Yael Hersonski- Interview
Just when you thought that everything has been unearthed about what happened to Jews in the holocaust filmmaker Yael Heronski unearths documentary footage, shot by Nazis, about life in a Warsaw ghetto. It was mere months before this very same ghetto would be purged of its residents, the remainder still around shipped off and sent to their certain death.
What Heronski found in the footage that was once thought complete, the movie on display here showing the lengths to which the Nazis wanted to craft their own narrative that stretched the truth about what was happening inside these claustrophobic walls of half a million Jews that were contained within 3 square miles. From retakes that had poor, starving children looking just as forlorn and despondent as they did the first time they were put in front of the camera to the indignities that women had to suffer as their nude bodies were objects to be film and exploited, as if they were cattle to be assessed, are things of nightmares. Yael wanted to make a movie that went beyond outrage, to showcase the pure and unrepentant horror that were these men who took this film, and she did exactly that.
Praised with reviews from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times this is no ordinary documentary about the atrocities of an army bent on complete ethnic cleansing, this is a singular portrait that embodies the kind of inhumane and cruelty man is capable of. It may very well be presumptuous to say this is the kind of film that belongs in history classes everywhere but it does. It’s a historical document that cuts through the Hollywood glamorization of a time that time would like to forget but never will.
Oscilloscope Laboratories, the production company putting out A Film Unfinished and headed by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, recently gave the MPAA a piece of its mind when the rating body saddled the film with an R rating. A sad decision that prompted Yauch to respond: “This is too important of a historical document to ban from classrooms. While there’s no doubt that Holocaust atrocities are displayed, if teachers feel their students are ready to understand what happened, it’s essential that young people are given the opportunity to see this film. Why deny them the chance to learn about this critical part of our human history? I understand that the MPAA wants to protect children’s eyes from things that are too overwhelming, but they’ve really gone too far this time. It’s bullshit.”
Yael spoke with me last week and we talked about the film which is now open in New York and Los Angeles and will be opening wide as the weeks roll on.
Check out the movie’s official site for release dates about when it will be coming to a theater near you.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Thank you for fitting me into your schedule. You are probably all sorts of busy.
YAEL HERSONSKI: Given that I am leaving on Sunday, I am trying to use every minute here.
CS: I just read what the New York Times had to say about the movie. That must be very uplifting.
HERSONSKI: Yes. I was very fortunate to have this kind of a review.
CS: I would like to just get right into it and talk about, now that the finished product is now out and people are responding to it in a positive way, how did you approach this project and how were you the one to put this together?
HERSONSKI: I think it was after I decided to do a project on the Holocaust not only because of the Holocaust’s inhumanity and inconceivable horror but mainly because it’s marked the beginning of the systematic documentation of the Ghetto. I thought of it also as a case study of the images we’re bombarded with today. I think there is a kind of numbness today and we cannot emotionally digest what we are actually seeing. We are watching, but I don’t think we want to see anymore.
I was thinking, too, of where it all started and I think it all started there, at the point of documentation. Then I decided to approach one of the most prominent film producers in Israel, of documentary films, and he gave me a list of footage I should watch. To just watch and try to understand the most familiar footage they used. And that film was among them. And when I saw it, I was shocked. I literally experienced a kind of anxiety not only because of the images but also because I knew some of them and saw them in so many other films I was never able to understand what I was seeing because it was out of the full context. Have you seen the film?
CS: Yes, I have.
HERONSKI: OK, so the scene in which you see the naked women going into the ritual bath, at the Polish museum they called the footage “Ritual Bath.”. I thought it is hard to believe for me today but when I saw it then I couldn’t realize how anxious and terrorized and terrified these women were because it was titled like an objective documentation of real life inside the ghetto. Being able to see the whole sequence, however, I suddenly saw much more. It was the same image but I couldn’t and didn’t realize that these women were having something very close to an anxiety attack and they had a good reason because they were naked and surrounded by uniformed men who were pointing cameras at them. It was a terrifying experience and I think in learning about how these images were made shifts the place of the horror to its real place.
CS: And that leads into something I was going to talk to you about. I know there are moments in the film where moments are done again, and again, and again, and to my eye I can’t see what they were doing so many takes for. It’s as if they were obsessing over a shot they wanted to get perfect. Did you try and understand the actual filmmaking process of what they were obsessing about?
HERSONSKI: I have no idea. Eventually when we see the children just gazing at the window shop of the meat store that’s all they had to do was just stare. Period. We had something like seven takes of this same action. I don’t know what their problem was. Maybe the lighting was not satisfying. I have no idea. But one thing is clear here. This is one of the most amazing moments I read in the protocols of the Nazis with the camermen. It was written in German so I read it slowly. “It was very difficult for us to shoot this film…” And I’m sure, at this point, I’m going to read an emotional confession and the next line is, “because we didn’t have enough lighting equipment.” It was difficult because they didn’t have enough film equipment.
These guys were occupied with the lighting and all the small details on how to make the shot and just not to see – the ability to see the ability to watch something - but not do see. Inside the ghetto they were filming but they are not realizing, not able to realize what it is they are perpetrating.
