(Oscilloscope Pictures) So you love horror flicks? You have the nerve and the stomach for the hard stuff? Weird hands coming up out of the tub while you’re soaking. Hatchets to the head, drills, chainsaws, knife in the shower. You scream and then the lights come up or the commercial comes on. Vampires, werewolves, little toys who come at you with sharp teeth. But have you the stomach for real horror?
This week, as a comedy retrospective, they reran To Be or Not To Be, an Ernst Lubitch 1942 classic with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard about some Polish actors who outwit the stupid Nazis. Back in 1965, Hogan’s Heroes were a bunch of clever Americans who outfoxed the Third Reich. Now take a look at the real Nazis.
The award-winning documentary, A Film Unfinished, is so disturbing that it’s difficult to watch without averting the eyes. Here is the truth of the depth of human cruelty. Yes, we’ve just seen The Tudors and realistic portrayals of traitors being put to the rack or a heretic burned at the stake or a public disembowelment. Cruelty against those who do not agree with an ideology has always been part of the lower depths of the human psyche. This film is about to be released showing raw footage of what actually happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. See it if you have the stomach and the mind to take it in.
The “unfinished fifth reel” of an untitled film was recently discovered and recognized as belonging to the first four reels of film recovered from the Germans after World War II. These four reels were supposed to be footage of everyday life in the Warsaw Ghetto – those few terrible miles of the city where Jews were forced to live – showing wealthier Jews surviving comfortably while scorning poor Jews who were starving. This footage was shown many times as source material of the period.
The fifth reel shows how this film was a masterpiece of Nazi propaganda contrived by German filmmakers. In the raw footage, we see starving Jews, many of them who had had simply fallen to the sidewalk and lay dead. Others, malnourished and hopeless, try to ignore or walk over the fallen. The German filmmakers took the best-preserved of these victims, costumed them, set up restaurants where other girls were costumed as waitresses and forced to serve champagne and festive foods to Jews who ostensibly partied while, outside, others starved. All this as propaganda to justify Nazi murder of the Jews. Shortly after the film, most of the inhabitants of the Ghetto run were sent to the ovens.
We see, only occasionally and accidentally, a Nazi filmmaker crossing the camera eye, ordering “extras” to run by shooting guns to frighten the "actors," or striking them with sticks to make them run faster. Other unedited footage shows the true story of ghetto victims starving to death, skin and bone, dragging themselves along the street. We see children – who managed to get out to scavenge for food to save their family – discovered by the Nazis, who shake them to release their meager cache of carrots and bits of fruit. We see a starving woman already gone mad carrying a baby, crying for bread as she walks aimlessly along the street.
Beyond just showing this lost reel, Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski found survivors of the ghetto – children at the time, now in their eighties – who were willing to sit in a darkened theater to watch and comment on what they had endured and probably struggled to forget in order to keep their sanity. One woman said that, as a child, she caught her foot and fell to the ground. Rising, she realized that she had fallen over a dead body. Weak as she was, she was unable to react to what she saw, to feel empathy. At the conclusion of the film, we see a crew of workers scooping up bodies, just skin and bones, to toss them into a common grave.
I was in high school when WWII broke out. We were kids full of patriotic fervor and excitement as our “guys” went off to fight the Nazis. If there were atrocities like these, they hardly registered. We went to the movies to see our “heroes” sacrificing to save the civilized world. But they were just movies. And ultimately, the real story of what had actually happened to six million Jews became film which went into museums and archives. This film completes the “real story” of what actually happened in the Warsaw Ghetto – the ultimate betrayal: Nazi filmmakers contriving to make the Jews seem calculating and uncaring toward their own to justify the ovens. However, it's also a shock of recognition. This extreme cruelty is still happening around the world — horrific violence justifying a “cause” or simply to satisfy a hunger for power and domination.
Whether there is a heaven or a hell may be a religious or a philosophic question. This Nazi propaganda – this was an on-film portrayal of hell. We don’t need to watch a rerun of Rosemary’s Baby to see a child born half human and half devil. A Film Unfinished shows us that the devil may still be here, somewhere on this planet – and sadly, he’s all human. Or inhuman. Or soulless. He’s this world’s predator. And there is no commercial break.
For Fans Of: Judgement At Nuremberg, Schindler's List, Triumph Of The Will
Why We Like It: shows the reality of human cruelty, looks evil in the face, deconstructs propaganda