False witness: Yael Hersonski on “A Film Unfinished”

Pub date September 28, 2010
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionPixel Vision

Documentaries that “tell” the Holocaust tend to employ archival footage generically as a kind of historical flavoring. It’s rare that we are asked to contemplate either the provenance of the images or the individual lives depicted. Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished simultaneously confronts both of these gaps with a taut historiography of several reels of Nazi propaganda footage. Even in the German film’s inchoate form, we easily apprehend the propagandistic moves to further manipulate an already constructed reality (the Warsaw Ghetto) for objective “proof” of the necessity of Hitler’s Final Solution. And yet here before us, flowing at the speed of life, are the faces and places that would be destroyed within months of the filming.

Hersonski attempts to extricate the documentary value of this footage using frame-speed manipulations and edits which call attention to telling movements. She also films elderly survivors watching the footage alone in a darkened theater. In their capacity for recognition and incredulousness, they unravel the German point-of-view. By weaving these live responses with diary entries of those consigned to the ghetto along with the deposition of a German cameraman, Hersonski draws a fragmentary, highly specific account of the Holocaust’s crisis of representation. We discussed the film in a recent email exchange.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: The question of how to use archival footage responsibly is one that haunts the great Holocaust-themed films — Night and Fog (1955), Shoah (1985), and the films of Péter Forgács all find very different solutions. Can you describe the way your own attitudes regarding the appropriation of this archive developed during the time you worked on A Film Unfinished?

Yael Hersonski: During the last decade I became more and more preoccupied with the thought of the near future, when no Holocaust survivors will be left to remember — the time when the archives will be the only source of witness. I’ve tried to examine the possibilities of exploring the image like an archaeologist analyses a palimpsest, and to excavate, by cinematic means, new layers of reality from beneath the known imagery. I admit that [at one] time I felt that Night and Fog and Shoah were all that a filmmaker could express facing such an inconceivable, unprecedented event. For [Shoah director Claude] Lanzmann, the Holocaust lies firmly outside the archive as the ultimately Other, a black hole which threatens to swallow every visual witness, and thus resists the film archive and its raptures.
Forgács faces the impossibility of bearing witness exactly by confronting the contemporary viewer (who knows how it all ended) with private documentation which was abruptly stopped when the photographer himself was no longer capable of documenting, nor his dear ones of being documented. Forgács’ films introduce me again and again to the immense capacity of footage to reveal, in the form of a private history, the traces of an inconceivable past.

My aim in showing the Warsaw Ghetto footage (for the first time in its entire length) and confronting the images with many points of view about the filmmaking itself was not to tell “the true story” of the Warsaw Ghetto, nor to expose the evil of Nazi propaganda (which was obvious even to the German filmmaker who discovered the reels in 1954), but to make the viewers question the way they see these images and through them perceive the past.

SFBG: Did you set out to interrogate the decontextualization of these images in more conventional visual histories of the Holocaust and Warsaw Ghetto? The logic of many Holocaust documentaries, wittingly or not, is that the content of these images can be separated from the context in which they were made — that what we see speaks for itself. Your film challenges this assumption in many ways.

YH: I’ve always felt that the images from the Holocaust were mainly used the same way: as illustrations for many different stories, as visual background between interviews. We see the same images over and over again, [both] because the quantity of footage is finite (only 10 percent from what the Nazis documented on film survived the war), [but also] because of sheer laziness of filmmakers who find it more comfortable to use what’s [familiar]. The superficial use of an image enables it to show almost nothing — or merely repeats the humiliation of the victims that were captured on film as an anonymous helpless crowd. I emphasize a moment [by slowing it down] in which a woman is protesting against the humiliation caused by filming merely by means of her gaze and her body language. When I know this woman was probably murdered a short time after her image was taken, and when I hear at the same time the cameraman who was filming her speaking about how he could not even imagine what was going on, I feel closer to the reality of that image than I did before.

SFBG: How did you come to the idea of having the survivors respond to the archival footage in place of a more traditional question-and-answer interview? As viewers separated from these events, we’re able to treat these archival images as content — whereas I imagine for the person who was there, it’s inescapable that the footage literally represents how they were seen by the Germans. Were you concerned that you might be putting your subjects through a kind of secondary trauma by having them view the footage in such a way that they didn’t have their hands on the controls?

