along the sidewalk were instructed—again by the Nazis—to ignore the gaunt beggars who filed by. A film unfinished shows both the unedited and edited versions of this scene. The edited version suggests that wealthy Jews fiddled while Rome burned, so to speak, and turned away from their neighbors’ suffering.

Jew against Jew

Unseen in the Nazi footage: Any brutality among the German soldiers; they appear to be benign. In contrast, the Jewish officers, who were compelled by the Germans to police their own people, were filmed beating those people with sticks and chasing them out of the street. Yet, as one of the cameramen later testified, the Jews were clearly terrified of the Nazis. You can see it in their eyes when they are instructed to behave a certain way. A kind of panic. A desire to flee but with nowhere to run.

The ghetto, in many respects, is already a concentration camp. There are people—even small children—who are little more than bundles of bones enclosed in skin. There are beggars in rags so threadbare it is startling. There is a great mountain of feces and garbage, created by the lack of sanitation, the starvation. As one survivor of the ghetto explains in A film unfinished, the people were too weak to dispose of their refuse any way except by dumping it out the window. Why? They were too weak to walk. And had no desire to. When humans are treated like animals, the survivor explains, after a while they lose their humanity.

There is a scene, too, of a mass grave, with starved corpses stacked on top of each other in great quantities. And this was before Treblinka and Auschwitz.

So what does this have to do with September 11?

It occurred to me, as I watched the film, that it proved the lie to my earlier rationalization about September 11—specifically, my suggestion that we should not focus on the horrors committed against the living, now dead, but on the lives they lived before the horrors descended. A film unfinished, supported by The New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television, Yad Vashem Film Project, and YES Docu, demonstrates the importance of documenting crimes of any kind, so that the people who follow us in history can learn from what actually happened—not from a distorted version of reality. Documenting the slaughter of innocents—in the Holocaust and on September 11—also honors their courage in the face of suffering, and their anguish itself.

Sadly, there will always be people like Hitler who seek to rewrite events to cast themselves in the most favorable light. We owe it to the victims of any mass murder, regardless of who commits it, to make sure the truth is told and remembered. The facts need not be manipulated or transformed into somebody’s expedient political message. People are wise enough to recognize the truth when it is presented without any agenda other than to make it known. And the dead we honor deserve no less.

NOTE: It is still possible to see this film in some cities. It opens September 24, 2010, in Boston, Washington DC, Baltimore, and San Diego, and October 1 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Phoenix, and Chicago. For more information, go to http://www.afilmunfinished.com.

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