The latest example of fiction disguised as documentary comes not from the staged conflicts of reality TV but from a nearly 70-year-old archive of War World II images. In her tragically absorbing documentary “A Film Unfinished,”which opens Friday at many South Florida theaters, director Yael Hersonski aims to revise Nazi propaganda though the discovery a four-reel film titled simply “The Ghetto.
Buried conspicuously among troves of war footage and finally brought to light in “A Film Unfinished,” “The Ghetto” depicts Jewish life in the notorious Warsaw ghetto in 1942 as a Potemkin village of ease and comfort, with prisoners seen surrounded by personal items and walking through spacious homes, playing, shopping for necessities and even dining in fine restaurants served by officers of the Third Reich. History, of course, has proved this documented “truth” to be demonstrably false, and in turn, so does this video. Halfway through “A Film Unfinished,” we receive proof that the footage we’re seeing was staged in the form of alternate takes, which feature the Jewish “actors,” shot from multiple vantage points and “performing” slight variations from previous shots, as if taking cues from an unseen director.
By questioning the veracity of “found” or “real” footage, Hersonski adds to a timeless dialogue. Documentarians have been manipulating footage to service their agendas since the birth of the moving image, going all the way back to Robert Flaherty’s groundbreaking documentary “Nanook of the North” in 1922 to “Jersey Shore” today. It’s almost self-evident that master propagandists such as the Nazis partook in the mass deception of visual images. But, by drawing upon testimony from one of the SS cameramen who shot “The Ghetto,” diary entries from prominent Nazi officials and painstaking recollections from survivors, Hersonski’s “unfinished” film adds yet another layer to the never-ending horror of the Holocaust.
“A Film Unfinished” opens Friday at seven South Florida theaters, including Sunrise Mizner Park 8 and Regal Shadowood 16.