A canister of film on a shelf in a bunker in the German woods, an archive of Nazi propaganda, discovered after World War II. A label on the canister: "Das Ghetto."
In the extraordinary, powerful, disturbing A Film Unfinished, much of the footage from that reel, shot in May 1942 in the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw, is replayed - and revisited with the knowledge that it was a lie. Directed by an unknown Nazi official, who deployed cameramen through the crowded streets and into the apartments of the walled-off, three-mile-square community, the film is both grim documentary and sick fantasy, with shots of emaciated corpses splayed on sidewalks and cruelly choreographed scenes depicting Jewish men and women feasting in cafes, being entertained in theaters, happy in their cloistered world.
A few months after the filming, the first mass roundup of residents - many undoubtedly captured in the crew's footage - would be shipped to Treblinka for extermination. As the narrator of A Film Unfinished says, the Warsaw Ghetto had "essentially become the holding pen before the final destination."
The footage is devastating enough on its own. But outtakes, discovered only in 1998, show the deliberate staging of key sequences - a quick glimpse of a uniformed cameraman, a retake, another retake. And director Yael Hersonski records a group of survivors - a handful of men and women, now in their 70s and 80s - whose memories, as children, of moving along those same Ghetto sidewalks are reconfirmed as they sit in a screening room, processing the images.
Exactly what the Nazis planned to do with this film is unclear. The orchestrated shots of seemingly well-heeled Jews side by side with those who were rag-cloaked and starving; the humiliating public bath scenes, men and women together, naked; the ceremonial circumcision of a baby; an elaborate funeral procession; the horrific delivery of corpses to a mass grave - the contrasts are graphic, twisted.
With an actor reading the detailed journal entries of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Ghetto Council, keenly aware of the filming and also a reluctant participant, and with the reenacted testimony of Willy Wist, one of the Nazi camera operators, A Film Unfinished is a profoundly unnerving historical document.
If a picture tells a thousand stories, these pictures tell the stories of hundreds of thousands - soon to be put to their death.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea