DVD Review HTF DVD Review: A FILM UNFINISHED (and "Death Mills", dir. Billy Wilder)

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Michael Reuben, Mar 16, 2011.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

    Feb 12, 1998
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    A Film Unfinished

    A Film Unfinished is unique among Holocaust documentaries, because it concerns a film that the Nazis themselves made to “document” conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1942, a few months before its inhabitants were transported to the extermination camp at Treblinka. A one-hour rough cut was discovered in a German archive after the war, labeled simply “The Ghetto”. For years, many of the images in “The Ghetto” were taken at face value. A Film Unfinished is an exploration, using all available sources (including outtakes discovered almost half a century later), of how The Third Reich was already utilizing cinema to rewrite the history of its “final solution”, even while it was in progress.

    Studio: Oscilloscope Laboratories

    Rated: NR

    Film Length: 90 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

    Audio: English DD 2.0

    Subtitles: English, English SDH

    MSRP: $29.99

    Disc Format: 1 DVD-9

    Package: Cardboard multi-fold case in cardboard box

    Insert: Offer for the Oscilloscope “Circle of Trust” DVD subscription

    Theatrical Release Date: Aug. 18, 2010

    DVD Release Date: Mar. 8, 2011

    The Feature:

    As the narrator of A Film Unfinished notes at the outset, no record exists of the specific intent of the makers of “The Ghetto”. However, reasonable inferences can be drawn from the existing footage. The German cameramen staged scenes of well-dressed Jews living in relative comfort, holding dinner parties and dances. These alternated with scenes of extreme privation and desperation in the streets outside. (The latter were assumed for many years to be straightforward reportage, but many are now known to have been staged as well.) The goal appears to have been to ratify the Nazi caricature of Jews as the people responsible for all the ills of German society by showing that, when Jews were confined together and no one else was available to exploit, the “fittest” Jews survived by reproducing the same desperate conditions among their own.

    Director Yael Hersonski interrogates the images of “The Ghetto” by contrasting them against several alternate sources. One is the diary of Adam Czerniakow, the Jewish Council leader of the Warsaw Ghetto. Excerpts from the diary are read by an actor. Though helpless to resist the Nazi occupiers, Czerniakow meticulously documented their activities, including those of the film crew and their requisitions of premises and personnel to stage various scenes. Czerniakow’s diaries are especially helpful in exposing the falsity of the “well-to-do” sequences in “The Ghetto”.

    A very different perspective is offered by the field reports of the Nazi officer in charge of the Warsaw ghetto. The dry recitation of the starvation rations allotted to the ghetto inhabitants are chilling in their precision. By juxtaposing such details against the ravaged, barely human faces captured on the ghetto streets by German cameramen, Hersonski achieves an effect quite different from what the makers of “The Ghetto” must have had in mind.

    Only one of the German cameramen was ever identified, after an entry permit to the Warsaw ghetto at the time of filming was discovered in the name of “Willy Wist”. Inquiries to Wist’s family regarding his whereabouts produced denials that they even knew him. But Wist was eventually found and called to testify at war crimes trials. His testimony, reenacted by actors, provides yet another perspective on the footage from “The Ghetto”. Questioned by a prosecutor, Wist displayed the distinctive mixture of amnesia and reluctant recollection characteristic of many Germans who served the Third Reich, but he managed to describe some of the filming process. Wist’s testimony, much more than the presence of the cameras themselves, serves as a powerful reminder that the images being captured were not just random events that Wist and his colleagues had been dispatched to record. Everything that transpired before Wist’s camera had been caused by the very powers that were commanding Wist to film it. Without Wist, there would be no “Ghetto” film; without Wist’s superiors, there would be no ghetto to film.

    The most powerful and memorable commentary on “The Ghetto” comes from a handful of survivors who consented to view the film and allow Hersonski to record their reactions. These are people in their eighties, courageously confronting unbearable memories, and Hersonski treats both them and the viewer with respect. He does not sensationalize or distract us with any survivor’s personal story, and we never learn what combination of strength and happenstance resulted in that person’s remaining alive while millions perished. Hersonski simply records each survivor’s reaction to “The Ghetto”; those reactions are often silent but no less expressive for being without words. These viewers scan the crowded images with expressions of both shock and recognition. Some appear to be looking for familiar faces, as if reviewing doleful scrapbooks of their childhood. One is moved to remember how her mother always managed to ensure that she showered daily and had clean clothes (no mean feat under such conditions). Near the end, during a scene of bodies being stacked on a cart for transfer to a mass grave – many ghetto inhabitants died in the street from starvation or typhus – one viewer covers her eyes and cannot watch, declaring: “Now I am human!”

    The most bizarre perspective on “The Ghetto” is supplied by the accidentally discovered collection of trims and outtakes. These confirm how deliberately and professionally the German camera crew framed their shots from multiple angles and repeated takes. Even a scene of a body being loaded into a coffin was shot multiple times until the crew got whatever it was they wanted from the scene. It is both remarkable and nauseating to watch two ghetto prisoners (who themselves had only a few months to live) being directed to drag the corpse of a fellow prisoner over and over into a wooden box for the sake of “documenting” a false image of their daily reality.

    As noted in the disc’s supplements, no official record of “Das Ghetto” exists in the Third Reich’s bureaucratic archive – a remarkable omission for an organization obsessed with documenting the smallest detail of its operations. It is unknown whether the project was conducted “off the books” or whether someone with sufficient clout and attention to detail removed all trace of it from the records. Either way, all that remains are the filmed images. In A Film Unfinished, Hersonski has attempted to restore theses images to their rightful context by showing how the very suffering they depict was manipulated, distorted and even trivialized by the people who created it – and even then were preparing to multiply that suffering unimaginably.


