We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Memory is malleable. A collective memory of events that we haven’t experienced ourselves is potentially subject to powerful distortions. Israeli director Yael Hersonski is deeply concerned with this, and her new documentary, A Film Unfinished, sheds new light on old footage, providing more framework for familiar pictures of the Warsaw ghetto. It is a movie about a movie, and it documents the history of an abandoned Nazi propaganda film wherein images of abject poverty within theghetto are juxtaposed with staged scenes of Jews enjoying lavish luxuries. It’s a bizarre construction that creates a disturbingly false narrative of a self-governing ghetto, where the Jews in power hoard precious resources to the neglect of their starving brethren.

Portions of the film have been used by archives and museums for years, but they have always lacked sufficient context. Hersonski’s movie contains the propaganda film in its entirety, and her work provides another lens with which to understand the Nazis’ depravity. The commentary provided by Holocaust survivors breathes new life into the picture, and as difficult as it is to watch, the film provides a profoundly valuable perspective on an unimaginable travesty. For reasons that remain unclear, the MPAA designated an R rating for the movie, despite its clear academic merit and intent. Hersonski spoke with Arts Desk in advance of tomorrow’s screening at E Street Cinema.

When did you begin researching the ghetto?

Four-and-a-half years ago. I knew I was going to study the footage from that time. I approached one of the most experienced producers in Israel [Noemi Schory], and she gave me a basic list of footage I should watch. This is certainly a basic film, is so familiar among archivists, and is used by museums often. It was not just bits and pieces in other documentaries, it was a full 60-minute film. It was approaching becoming an actual film. When I watched it for the first time, the change in meaning with the images happened before my eyes.

As an example of the way our psychological self-defense works, one of the images familiar to me is where you can see the naked women entering the ritual bath. I remember seeing it in the context of a film about ritual Jewish life inside the ghetto. This was produced by one of the Polish museums. I remember not paying too much attention to it at the time because it was a very general title that tells you nothing about what you actually see. Now, when I saw the scene for the first time inside the actual context, I was amazed that I saw the expressions on the women’s faces for the first time. I couldn’t see it before. It’s amazing how a collective memory sets up a historical blindness toward the past. Because we haven’t actually seen this happen, we are dependent on a collective, general imagery. This collective memory disables us from understanding or really seeing what’s happening inside the image, and only when we understand the nature of the images, we can begin to work with what’s happening inside the images in a quest to understand certain parts of reality.

Was it an odd process, making a film about a film—-and essentially including another film inside your own?

That is what fascinates me—-discussing the nature of the very medium. By exploring again something that was already used, but showing it in another light and peeling off artificial layers like an archeological act uncovering what was beneath, for me it’s the most intense way to think about the basic materials that cinema is made from. Honestly, I feel like I’m doing my very first steps. I feel like I understand more about the image, but it’s such an infinite document, with so many more layers than any other document.

In your artist’s statement, you mentioned wanting to challenge a 21st century viewer’s perception of the past and reexamine the idea of an archive—-what did you mean by that?

That’s exactly what I was referring to with a collective memory. What do we understand when we hear about the six million Jews in Israel? I don’t think we understand anything. It’s an inconceivable event in history—-it’s certainly one of the most unique ones, with the systematic way of killing and the banality of its evil. I think today we don’t understand more about the suffering that is the reality around us if we don’t care to seek to know more. Everything we see is mediated by media, every democratic regime has it’s own propaganda tools. If we don’t take the image for granted, if we don’t take it as it is served to us, we can know and anticipate much more than what is expected of us or than what we are educated to experience.

The success of your film relies in part on pointing out what elements of the German film are staged and inaccurate. For some of that, you used actual survivors, but you also used other documents like journal entries. Was it difficult to find journals and other materials that spoke about the film?

The starting point was to reach out to the original texts and in their original languages. So, to find the original texts… some of them were in Poland, some of them were preserved in Israel. It was more about understand where the diaries are and how to get access to the original text. The survivors—it was a great effort to find them, but after we did, they all live in Israel, so I just had to talk with them and see if they remembered the very specific film-making from May of ’42. The way we watched this footage in the first stage was with viewing copies. To have the original footage in the actual film was maybe the last step in the process because we had to have the rights from the German film archives. The outtakes were actually found in an Air Force base in a film vault in the Ohio. So they were preserved in the Library of Congress and copy was given to the Germans. I found the original footage in the German film archive and for the editing just used a viewing copy.

I think the greatest discovery of the film’s research was finding the protocols of the cameraman, which I found in a German archive in Ludwigsburg, and then locating his two sons who gave us family photos so for the first time we could see what the cameraman looked like. Then when he entered the frame in the footage, we could identify him. This something we didn’t have when we started that we found during the research—-finding the sons and the survivors. Another thing: the reports of [ghetto commissioner Heinz] Auerswald were known by historians but were never used in the context of this film making. Only dozens of the hundreds of reports survive, but we were fortunate enough to find mentions of the film crew in them.

The survivors you worked with, I imagine they must have had trouble watching some of that footage. But while I’m sure it was difficult, did it ever seem like a cathartic experience for them at all?

It was certainly a difficult experience for them, but to see the place where they were born and had their childhood and grew up… there were moments in which they smiled when they saw children and things that were familiar. It wasn’t only about terror. I’m not sure if it was cathartic, but it was urgent for them to confront these images for the last time and have their own comment on it. They were hiding from the film crew at the time, so they were physically there somewhere outside the frame. After so many years, they have an interesting perspective as adults with a memory of their childhood. For me, to witness such a situation was incredibly overwhelming. That’s why I tried to intensify it as much as I could by screening it not at home on a TV but isolated with images on the big screen. It was an intense 62 minutes to watch with them. It was the first time in the history of this film that someone identified people in the footage. For decades, this was an important thing the museums were doing—they less cared about the nature of the footage and just wanted to identify people—-but this was the first time when more people were identified.

So, I understand the film was not granted a PG-13 rating?

We appealed the ruling and lost the appeal.

Is there a precedent for that with similar films?

Another film by Steven Spielberg called Last Days. This film used mass execution footage from the Holocaust, which is for me unwatchable, and it was used—-as the sequence itself, not as still images—where you can see people are shot into pits. It was rated PG-13. If there is a principal here, I don’t quite follow it. All in all, I don’t think it will damage the life of this film. I feel sorry that high schools will use it much less than they could have because I don’t think all of them will get parents to sign permission slips so children can view it. I hope students will hear about this film and arrange an opportunity to watch it.

A Film Unfinished opens this Friday at E Street Cinema.