May 1942 is an extraordinary time. In the East, ideally situated after our invasion last year devoured thousands of square miles of the Soviet Union and enabled us to kill and capture several million enemy soldiers, we are resuming offensives and will soon surely have the Russian colossus on its knees. In North Africa General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps is chasing the beaten British into Libya. In the air our Luftwaffe, despite heavy commitments in the East and the Mediterranean, has firepower aplenty to punish British citizens whenever their air force strikes German cities. And in the Pacific, the weak and incompetent Americans, led by phony hero General Douglas MacArthur, have surrendered the rock, Corregidor, where they’d been cringing under Japanese fire since abandoning their comrades in Bataan and the rest of the Philippines.
Our ultimate victory cannot be far distant, and, as the Reich Propaganda Minister in charge of shaping and disseminating all information, it is my duty to cinematically document some, though not all, of the ways we’re defeating our most insidious enemy. We have the perfect place to do this, the Warsaw Ghetto, three square miles of a hellish holding cell for almost a half million Jews. We still have much to do. Forty thousand Jews remain in Berlin and it is difficult to shove them East because many work in our munitions industry, but we will achieve our Final Solution.
Filming of The Ghetto begins in May but, under the circumstances of war, I cannot view dailies to ensure all the scenes are artfully staged and ready to blend in an aesthetically pleasing way. My employees, alas, are not skilled filmmakers but rather common civil servants thrilled to be working on a project they know I’ll soon see. I would like to hire our finest directors but too few remain and are busy in less distressing areas. And for regular movies, I may have to start hiring French actors to replace some of ours who are no longer living in the Reich or anywhere else.
How are things going, I ask my film crews in Warsaw? Fine, wonderful, they report. Hurry up, I warn them. Your subjects have limited availability. When will the film be ready? I can’t wait much longer. That’s it. You’ve already had thirty days. Edit what you have in the finest German style. We’ve done that, Herr Reich Minister. Here it is.
On a silent screen, in approximately this order, this is what I see. Jews beg in the streets while wealthy Jews relax and smoke in a spacious apartment decorated by pretty flowers in a vase. Outside again, the police use sticks to strike unruly people bearing the gaunt and haunted look of starvation. Most of the men have shaved heads, which dramatize their scrawniness. In the next scene elegant ladies eat, drink, and dance with gentlemen in suits. Then more ghastly men with shaved heads appear before yielding to a woman putting on lipstick in a comfortable apartment. Next I see people trying to sleep in a filthy, ruined room. Are those beds? Were they beds? Maybe they’re cardboard. Those Jews will sleep anywhere.
There’s a strong outside action shot of a weakened and crazed woman walking about as she clutches her malnourished baby. More fortunate and utterly unconcerned Jews meanwhile walk up to a butcher with plenty of meat to sell. I will tell you, parenthetically, that last year, when conditions were far better, the Jews had less than two hundred calories a day of nourishment. Gentile Poles received about sixteen hundred daily calories and Germans in Warsaw flourished with twenty-six hundred. Here’s a good scene. Our troops catch Jewish children, urchins every one, trying to smuggle food into The Ghetto and force them to empty vegetables from their coats onto the street. Our policy is clear. Those who smuggle food, or anything else, will be shot.
Wealthy Jews, who reside in the “small ghetto,” now shower and brush their teeth, and shapely women stroll in bathing suits, and smiling ladies in dresses relax and talk outside. From the “large ghetto,” more starving and filthy men look into the camera of death. They won’t receive help from healthy and happy children playing or Jews in a restaurant gorging themselves on food and wine. Rich theatergoers are busy laughing and applauding actors and actresses who emote like volcanoes. There’s plenty of pleasure. Look at those well-fed naked women headed to the Jewish Bath. I like their big busts but am concerned the women project a sense of being herded.
What a dignified funeral procession this is, the deceased taking his final ride in an elegant hearse as dozens of mourners follow to the cemetery. On another street, or perhaps this one the following day, corpses with rigor mortis extend their arms as if in supplication. Jews walk by with chins up, looking straight ahead to the day they’ll be bony corpses tossed onto that slide into a mass grave.
I decide not to execute our untrained film crews, who slopped together footage so disjointed and amateurish I don’t know if The Ghetto is trying to show Jews as greedy and subhuman or that Germans are brutal mass murders. And if even I don’t know then the viewers won’t either, so I order this film sealed and buried in a vault, though I also consider burning it.
It doesn’t matter. In July we start moving Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and by September more than a quarter million have arrived at Treblinka, one of our six special camps for the Final Solution.
Editorial note: Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonki used this footage, discovered in 1954, to fashion a documentary – A Film Unfinished – enhanced by interviews with Warsaw Ghetto survivors and German cameraman Willy Wist, recreated by an actor quoting an official transcript of Wist’s interrogation. This documentary was shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July.
Sources: A Film Unfinished directed by Yael Hersonski; The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943, by Joseph Goebbels; Wikipedia – The Warsaw Ghetto.