DAS GHETTO (1942)
A question often asked is how did the nation that produced Goethe, Brahams and Rilke also produce Goering, Himmler and Hitler? Another question one could ask is what is the connection between literary genius and the fascist infatuation with what they though of as “objectivity?” Nazi “objectivity” was the act of appropriating reality and reconfiguring it into propaganda. Coincidentally, when I went to see A Film Unfinished (2010), I was reading the new book, The German Genius, just out this year by Peter Watson. Watson took on the task of explaining how in just one hundred fifty years, German culture jumped from Immanuel Kant to Adolph Hitler and I took a break from his chapters on the Nazis to go to this remarkable film within a film. The “film” referred to in the title is an unfinished fragment, edited, but never completed, of the Warsaw Ghetto. Nazi camera crews entered into the ghetto in May of 1942, mere months before the inhabitants were transported to Treblinka. For reasons that will be forever unknown, the distorted record of the last days of the lives of the Jews was never completed, leaving us with a mystery.
Made in Israel, directed and written by Yael Hersonski, this film is an attempt to explain the Nazi film of the Ghetto. We are not alone in our viewing of the unfinished footage; we are joined by three Holocaust survivors, called “witnesses,” who lived in the Ghetto when they were children. The German counterpoint to America’s much lauded Greatest Generation would be the most Guilty Generation, the perpetrators of nameless and unthinkable crimes. Many books, including that of Watson, have recounted the post war wall of silence, the communal refusal to discuss life under Hitler. I have even seen documentaries in which the aging criminals, ordinary Germans, who still have no guilt, were still defensive of their actions. But as Sigmund Freud pointed out a century ago, guilt may deferred and repressed, but it exists and is acted out. In 1975, Alexander and Margarete Mistcherlich applied Freud’s thesis to the Germans after the revelations of the Holocaust. Their “inability to mourn” resulted in a generation of deeply melancholic people. Germany cannot mourn for its sins and its citizens are condemned to be trapped in melancholia until the people come to terms with their crimes. But most of these perpetrators are dead by now and the remainder is fast dying out. We must assume they have told us as much as they were willing. And yet, after thousands of books, war crimes trials, Survivor testimony, and filmed accounts, we are no closer to answering the question: how could the human soul be so dark?
The narrator of A Film Unfinished begins with commenting upon the Nazi obsession with the visual, with recording their history, including their most heinous crimes against humanity. The film, titled “Das Ghetto,” was rediscovered in a concrete vault in the mountains in East German territory, and later extra color footage and outtakes were also located. The identities of all but one filmmaker are lost and the participants are probably dead by now. The structure of the film demonstrates a sub text of guilt projected onto the victims who have no choice but to be receiving screens for racist hatred. In a Ghetto of starving people, lying down and dying on the sidewalks, the Nazis managed to round up the few Jews who could afford to eat, who still had some meat on their bones, and forced them to be “actors” in the “objective” and completely fictitious account of Jewish life in the Ghetto. Here, in Warsaw, the film insists, Jews are living in luxury, enjoying their elegant spacious new homes. In reality a half million people are crowded into a few acres, separated from the rest of the city by a wall. Beyond this wall, in Aryan Warsaw, life goes on as usual, while on the other side of the structure, hell exists on earth.
According to the witnesses, the intention of the Nazis seemed to have been to picture the Jews as being divided between the uncaring rich and the suffering poor and/or as aliens who indulged in strange folk practices. Well-fed Jews are compared to starving Jews; well-dressed, “indifferent” Jews are forced, as the editing process shows, in take after take, to walk past corpses. Rabbis are forced to “demonstrate” a circumcision on a tiny newborn, and leading members of the community are gathered together in an elegant funeral procession. Nude men and women are forced to participate in ritual immersions. A woman is asked to pull aside a quilt to disclose a young girl in a bed, lying still in starvation, waiting to die. Internal contradictions to the Nazi argument are freely filmed. A group of young children caught smuggling food into a ghetto supposedly full of food are forced to shake vegetables out of their clothes. Countering the elegant funeral hearse is a scene where Jewish workers come to collect a pair of corpses left out on the street by their families. The wagon full of corpses is then followed to a “shed” filled with many bodies, which are then hauled off and dumped into a mass grave. Apparently the Nazis never considered the possibility that the intended audience might have taken into account the fact that the Jews were incarcerated in a Ghetto on their own government’s orders. Only Hitler could condemn the Jews to death, but the film blames the Jews for their own slow deaths.
The film was never finished and one wonders why it was even made. Himmler, the master propagandist knew full well that the German public preferred wartime escapism. Earlier attempts at graphic or crude attacks on Jews were not successful, and this film of the Ghetto would have been extremely offensive to any audience. Another reason for putting the film away, aside from its horrifying content, was that the entire Ghetto would have been wiped out by the time of its release. This was a Ghetto that did not give up its condemned easily and an uprising broke out in April and May of 1943, and a Jewish resistance turned the Ghetto into a war zone. It is quite possible that authorities decided that the less said about the Warsaw Ghetto the better. The most curious aspect of this film is the strange combination of visuality—how they filmed everything, apparently without flinching—and blindness—-how the filmmakers utterly failed to see what they, the Nazis, had done to the Jews…. even as they were filming the results of their own actions and the horror.
Today such a film seems to be nothing short of madness, but in its attempts to reflect the guilt back on the Jews as deserving their own fate only mirror the sentiments of many Germans for decades after the war. Watson discussed the impact of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin upon Germany. The idea of the “survival of the fittest” was horribly twisted against the Jews: they died because they deserved to die. Perhaps the most difficult sights one must endure in this film is that of children who have somehow lost their parents. They seem to be under six, but it is hard to tell the age of a child starving alone in the streets. Sometimes the children grouped together—perhaps they were siblings—and lean against a building, waiting for their tiny lives to end. The witnesses admit to a communal indifference to the suffering of others, who were outside their family circle. But it is clear that indifference is part of survival and that loss of humanity is part of staying alive.
Peter Watson’s book, The German Genius, discussed one of the key elements of German philosophy, the introduction of the concept of a critical analysis. In her review of this film in The New York Times, Jeannette Catsolusis, remarked that the director “embarks on a critical analysis of Das Ghetto,” and one cannot but be struck with the irony of an Israeli using the methods of German philosophers against the very Nazis who appropriated the great names of their tradition and sullied them by associating thinkers with the Nazis. A classical philosophical critique is the close reading of a document, which reveal its structure. Classic deconstruction of a document is a close reading, which extends critique to seek out the inconsistencies that disrupt the intention of the author. Rarely has a piece of writing (if we can dignify the Nazi film by putting it into the category of “literature”) so turned against itself. The graphic images of the condemned, the dying and the dead cancel out any possible propaganda effects. A Film Unfinished is not for children and young people should be cautioned but this film is rarity: a preserved German-made record of their own loss of humanity. The film, unfinished or no, is a document of guilt; it is an admission by the perpetrators of their unimaginable crimes.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger