A Film Unfinished: A Holocaust Documentary Raises Questions about What We See and What We Know

A very old movie was offered up as something very new at New York's Film Forum, when an unfinished Nazi propaganda film shot just before I was born became the subject of an Israeli filmmaker's dissection titled A Film Unfinished. It's a film about a film, footage from which has been used in legitimate documentaries to show what the Ghetto was like, but, as we came to see, some of it was staged and is illegitimate.

Judging by the crowds spurred by a New York Times review, it will become the latest hit in the Shoah genre as the faces of the dammed, the starved and oppressed Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, return to the screen as objects in a partly staged docu-drama intended to blame the victims for the crime. Nazi-themed programs always tend to sell well, from Schindler's List to Inglourious Basterds, and this documentary on distortion looks like a winner.

As we know, it was not just the Nazis that fabricated media. Twenty-five years ago, in the aftermath of Rupert Murdoch's Hitler Diaries forgeries, I produced a segment on Hitlermania for ABC's 20/20 about why Hitler still sells. Of all the world's evil-doers, Adolph is still THE "monster" we love to hate the most. There are whole libraries of books and films about him and his cohorts.

An Emotionally Searing and Powerful Film

A Film Unfinished is emotionally searing and powerful, worth seeing and discussing. The filmmaker, Yael Hersonski, was present for the screening I attended, where she was challenged by a Holocaust survivor. She is sincere and talented and handled the questions well, including one of my own.

Curiously, the movie called Das Ghetto (The Ghetto) was never completed, perhaps because Hitler's henchmen couldn't figure out its purpose, either, since their real goal was not to finish a film but to finish off the ghetto itself - which they did. The corpses in the streets and the haggard faces of the barely living didn't quite make the point the l,000 year Reich was hoping to amplify to justify its policies of extermination.

They staged "rich" Jews oppressing poorer Jews and implied that's why the people were dying. It didn't quite work because the real images of pain overwhelmed the false images of "luxury" and, in the end, their butchers didn't make distinctions. They wanted the footage to put in the museums they hoped to build to show off their great triumph of erasing the Jewish people, but a little problem called World War II got in the way and destroyed their demonic dream.

No Mention of Resistance in Warsaw

By the time I visited what remains of the Ghetto in Warsaw a few years ago, it was mostly gone - the whole neighborhood demolished, first by the Nazis and then finished off by Allied bombing. Today, there is only a relatively small memorial, while Warsaw has a museum to honor the Polish resistance, not the Jews who perished, although the Polish fighters did try to help the Ghetto combatants who rose up seven months after the movie was shot and after deportations began en masse.

There is absolutely no reference to this resistance, which is like making a film about Mississippi in l964 and not mentioning the civil rights movement. Could a response to that movement be one reason the Nazis made the movie?

The film showed, as many Holocaust films do not, the role of the Judenräte (Jewish Council) and police that the Nazis appointed and used to police the Ghetto. It was not explained well, but its chief was treated sympathetically. Yet, these are the very people the resistance fighters later assassinated for being collaborators.

Yes, even then, there was conflict among the Jews as there was between the Jews and their killers.

A Film Unfinished does show packed jails and a field used for executions and mass graves, but because it was, as the Germans say, Mitt Out Sound (MOS), the viewer had to make sense of it, which was hard to do if you don't know the story and its context.

While the film exposes stage-managed "documentary" scenes, it doesn't really expose the Nazi propaganda plan or explain why it largely worked so well. Don't forget that Washington knew all about the Warsaw Ghetto but didn't do anything to help.

Perception Management Replaces Public Relations

I used to think that if we had live TV news, then the Holocaust couldn't have happened. But after Rwanda, Bosnia and the rise of Murdoch's Fox News, I know the story would have been spun by today's Goebbels much more effectively than he would have or could have.

