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Originally published Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 3:02 PM

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Movie review

'A Film Unfinished': Holocaust documentary 'finishes' incomplete Nazi propaganda film

"A Film Unfinished," a documentary by Yael Hersonski, takes a Nazi propaganda film — never completed — and "finishes" it.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'A Film Unfinished,' a documentary directed by Yael Hersonski. 89 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In English, Hebrew, German, Polish and Yiddish, with English subtitles where necessary. Uptown.

"This is the story of a film that was never completed," begins the sober narration of the Holocaust documentary "A Film Unfinished" — a film that is, in itself, an act of completion. Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski devotes much of her documentary's running time to footage that is not her own: It is an unfinished propaganda film, shot by Nazis in Warsaw in May 1942, titled simply "Ghetto." Discovered after the war, the film contains horrific images of starvation, poverty and humiliation, interspersed with surreal scenes of well-dressed Jews enjoying a restaurant dinner or an urban stroll.

To this, Hersonski adds an additional reel, shot by the same filmmakers and discovered in a film vault in 1998: It's made up of outtakes, through which we see that these supposed "documentary" scenes were staged, in multiple takes. A corpse is hauled into a coffin, as passers-by look on with little interest — once, twice, three times. A scene in a restaurant is captured from multiple angles. An elaborate fake funeral is staged. Occasionally we see glimpses of an unsmiling cameraman — intent on capturing a lie — or a subject gazing coldly at the camera, in mute fury.

It would be remarkable (and chilling) enough to simply watch the old footage, some of which is badly decaying — the images appear to be almost eating themselves. But Hersonski adds two more levels to the experience. She includes an odd sequence using actors that seems out of place and cheapens the rest of the footage; it's not needed, and feels like a self-consciously arty flourish.

More importantly, though, she found witnesses: four women and one man who were children in the Warsaw Ghetto and who remember the filming. Each watches the footage alone, and it's devastating to see the impact on them ("What if I see someone I know?" moans one woman) — yet inspiring to realize that the truth still lives. "Today I am human," says one survivor, bravely watching the horror of her past. "Today I can cry."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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