CS: And it strikes me, you talked about it earlier, their preoccupation with something that was completely irrelevant – the level of suffering at their own hands – that they are meting out. The men who film this are just completely numb to what they’re doing and I think it’s almost that you can just extrapolate it to the larger picture of Nazism in general. I am just astounded that they were able to do this without any sort of moral hesitation – for lack of a better word.
HERSONSKI: I think it’s such a different situation that we not only know, but can imagine, that I preferred not to judge the cameraman – not to judge what he is saying because the protocols are what they are. I didn’t change one comma, one word, from what he was saying in the very strange phrasing in German that he used. I don’t know and I don’t want to guess what he knew or didn’t know or whether he realized what he was doing while doing that and what he realized just after the war. I just don’t know.
I guess that if it was not conscious that he’s part of something – if it was not in his conscious level, maybe a subliminal - because in fact, after the war, he did change his profession and he was driving to the east to the film archive. Somehow he managed to find his own cameraman, take all his reels, and took them home and burned it. This is not a series of actions of someone who feels innocent. I feel that they cannot understand the reality of living inside the ghetto, therefore I won’t bother even to imagine how it feels to film there. But for me what was quite astonishing to think about was the fact that 1942 was one of the last years of the ghetto and was one of the most horrendous. 100,000 people died from hunger and diseases and you could see buildings that were full of families really enduring hell.
The reality is that some of this is documented in film like raw material for their own audience. The action of filming. It was one of the most extreme examples of propaganda filmmaking. I don’t think it’s completely alien from contemporary filmmaking that we practice as it is an art skill. When the war was over people laughed and when people stopped suffering around the world we moved on. Easily, I can tell you we live in such an area. The filmmakers documenting the suffering of the Palestinians for a long time are doing so now and I’m trying to understand what does it mean to go to the occupied territories to document suffering of others and go back to your comfortable life.
What does that mean? Many films actually make their point but it doesn’t change the fact that people are still suffering. So I am just raising questions, I don’t have answers.
CS: Is that frustrating as a documentarian or is this just part of the job to raise the questions and not really answer them?
HERSONSKI: I have a very interesting confession with one of the filmmakers that I appreciate the most in Israel. He’s also a political activist and when we were talking about that we came to the conclusion that making films and being an activist cannot be the same thing. Not being an activist by making films. Making films is a visual way of thinking about the world, and reality, in a very deep manner. It’s probably the most complex medium we have, to make something about our perception of reality but it’s not about making a change.
CS: And that’s interesting because I know there are some documentarians out there who use this form as a platform to push their own theories, theses, as they have an idea of how the world looks and craft that as they see fit. I think this is one of the reasons why this film works is because it doesn’t demonize – it literally takes the risk of showing the events as they happened and to let the horror speak for itself. It’s a risk I think some filmmakers have taken and I think you did it as well. That must have just clawed at you, you must have wanted to make some kind of comment about the filmmakers and where they were coming from.
HERSONSKI: Yes. That’s exactly what I was trying to do and not to do; trying not to be on the front page because something which is so much more complex and real speaks for itself that I could have very easily done that. I thought making this film which I thought was first collecting lots of materials and then discovering them and I felt that there was something here that needs to be told but my part here is to be a storyteller and not more than that. It’s a story that shed light on the way we tell stories, let’s put it that way. So I feel I have done my part in collecting the pieces but not more than that.
CS: And if I could ask you just one more question before I let you go, bringing in the survivors of the ghetto to watch the film, one at a time. That was obviously a tough moment for all involved as you probably didn’t know what kind of reaction you would get. How was that build-up when you knew that was going to happen? Did you have anything in mind of how you wanted things to go or was it really just, “Let’s show them the film and just get their reaction”?
HERSONSKI: It was exhausting, difficult, and mysterious. I knew it during filmmaking. It was something that became my nightmares before I did it. Because I knew of the survivors and know how little we know about what they went through. It was extremely difficult for me to ask them to do that.
First of all, I wanted them to know exactly what it was about. They could not imagine it themselves because they didn’t know what the footage was but I explained to them. I didn’t want to intensify the experience of being confronted with these images as much as I could. As well, I knew they wouldn’t have a second chance to see the footage not because they wouldn’t be able to show up again but you wouldn’t want to show this footage to these people again. We have one chance here and if you blow it up it is your business. I really wanted to make sure that they saw these images and commented on them in the best way they could. These people, it was hard for them to see the uniform.
I explained to them, upfront, and those who were hesitating to do it or not I said we prefer they don’t come. The ones who had hesitations had good reasons to hesitate. At the moment I heard them hesitate I said, “OK, I prefer not to do it.” Those who came were the ones who really insisted to do it. Felt great urgency to do it. And felt also that their own personal task to have the final word here over the images because they were the only ones that are alive, that are actually hiding from that film crew, and when we see these images we can’t imagine them several meters away and to have the opportunity to watch these images from a such different perspective. After more than 70 years it is an overwhelming situation. I am speaking here on my own behalf. Of course, I didn’t want to torture them too much, they saw the film, we talked about 30 minutes maybe one hour, there was one woman that was stronger than the others and that’s it. And they wanted to see it again. The finished film, edited. They did come to the screenings and were quite touched by the result.
CS: It’s a film that I think should be required viewing.
HERSONSKI: Thank you so much.
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