You could just imagine the debate on the so-called "genocide" and the furor over the Führer. Before the United States entered the war, there was a lot of sympathy for the Nazis in what was called the "America First" movement that opposed getting involved in a "foreign" conflict. Germans marched in New York to back the bully-boys with their swastikas.

Media manipulation is much more advanced today than it was then, as the science of perception management (PM) replaces public relations (PR). Remember, modern censorship works by commission and omission. What you don't say is often more telling than what you do. What's left out is often the real truth, including the extent of collaboration by U.S. companies with the Third Reich. Director Oliver Stone was recently baited as an anti-Semite for wanting to bring this buried history up. Unfortunately, by his own admission, his discussion of it was flawed.

Israeli Media Manipulation

We live in an unfinished world, not just a film. The Yiddish-speaking Jews of Warsaw could hardly have imagined that "the Jewish State" that emerged after the war, with its "Never Again" mantra would finish off Yiddish culture considered a product of the shtetl - home to Jews in Eastern Europe - an image they wanted to escape from. They mandated Hebrew as the official tongue in all sincerity as a unifying language while at the same time promoting their own superman archetype, not the Aryan the Nazis fantasized about, but the Sabra soldier defending a permanent Masada, often using strong-arm tactics they once condemned. Some of the hard-line right-wing Zionist groups were not shy about using terrorism against the British and later the Palestinians. This history has also been largely covered up.

Oddly, then, the Jews in Europe believed that the world was indifferent to their plight. Today 56% of the Jews in Israel believe the world is against them, but many don't realize the anger is not about who they are but directed against what they do. Critics dislike their policies, not their race. Many Israelis prefer to see it only as anti-Semitism. Actually, it's more a shonda ("shame" in Yiddish).

The "actors" in this real-life unfinished snuff film could not have imagined that 68 years later, a film made by their enemies documenting their subjugation would make for a night at the movies. Happily, it was not in 3D but only lD - "death!" It is a horror we cannot forget, just as we cannot ignore the genocides and human rights abuses of our times that are often documented and then forgotten.

The Cult of the New

We are living in an era of unfinished wars and an unfinished economic recovery. What will generations 60 years from now think when they forage through their own archives to stumble on the films and footage of our times? (Sadly, they probably won't be as well maintained as the ones in that East German archive that found and preserved Das Ghetto.) We live with the cult of the new, not the old.

News legend Edward R. Murrow thought about those archives too, well before museums of broadcasting opened in some cities. "The public," he said, "will find there recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live."

They will find "reality" television that has nothing to do with reality, sensational and titillating "mockumentaries" of real documentaries, and the staged on-camera debates that replace heat with light. Hours and hours of this genre have polluted the airwaves over years and years as facts became fungible as opinion trumped information. These talk shows prattle on as the news channels' version of a wrestling match.

We Need Groups Like WikiLeaks and the A Film Unfinished Producers

That's why, to get at concealed realities, we need groups like WikiLeaks and filmmakers like the ones who produced A Film Unfinished.

The Nazis were one-dimensional media whores, crude and blatant. They used media as an instrumental tool of power and murder. They deserve what happened to them, but far too many people died before they were brought down. For years, their practices were ignored and appeased. There were many in the West and in the United States who enabled and funded them and who have still not been exposed and held accountable.

Some of today's media whores are as bad - deliberately deceiving the public, promoting fear, hostility and ugly polarization. They, too, promote racial and religious stereotypes. They are as fascistic in spirit even as they hide behind the flag or a façade of reasonableness. The madness over the "Ground Zero Mosque" - which is not at Ground Zero - is a case in point.

They work to finish off our unfinished democracy, not with gas ovens but with gas bags (manipulative media talk-show hosts) paid to dance around the truth. How else to explain the growing number of Americans who believe, without evidence, and in the face of truth, that President Barack Obama is a Muslim and by extension a terrorist in hiding. Fudge the facts - just as the "filmmakers" in uniform from Berlin tried to do in an earlier era.