by Judith Weisenfeld
One of the summer's big political stories involved conservative activist Andrew Brietbart's selective editing of a video of USDA employee Shirley Sherrod speaking before an NAACP meeting. Sherrod recounted how, in the course of her work with struggling farmers, she was awakened to the need to move beyond an often violent history of race relations and recognize other forms of solidarity across racial lines.
In Brietbart's hands, a speech about a profound moral transformation became a racist screed against whites. And, broadcast repeatedly on conservative media outlets, the edited version of Sherrod's words acquired the power of truth.
Yael Hersonski takes up similar questions about images and the fragility of authenticity in her work A Film Unfinished, which premiered recently in New York City. Hersonski examines film footage made by the Nazis in Warsaw in 1942, partially edited into a 62-minute documentary and then deposited in a vault to remain forgotten for over a decade. Once rediscovered, the wrenching scenes of Jewish suffering helped the unfinished film quickly achieve the status of an authoritative representation of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. Portions of the Nazi footage were incorporated into post-war documentaries about the atrocities of the Holocaust.
In 1998, however, the discovery of two additional reels from the same film project called into question the documentary nature of the Nazis' intentions. The newly discovered material revealed that the filmmakers had staged their “documentary,” shot multiple takes and compelled starving Ghetto internees to appear before the camera. While the exact purpose and intended audience for the Nazi film remain unknown, the filmmakers' placement of some internees in scenes of luxury was undoubtedly aimed at arguing that wealthy Jews were indifferent to the suffering of their fellow Jews.
Hersonski thus dismantles the apparatus of authenticity that has long surrounded the Nazi film, raising questions about whether footage of suffering taken by perpetrators can credibly represent victims' experiences and exploring how media constructions of the past shape contemporary spectatorship.
A Film Unfinished also challenges those interested in media to consider the functions of images of religion in documentaries. In this case, the Nazi filmmakers staged a number of religious rituals, including a funeral not in keeping with Jewish practice, the circumcision of a starving infant and men and women immersing themselves in a ritual bath. In a review in Heeb magazine, “Jewdar” wonders whether the goal of including these scenes “ultimately wasn't propaganda but anthropology–the Nazis making a video record of the quaint customs and rituals of what were supposed to be Europe's last Jews in their natural habitat.”
The victims themselves thought otherwise. One observer of the making of the project noted in a diary that, once the ghetto residents were ordered to participate in these staged rituals, he knew definitively that no good could come of the film. In staging the religious scenes and filming them through an exoticizing lens, the Nazis positioned their filmic construction of Judaism as a component of their argument for Jewish depravity.
A Film Unfinished reminds us not only of the often fraught nature of documentary truth, but also of the particular power of representations of religious life. In a piece on Hersonski's film in Senses of Cinema, Bérénice Reynaud leaves us with the hopeful interpretation that the unwilling participants' failure to “correct” the Nazi stagings of Jewish ritual was a message to the future, that “the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto made it possible for us, now, to know with certainty that this scene was nothing but an instance of Nazi propaganda.”
This underscores our responsibility to be attentive to such messages in other “documentary” productions, particularly given the current media context. The intense repetition of crafted stories, as in the case of the edited version of Shirley Sherrod's speech, makes it difficult but all the more vital to challenge their distortion of the truth.
Judith Weisenfeld is Professor of Religion and Associate Faculty in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author most recently of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (University of California Press, 2007).