No matter what crime, perversity or act of madness the Nazis committed, there’s always a new one to be uncovered. Case in point is A Film Unfinished, a documentary currently opening around the country in which filmmaker Yael Hersonski deconstructs 60 minutes of unedited propaganda footage shot by the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942.
On the surface, the scenes in the unfinished film, snippets of which were used for years as generic footage in Holocaust-related documentaries, look like the real deal: mass street sequences, people unconcernedly passing by the bodies of those who have starved to death, a thriving marketplace, an upscale dinner party and a gala theatrical performance. But as Hersonski shows through careful research and the testimony of several ghetto survivors and one Nazi cameraman, many of these sequences were not only staged, but involved multiple takes, as if they were being made for a commercial project.
“Goebbels wrote in his diary four days before filming began that when they decided to move the Jews to the East [for the Final Solution], it was important to film as many as possible for the future education of the Third Reich,” Hersonski said during a phone interview, referring to the Nazis’ minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. “They meant to create an image of the community in which the upper class is brutal and corrupted … [but] now we know these people passing by the corpses without looking at them were told to enter the frame and look like that.”
But A Film Unfinished is not just about the Holocaust. It is, in fact, about the ways in which we receive, and process, propaganda. Thoughtfully structured and filled with both outrage and sadness, A Film Unfinished, which won an editing prize at this [class name="dont_print_this"][/class]year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a tough movie to watch. Some of the sequences, such as one in which the naked bodies of those who have died from disease and starvation are unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave, are guaranteed to revolt any viewer. The seeming ordinariness of a life in which bodies lie unclaimed in the streets and starving humans of all ages and sexes wander around begging for food is almost impossible to comprehend. That, combined with the reactions of several aged ghetto survivors who are shown watching scenes from the unedited Nazi film, make this a powerful, and unforgettable, experience.
“It enables us to realize how limited we are as viewers when we don’t seek the context,” Hersonski said. “Propaganda exists everywhere, and when you know its language, you are more able to resist the manipulation and are able to detect the truth inside it, because every piece of propaganda is based not just on lies, but on truth.”
The world’s largest human migration occurs every year in China, when 130 million workers return to their distant homes to celebrate the Chinese New Year. In the case of factory workers Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin, this means a two-day, 1,220-mile train, boat and bus odyssey from their jobs in Guangzhou to a small farming village in Sichuan province, where their surly teenaged daughter Qin and her younger brother Yang are being raised by their grandmother.
Director Lixin Fan’s award-winning documentary, Last Train Home, which opens nationally in September, tracks this family story and uses it as a metaphor for a country in violent transition. These migrant workers have helped make China the industrial colossus it is becoming, yet they have benefited little from the new prosperity. They leave their rural towns in western China and move to the industrial areas in the east and south to earn a better living, but they work in sweatshop-like conditions, earn pitiful salaries and have few legal rights.
Even worse, if the Zhang family is any indication, because of long separations (the Zhangs left 16 years ago, when Qin was just a baby), children grow up resentful of their parents’ absence, bored with their dreary surroundings and eager to shuck their educations and head off to the bright lights of the big city — which is what Qin does at the end of the film, by moving to Shenzhen, where she obtains work in a disco club and adopts a party-’til-you-drop lifestyle.
Like the best verité documentaries, Last Train Home features some astonishing, and all too real, set pieces. There’s the utter chaos at the Guangzhou train station, as thousands of passengers, all carrying heavy bundles, wait for transportation that will carry them home. A physical fight between Zhang and Qin over her boorish behavior serves to emphasize how the parents’ prolonged absence has turned their children against them (even the younger Yang, who is about 11, seems ready to drop his schooling and decamp from the family’s rural village). And at the end, when Chen returns home for good in order to save what’s left of the family, leaving Zhang by himself in the big city, the effect is devastating.
In a director’s statement accompanying the film’s production notes, Lixin Fan said that “on a national level, China is dashing to become a richer country. Should tradition, morality, and humanity be drowned in a world of tireless rumbling factories is a question we should ask. For a government to keep the fine balance between the economic development and the welfare of all people is the ultimate challenge in a time of change.”
Last Train Home visualizes these challenges in stirring, and often moving, fashion.