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Finishing Touches

October 14, 2010 By:
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Brad Lidge may be Charlie Manuel's Rolaids of a reliever, but when history had some unfinished business to attend to, it was Yael Hersonski who got the call for the save.

Hersonski's "A Film Unfinished" finishes off what fiction couldn't hang onto. Opening on Oct. 15 at the Landmark Ritz at the Bourse, this landmark documentary details the reality of everyday life for those interned in the Warsaw ghetto -- belying the bloated "sophisticated" take Nazis used to embellish their own documentary made in 1942.
 
That effort, "Ghetto," gets its comeuppance as Hersonski's film focuses on the fear -- and not the fictional "fun" -- that jump-started every Jew's day encamped in hours of endless horror.
 
It was all personal for the filmmaker, who projected the idea of finding out what really occurred in Poland after a personal loss: When her bubba, a survivor of the ghetto, died earlier this decade, with memories of her life unrevealed -- she never talked about her Warsaw experiences, relates the filmmaker -- Hersonski sought her answers in research.
 
A film editor herself, Hersonski came upon wartime Germany's heinous editing of history in rarely unspooled film accounts holed up in vaults of neglect. What those spools showed filled in the sprockets of the savagery Nazis had inflicted on the minds and souls of their victims.
 
Hersonski, an Israeli whose travels for cinematic tools to unlock the truth took her to Yad Vashem -- where she saw the rough cut of the Nazis' propaganda film -- and the States found her perfect frame of reference in a discovery made by Holocaust film expert Adrian Wood inside a U.S. Air Force base, where the foundation of her own film was awaiting her.
 
Wood had discovered reels of films labeled "Das Ghetto," containing the "director's cut" -- featuring Jewish "actors" taking direction from German soldiers, showing off their inconceivably and laughably luxurious lifestyle as ghetto denizens.
 
Hersonski linked the hurts and the horrors together, piecing a whole out of piecemeal history that the Nazis had left behind. "A Film Unfinished" -- incorporating scenes of Warsaw ghetto survivors watching the Nazi film unfold in front of them in a darkened theater-- is a wholly different Holocaust film than ever seen before.
 
"I started this film out," recalls Hersonski, "exploring an ethical point: How do we use archival footage?"
 
The answer is searing, as she tries to "educate viewers how to see film through an ethical prism."
 
And prison -- which is how the ghetto victims lived their claustrophobic, closed-off lives. The images, concedes Hersonski, "are difficult" to watch, as black-and-white visages of victims betray the bounty of colorless futures awaiting them, despite the Nazis nefarious attempts at propaganda cover-up.
 
As time takes the lives of survivors one after the other, leaving history only with memory, Hersonski's historical work was accomplished with a sense of urgency, to beat the eternally ticking clock. For a better understanding of what she heard and read during research, "I studied German to make sure I understood everything -- that there would be no stone unturned."
 
Perhaps the film's turning point is a re-enactment of the late cameraman Willy Wist's wistful comments, distilled from a previous interview, giving chilling credence to the mindset of the Nazi propagandists.
 
And who would think that the head of the Jewish Council's apartment would be camera-ready? Indeed, the film reveals that scenes of the once-vaulted and now vaunted German "ghetto" footage was shot in the apartment of Adam Cherniakov, who headed up the Jewish Council.
 
But butting heads in bringing truth to the screen brought Hersonski hurtling toward an unimaginable obstacle: The Motion Picture Association of America has given the filmmaker and the film itself a slap to the face by slapping an R rating on the project, restricting its audiences, keeping out a sizable section of young viewers whose images of the Holocaust may be filled with holes brought on by real life fading to black.
 
The naked and the dead: Scenes of nudity as men and women await death is purportedly the point of the restrictive rating. Hersonski says she was hesitant to lash out: "At the end of the day, I am an Israeli citizen, not an American. I am a guest here."
 
And one who has tripped over the welcome mat.
 
"The MPAA is forgetting about the scenes' context and focusing on the images," a mistake she considers unimaginable given that the Steven Spielberg/ Shoah Foundation documentary of Hungarian Jews facing "The Last Days" (1998) came first, and sported a PG-13 rating despite its graphic nature.
 
"What is the message here? I don't understand."
 
More important may be the message the movie makes as it deconstructs the deception of footage made decades back, and delineates how what you see isn't necessarily all that you get.
 
Maybe what it also gets Hersonski is a better understanding of her grandmother, and the silence of the past that enveloped her and many other survivors -- a silence, says the granddaughter, "that had a poisonous effect" on future generations.
 
But "A Film Unfinished" may find its own role as coda for the cruel lies of the past. However it reshapes history, the filmmaker claims that she needs some time to get into shape after her emotionally draining past four years.
 
Finishing touches? "I am going to take time out from this period of history," she says of future cinematic efforts.

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