Why Did the Nazis Film the Dying Jews of Warsaw?

“A Film Unfinished,” which the MPAA has given an R rating, investigates a mysterious Nazi movie production, a 30-day shoot inside the Warsaw Ghetto shortly before it was liquidated in 1942.

TEL AVIV – In a French-themed café a block from the teeming beach, producer Noemi Schory explained why her new Holocaust documentary, “A Film Unfinished,” did not deserve the R rating that the MPAA handed down last week after a final appeal.

Yes, she said, the film has shocking images: corpses on the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto, starving children, a mass grave. And some nudity: naked men, and then women, entering a ritual bath.

It is a harsh film, even a brutal one. But it is also an historical document that until now has been unseen by the public, and whose purpose remains a mystery.

“I am upset about (the rating) theoretically, and practically this will create difficulties,” she said, ignoring an iced lemonade. “It puts up another obstacle to seeing it. “

With whichever rating, ‘A  Film Unfinished’ is not a typical Holocaust documentary. Instead it investigates a mysterious Nazi movie production, a 30-day shoot inside the Warsaw Ghetto conducted by three Nazi film crews, shortly before it was liquidated in 1942.

The film is far too elaborate to have been a mere newsreel propaganda exercise. There were many staged scenes of “wealthy” Jews living opulently inside the ghetto, juxtaposed with the degradation of the poor Jews there dying of starvation and disease.

Schory, a veteran filmmaker who got to know the footage intimately when making a series of short films for Israel’s Yad Vashem museum, teamed up with a young director, Yael Hersonski, to make the film over four long years.

They pieced together contemperaneous diaries, testimony of a Nazi cameraman and interviews with survivors to understand the film and its purpose. But the film was never completed, its producers have disappeared and it has never been fully seen by the public.

“We don’t know why they made it,” said Schory. “There is a theory, based on the diary of (Propaganda Minister Joseph) Goebbels that they were preparing documentation for a future museum in Prague, studying this race that would be wiped out.”

That theory certainly seems plausible, given the staged scenes of circumcision, ritual bath, marriage, and burial. If so, Schory says, it’s all the more important to see the film in its entirety, to understand the purpose and power of the images.

“I don’t think there’s a Holocuast-lite approach,” Schory said. “Either you want to know about it, and you look it in the eyes – or you don’t. We’re not in the fiction business. This is a historic document. It is important for young people to see it.”

And now she’s concerned that because of the rating, they won’t. School officials considering the film, she said, will probably skip it because of the R. The project began as an exploration of visual memory: how do we visualize the past? What shapes those impressions?

“I realized that 90 percent of our visual memory of the Holocaust is German propaganda,” Schory said. There is a small amount of footage taken by American soldiers who liberated concentration camps, but the vast majority of imagery was taken by German film crews working for the Nazi regime." That alone is a chilling thought.

The film, which is being released by Oscilloscope, begins its roll-out this coming week in New York.