YH: I was looking not only for survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto, but for those who could actually recall the event of the filming in May 1942. I was quite amazed to locate more than the five survivors I interviewed for the film, because obviously the filming was a negligible event compared with the unimaginable horrors that went on there. When speaking with the survivors, I explained to them in detail how the filming would be done — that they would watch the whole film, alone, on the big screen, that it contained atrocious scenes (I described these), and that obviously it would be a difficult experience. Some of the survivors indeed refused to watch it, and some hesitated. Only those who felt it was their personal obligation to [speak to] the silent images, those who told me that the worst horrors exist not in any footage but in their own memories, [those who thought] it important to add their own point of view to the Nazi perspective — only these people were invited to be filmed. Still, I stopped the screening every time a reel was over and asked if they wished to continue. All of them asked to watch to the very end and felt a great relief after doing so.

The decision to film [the survivors] inside a cinema hall and to show the footage in 35mm stemmed from three [priorities]. First of all, I wanted to intensify the experience of the screening as much as I could, for I knew I would not — not in any case — film these survivors again. After they had given me their approval, I knew I had only one chance. I was also aware that the time of interview would be short, since all of them are physically too fragile to sit for more than two hours in such an intense emotional state. If there was a chance someone could recognize a person in the film or add any other important historical information about the footage, the only way to help them remember was to isolate them from their domestic surroundings and show them the film on the big screen.

The second reason relates to the character of the survivors as witnesses. Roughly [speaking], we can say that there are those survivors who won’t talk about the past, who remain silent merely to be able to live…and there are those who ceaselessly tell their stories, who give lectures and interviews, write books, and so on. They find witnessing [to be] their very vocation and destiny. The survivors who were filmed belong to the group who speaks. They have told their stories many times, and because they can’t tell it all any one time, their memory [often narrows] to [a] single narrative. Other details have remained in a less accessible memory. By changing the traditional scenery of the interview and creating a new interactive space [in which] the survivors were not just storytellers but also viewers and witnesses who comment, I hoped to help them to release some of the memories which [remained unspoken] by them.

The third reason was aesthetic: it was important for me to maintain [every aspect] of the film in relation to the archival documents and documentation itself. My initial idea, even before watching the footage for the first time, was to think of these archives as if they were a brain, with memories and even a subconscious. The labyrinth of the archive, with its knowns and unknowns, the desire to restore and remember, which is simultaneously the impulse to destroy and forget, can be used as a metaphor for our own memories and forgetfulness.

SFBG: Given your film’s deliberate consideration of the way the Nazi footage represents a constructed, stage-managed view of the Jews in the ghetto, I think many viewers might be curious why you choose to visually recreate the interview with Willy Wist. Why is this transcript recreated visually, while the various diary entries are only read?

YH: First of all, the diaries were written, [whereas] the preliminary interrogation with the cameraman was recorded on audio reels (the audio reels were recycled for the next interrogation, and therefore only the paper protocols survived). I insisted on emphasizing the various manners of documentation. Until we found the interrogation’s protocol, the only fact we knew about the cameraman was his name. When I first read the protocols, I was amazed to [discover] what a rare witness I was faced with. These images that we were educated to see in bits and pieces, as if they were some kind of an “objective” anonymous documentation of past events — suddenly there was a specific gaze of a cameraman, with his own impressions, speculations, inner monologues and so on, and he describes himself shooting scenes we can actually see in the footage. [It] enabled me to see the footage not merely as a sequence of images but as a real trace of reality, and as the atrociously painful (for the viewer) medium between the perpetrators and their victims. I knew I’d have to create the cameraman’s witness with different tools to distinguish it from other kinds of testimony, to emphasize the presence of a single gaze behind a single camera.

There is another crucial reason for delivering the texts from the protocols visually. After watching the footage for the first time, I felt there was no way to show it all without having any visual breaks between the different reels. At a certain point, our psychological mechanism of self-defense [prevents us from] absorbing more images, and we find ourselves looking yet not seeing. My goal here was quite the opposite: I was trying to figure out a way to enable the viewer to keep his gaze constantly fresh and involved. My solution was to produce visual breaks which would allow the viewer to dive into these dark waters again and again. Delivering the cameraman’s protocols in a visual way was something that helped me do this. But I was very strict in not changing even a single word from the protocols, not dramatizing it in any way, not working with the actors to establish an imaginary character of a cameraman, not interpreting his words, and most of all, not judging him in any way.


A Film Unfinished opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.