“A MOVIE LIKE NO OTHER” by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger

Mar 11th, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Reflections & Observations
I cannot just go home.

Walking out of the theatre after seeing the movie “A Film Unfinished,” I realize I cannot go straight home. I need to stop at my office, sit down at my computer and begin capturing and recording my thoughts and emotions as they float in my head, before I risk letting them pop and be gone like so many soap bubbles.

For those who may not have heard of it, “A Film Unfinished” is based on a series of movie reels found hidden in a secret vault in East Germany. The reels contained raw footage shot by SS cameramen in the Warsaw Ghetto. The reels had never been edited, but they had clearly been intended to be made into a film depicting aspects of Jewish life – both real and staged – inside the Ghetto. The propaganda piece would be used to further the Nazi agenda about the “Jewish problem” and about why the German solution was justified.

REALITY SHOCK

Besides the abject evil revealed in the cynical design of the planned movie – hiring actors to dine in luxury at parties to make it appear that Jews were living it up inside the Ghetto, and then having them walk by starving waifs in the streets as if to say Jews show no concern for their own unfortunate brothers – and the shock of having one of the actual cameramen relate his memories decades later, I was struck by the realization that much of the raw footage captured in the reels was in fact not staged. These were actual film images of the Warsaw Ghetto in all its ghastly truth, a genuine window into a reality that was taking place in my own world a scant eighteen years prior to my birth! Until seeing this film, my awareness of events of the Holocaust was mostly limited to printed material, still photographs, and testimony from survivors. The pictures have always evoked a sense of a distant past – an old world far removed from my own. How strange and different to see videographic images of actual ghetto streets, complete with streetcars and pushcarts, thousands bustling here and there in an area teeming with a population too large for its dimensions. How jarring to watch ordinary Jews dressed like anyone else from my grandparents’ generation (except for the ubiquitous Magen David sleeve-band) walking to or from home or activities, passing each other but also passing desperate mothers begging for bread, children lying listlessly on curbs or on makeshift beds in make-do rooms with eye sockets sunken from hunger, and corpses pressed up against storefronts along the sidewalk, all captured on movie film no different from the Super 8 home movies I watched growing up. The biggest jolt came when one of the reels went briefly to color. Black and white footage the mind can somehow relegate to pre-war history. But color film feels tangible and present, and the images they portray cannot be easily dismissed.

PERSPECTIVE NOT THAT OF A SURVIVOR

I imagine my reaction to the film is very different from that of an actual Holocaust survivor. In my case, I don’t even believe my reaction is one of a child of survivors. Although my father escaped the German occupation of Denmark and the attempted round-up of Copenhagen’s Jews, he seems to have emerged unscarred by the trauma, and it wasn’t until he began speaking publicly about the Rescue that it even dawned on me that I could be considered the child of a survivor. While I was riveted to the screen, there was nothing I couldn’t watch (as was the case with the three Ghetto survivors the film producers had brought in to comment on the discovered reels). My disquietude was more about needing to understand what message the movie bore for me. What was I to take out of seeing this horrific reality I am unable to deny? What lesson do I have to learn? One particular message soon began to emerge.

SEEING THE JEW AS A CARICATURE

The SS cameramen, under orders from the project’s overseers, insisted on getting Jewish rituals down on film, staging a bris, a funeral, and a nonsensical communal visit to a mikveh. It slowly became clear to me that when the Nazi saw a Jew, he saw a caricature of the Jew – an external projection without an inner essence. This projection might be that of a wealthy Jew, a poor and downtrodden Jew, a religious Jew, an appeasing Jew, a dead Jew, but it was always a caricature. To the German oppressor, the Jew possessed no dimension to his humanity. The Jew was not feeling; not thoughtful; not contemplative; not spiritual. The German adversary saw the rituals of the Jew in the same way. They too were caricatures – benighted traditions devoid of inner content. The bris, to the blind Nazi cataloguer, was not an exalted transfusion of Abraham’s covenant into a fresh regeneration of his offspring. The bearded faces of the elderly rabbis were not the hadrat panim reflecting the glory of wisdom and experience. The holy mikveh waters were not the wellspring of purity and rebirth we understand them to be. They were all empty rituals, unworthy of a progressive world and its enlightened agenda. Indeed, the Jew himself, caricature as they saw him, belonged in a museum exhibit, not on the streets where his inscrutable behavior and regressive practices could only weigh down a human race focused on dynamic growth, development, and ambition.

But the insight actually prodded me into thinking about the way we see ourselves as Jews. Seeing it all through the lens of the Nazi camera made it a source of visceral disgust. But to completely reject the German mentality we have to demand nothing less of ourselves than total internal honesty. Are we flawless in our commitment to see the depth in ourselves and our fellow Jews? Are we sensitive to the essence of our Jewish observance as opposed to just its surface? With a dawning chill I began to realize that if we, G-d forbid, neglect the inner dimensions of our sacred laws and allow our mitzvos to become inert rituals devoid of context and character, we are being ineffective in rejecting the Nazis’ callous depiction of our lives and our customs as pure caricature.

The message I took from the film is the imperative we must adopt as Jews to see ourselves as divinely-inspired human beings living for a cause far broader than ourselves, immensely crucial to all humanity, deeply worthy of all our sacrifice. We must resist the impulse to embrace empty “traditions” that have no ability to advance our cause because they have no ability to transcend our limited perceptions of truth. We must learn enough Torah so that we know how to express meaning with our actions. And as individual Jews, we must carry ourselves with dignity, act with conviction, value our masters and master our values. We must search for truth and demand its veracity. We must fight mediocrity and perplexity, remaining vital and untiring; compassionate yet unyielding; deliberate and forbearing. We dare not ever see ourselves or our conduct as the evil Germans tried to see us, as caricatures. Our Torah study must be real; our piety must be genuine; our commitment must be serious. Otherwise we continue to empower the very evil that sought to destroy us in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The German beasts who dehumanized us before murdering us are universally identified with the nation of Amalek, whose defeat we savor this month during the upcoming holiday of Purim. And our Sages read the name “Amalek” as a contraction of “Amal-k(uf)”, literally the toil of a monkey. The Amalekite Nazi, yemach shmo, attempts to see our lifestyle as a mindless attempt to copy old folkways and meaningless traditions. When do we lose to him? Only when we see ourselves the same way he does and become mindless in our service of Hashem.

LIVING WITH PURPOSE

The best way to insure our defeat of Hitler and of Amalek is to live with purpose. Many times throughout the production, the moviemakers commented on how difficult it was to tell which way the unfinished film was going. Purpose in German thinking was hard to come by. The most important justification for any action was because you had orders. The entire philosophy of Hitler’s Germany was simply to expand and expand and destroy whatever lay in their way – particularly the Jew. Why the need to expand? Hitler never bothered to answer that question because in fact he could give no answer. There is never a greater purpose being served by Amalek’s plans.

To defeat Amalek, the Jew’s every action must be laden with purpose and meaning. Not just “Never Again”, but “Never Again and Here’s Why”. My encounter with the movie “A Film Unfinished” has left me with an urgent desire to return to the inner dimensions of our faith, to turn a greater focus toward those mitzvos that command our thoughts and attitudes, mitzvos like Modesty, Integrity, Sanctity, Emunah, and Bitachon, and then to use those mitzvos to re-infuse our rituals with new awareness, significance, and meaning. After seeing this movie, I want to prevent myself and others from ever performing another mitzvah without knowing what we are doing, what message we mean to be sending, what we are hoping to accomplish by its performance.

I invite all my readers to join me on this sacred and worthy quest.

Share