<em>A Film Unfinished</em>, directed by Yael Hersonski, 2010.

A Film Unfinished, directed by Yael Hersonski, 2010. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Even knowing what we know today, some of the sequences have a look of such stark immediacy that they evoke a communicative power of cinematic craft that transcends the obvious ideological frame of staged banquets and nightclub hijinks. It may indeed be possible to coerce the appearance of revelry, but the look of one who has stared into the face of death and sees its reflection in the camera lens is impossible to fake.

Eventually, a final cache of film was uncovered that made it absolutely clear that even some of the sequences that carry the most verité feel were carefully staged and often shot in a series of takes. The implications of this discovery for the archival status of the German footage, as well as the immediate impact of the filming on the inhabitants of the Ghetto, has been meticulously explored in Yael Hersonski’s stark and disturbing A Film Unfinished (2010).13 The raw footage is now contextualized by framing footage, voiceover, and the commentaries of both Ghetto survivors and Willy Wist, the only one of the German cameramen that it proved possible to trace.

No doubt, this has robbed the original footage of its once presumptive archival status (especially in comparison to the Oyneg Shabes) by exposing it as constructed rather than “externalized” memory. But that has not, or at least not in the same way, erased its value as an important historical document; and it raises as well a troubling question of the extent to which the difference between the categories “constructed” and “externalized” is really as definitive as we might presume or desire. Certainly for the German cameraman, the Nazi footage is the Ghetto archive. And as we watch Hersonski’s film we witness the playing out of a powerful drama of repressed memory (after the end of the War, Willy Wist abandoned cinema for a career as a scrap metal dealer) and forced recollection. One feels on the one hand that the Nazi project has rendered cinematography virtually a crime against humanity. On the other, we can see the work of Wist and his comrades as a forced testimony (and forced in a way never originally intended) to precisely the dehumanizing brutality that they transcribe in light and shade via the chemical emulsion on their film.

For the survivors as well, the experience of the film within the film is clearly complex, since they, undoubtedly more so than anyone else, are aware of all the fractures and discontinuities enshrined in its images—moved to tears both by the enormity of the truths and the falsehoods that it evokes in relation to the individual memories that comprise for each a personal, internal archive of suffering and death.

What is at stake here is clearly the fate of an archive much more encompassing than the personal system of mnemonic traces that for Freud could provide a record of the articulation of the individual psyche. As the authors of the Oyneg Shabes were well aware, theirs was a struggle to articulate and (if possible) preserve the cultural memory of Eastern European Jewry, even as that culture seemed to hang on the brink of a final and total obliteration. In one sense, theirs was a special case: the Nazi drive to erase the Jews of Europe except as a cultural “memory” constructed by themselves as an externalization of a willfully false and ideologically determined image is conventionally seen as without historical precedent or parallel, at least in the modern world. The holocaust is both a terminal and an originating event: the apocalyptic end of the tradition of Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism and the degree zero of a post-humanist world where “NEVER AGAIN!” has become a cry that echoes from Cambodia to Sarajevo to Rwanda and beyond, and “genocide” has become a term of art in international law.

Except that this may not be entirely or inevitably the case. As Emanuel Ringelblum wrote in his diary on June 26, 1942, as news about the Polish holocaust was being broadcast on the BBC: “maybe we’ll be saved after all.” For himself and most of his co-workers it was a vain hope. But perhaps not for the culture, the memory of which was externalized by the Oyneg Shabes. And perhaps not for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.


  1. A Film Unfinished, directed by Yael Hersonski (Belfilms Ltd., 2010).
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