Monday, October 04, 2010

A Film Unfinished

Sorry, again, oh readers mine, for taking another week and more to post anything. I shall try to make it up to you by running through a whole month of films at a go - though already I find myself derailed from that project. Some of the films have proven too interesting to leave in a roundup post. And so? Let's start with one film, and go from there...

A Film Unfinished - (13/15) - a fairly remarkable documentary, directed by Yael Hersonski, about a film shot by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1942. The Nazis shot it, edited it, but never put a sound track, or words to it - it was found after the war in a bunker, and studied through the years. A Film Unfinished examines this film - shows it, but does so with the heavy annotation of its soundtrack. The Nazi film is a strange mixture of scenes of luxury and comfort alongside utter despair - starvation, death, degradation... Without a soundtrack, without documentation, it was not clear what the film was meant as, what the Germans had in mind - as more information appeared, some of the intentions could be guessed at, and the accuracy and nature of the footage itself was better understood.

Hersonski's film, in essence, annotates the Nazi film - we see the German film, and hear a variety of voices copmmenting on it, as well as seeing other footage that helps clarify it. The commentary follows a couple main themes. One is a correction of the Nazi film, accomplished in a couple ways. Hersonski seeks to expose the reality behind the staging of the footage - quoting diaries, showing survivors commenting on the film's deceptions, showing clips from an outtake reel, etc. We learn about the logistics of the shoot- what was staged and how, who was involved, in some cases. At the same time, the soundtrack corrects the Nazis use of the imagery. It's not certain what they would have done with this footage - but it's possible to imagine. Going on the way other anti-semitic propaganda films were put together, we can guess what might have been said, Some of the scenes seem to be directly referencing, repeating, imagery from films like The Eternal Jew - there are scenes of Jewish customs, including a circumcision, that seems aimed at the same effect as the kosher slaughter house in The Eternal Jew - there's a passage showing well off (and very western European) Jews standing next to beggars (many of them seemingly chosen for their more stereotypical appearance) - which seems to echo the dissolves in The Eternal Jew between men shown in traditional Jewish costumes and then western European clothing.

It isn't hard to imagine what might have been said. You can see the same themes appearing - the Nazi's way of depicting Jews as both all powerful and degenerate, of being both a distinct, unmistakeable race, and chameleons, blending into their surroundings... there's a kind of shamelessness to the Nazi's logic in those films - they will say anything about their enemies that will make them sound bad. They would take any imagery, no matter how it might contradict the other imagery in the film, and find a way to add an interpretation to it that makes their targets evil. Though maybe worse than that - many of their propaganda films worked by showing something very close to reality, that is altered - and the altered reality injected into the real world, as if it were already there. That method is on display here - this film shows Jewish rituals, prayers, schools, a funeral, a theater, a bath, a circumcision, a chicken being slaughtered - all "real", but many of the incidents altered, faked. It is shot to give it the appearance of reality - but is warped. One of the main function of the comments on the film is to highlight these moments - almost incidental remarks, that indicate the ways the Nazis slipped things into reality. A woman says that Jewish people don't use coffins; others note that the films shows a circumcision taking place in a home, when in fact it would have taken place in a hospital. Details - but this kind of approach is too common to ignore.

This is something that the Nazis did, constantly, systematically. They were constantly trying to inject their version of reality into the real world. They liked to act out their fictions, to live them - to treat them as real, to make them real. They had a way of staging real life as a spectacle to be watched - and to try, very hard, to act on their fictions as though they were real... I think this appears in their anti-Semitic propaganda films - they try to create an image of Jews that justifies their hatred - they do it by insinuating their fictions into the real world. These propaganda documentaries serve that end - by creating the appearance of reality, by including enough actual reality - and then twisting the reality, adding to it, and treating the inventions as reality, as utterly continuous with reality. There's a project, in Nazi Germany, that certain includes its anti-semitism, but goes beyond it, to reinvent the world, to make the world a different world - to obliterate, in doing so, the objective world, substituting a very close copy, but one consisting of what the Nazis wanted to be true... And - getting back to the film at hand - I think the filmmakers are able to bring this tendency out - not explicitly, in my terms, but by carefully working through the material, showing (when possible) what was real, what was not, and where the seams are. Because part of the danger is to forget that the Nazis were starting with real people, real places, real lives and events - and that those people and places and events have their own stories as well, have existence beyond the imagination of the Nazis. This film does bring some of that out - through the words of the people involved - diaries and survivors' accounts and reports and testimony by one of the cameramen at a war crime trial many years later - by showing the outtakes and retakes, by showing color home movies one of the cameramen took - by freezing on the fleeting shots of the German filmmakers themselves. It highlights the ways the images we see are constructions of the filmmakers, while bringing forward the independent reality of the things and people in the films. To break the tendency to either accept what you see as absolute truth, or to give up the notion of truth - to treat everything as constructions, subjectivity, imagination.

I think - watching Nazi films in particular brings this very point home: that you can not ever forget that what is in the world is in the world, regardless of what someone may do with it. The imagery in this film - in one sense, it is very fragile - at the mercy of what someone might say about it. If the Nazis had completed a soundtrack for this film - it would have twisted what is there, made something terrible of it. Hersonski's soundtrack - also adds to the imagery, changes it, though it succeeds, I'd say, for two simple reasons. First - because it is, as far as it can be, true; second, because it never lets the process of interpreting these images get too far out of sight. Yet - at the same time - this imagery, in fact, almost any imagery, however wrapped in illusions it may be - is very strong - it resists what can be said. There is this - that the people we see in this film lived, in a time and a place - and most of them died, in a time and a place (and that fact is never far from anyone's mind here...) But whatever use might be made of them - they were there.

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