    Much of the footage from “Das Ghetto” is in excellent shape. It is presented at 4:3 ratio in the center of the screen. Contemporary interviews and reenactments have been recorded in what appears to be hi-def video and are presented at 1.78:1, with 16:9 enhancement. Archival photos are similarly presented. The DVD provides this material clearly with very little video noise and no significant aliasing. Colors in the contemporary sequences are appropriately muted to coordinate with the black-and-white footage. One could not wish for a better DVD transfer, although there are many scenes where, like the survivor who covered her eyes, one might wish to see less clearly.


    The film’s soundtrack is dominated by the voices of the narrator, the reenacters and the survivor-witnesses. A number of languages are heard – English, Polish, German and Hebrew – and the English subtitle track is essential. As far as I could tell from the languages I know (English and German), the track is clear and well-recorded. The spare, understated score is by the Israeli composer Yishai Adar.

    Special Features:

    Interview with Author and Film Researcher Adrian Wood (1.78:1, enhanced) (14:35). It was Wood who discovered the reels of outtakes from “The Ghetto”. Ironically, his discovery occurred while Wood was taking a self-imposed break from researching materials related to the Holocaust, because he could no longer bear looking at its horrors. While reviewing materials confiscated by the U.S. military for footage of the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Wood found the outtakes in unmarked cans. It was pure luck that they were found by someone with the scholarly background to recognize instantly what they were.

    Wood also relates the history of the color footage included in the documentary, which was shot by one of the German cameramen for his personal record. It was salvaged by a Soviet officer and kept hidden, possibly as a war trophy, but certainly at great personal risk, because all such material had to be accounted for, and the penalties for pilfering were severe. After the officer’s death and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, his son chose to reveal the existence of the footage.

    Wood’s accounts provide a fascinating example of the kind of accidents and coincidences by which history can be revealed – or lost.

    Scholar Michael Berenbaum on A Film Unfinished (1.78:1, enhanced) (3:36). Berenbaum is director of the Sig Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University and, among other jobs, has worked with Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. This clip is too brief for an in-depth discussion of the documentary. It’s more in the nature of a tribute.

    Death Mills (dir. Billy Wilder) (4:3) (21:06). Unavailable for many years, this documentary short was directed by the Oscar-winning director for the U.S. War Department. Wilder was the first filmmaker to show the world the abominations the Allies found when they liberated the Nazi death camps: endless piles of bodies, walking skeletons, dungeons inhabited by the living and the dead, nightmarish “labs” that were indistinguishable from torture chambers. Originally created for audiences in Germany and Austria, the film was later released in the U.S. with English narration, which is the version included here.

    When I was in grade school studying world history, I remember a teacher telling us that there were films about concentration camps that we shouldn’t see until we were older. I suspect she had seen Death Mills. Wilder assembled it with the same cool precision that he brought to his feature work. He never lingers too long on any one horror, because he knows he can always cut to fresh ones. And he uses the visits of various parties to the camps to provide moments of respite, as well as pacing and a sense of narrative, so that the viewer keeps watching, despite the horror. “These are human beings like you and me”, the narrator says repeatedly, to remind the viewer that this movie isn’t fiction.

    Near the beginning we see General Eisenhower visiting one of the camps. Near the end we watch the residents of the city of Weimar as they are required by the occupying army to line up and march to the camp at Buchenwald so that they can see what has been happening within walking distance of their town while they claimed ignorance. It’s an interesting contrast.

    Death Mills should be required viewing for anyone who has ever used a Nazi analogy or likened an American president (of any party) to Hitler. This is what real Nazism looks like.

    Study Guide. This PDF file for educators and students can be accessed from the DVD-ROM drive of a Mac or PC.

    Trailers. The film’s trailer is included, as well as trailers for Flow, The Garden and Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country.

    “Interrogating Images”. An essay by Annette Insdorf, Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University, which is printed inside the cardboard slipcase.

    In Conclusion:

    In an essay distributed with press materials for A Film Unfinished, director Hersonski explained how his documentary relates to present-day concerns:

    World War II not only confronted humanity with inconceivable atrocities, but also produced, and carried, for the first time, a systematical, obsessive cinematic documentation of that horror.

    In order to understand better the way we perceive the infinite number of images which are being broadcast into our living rooms, computers and mobile phones from dozens of satellites, images of our present reality and its catastrophes, I chose to go back, to the historical point in time, where it all began; for I strongly believe that after the world had witnessed the horror documented during the liberation of the extermination camps, after screening the cinematic evidences displayed at the Nuremberg trials – something was changed in the collective consciousness. Images were no longer as they were before.

    This awareness of the need to look outside the image puts A Film Unfinished squarely beside Erol Morris’ documentary about Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure. Technology and its reach may have made huge strides, but we are still wrestling with issues of knowledge and responsibility raised by Willy Wist and his fellow cameramen in 1942.

    Equipment used for this review:

    Denon 955 DVD player

    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display

    Lexicon MC-8

    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier

    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears

    Boston Acoustics VR-MC center

    SVS SB12-Plus sub
  2. Adam Gregorich


    Nov 20, 1999
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    The Other Washington
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    Wow. This sounds like a powerful film, and one that was probably difficult to review. After reading your review, I'm torn between feeling its something I need to see and something I don't want to see.
  3. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

    Aug 18, 2001
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    The BK
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    Thanks for the fine review, Michael. Probably wouldn't come across this documentary w/out your review here. Will see about giving it a rental at some point since it's doubtful I'd really want to own it for repeat viewings.

    Thanks again...

  4. Russell G

    Russell G Fake Shemp

    Sep 20, 2002
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    I missed hearing about this one. sounds fascinating, I'll be picking it up. I remember seeing that Wilder film, incredibly powerful stuff.

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