The Posthumous Life of Nazi Propaganda

The Posthumous Life of Nazi Propaganda

Postwar Films on the Warsaw Ghetto

Tomasz Łysak
Marek Edelman; Warsaw Ghetto; Nazi propaganda; postwar film; voice-over, re-editing; animated documentary; CGI; Holocaust
Nazi footage of the Warsaw Ghetto came to define the visual commemoration of the Holocaust at the cost of downplaying its ideological bias. Several methods have been employed in order to achieve this: re-editing the footage with an added voice-over narration by an expert whose authority questions the veracity of the footage as a historical depiction of the Ghetto; cinematographic conventions; the novel technology of digital image manipulation, and animated documentary. The films discussed in this article were produced by Polish documentarians, and several international productions have been added for comparative purposes. The essay presents a historical overview of cinematographic approaches to found footage: from newsreel-style reliance on voice-over to open questioning of the veracity of Nazi images. Finally, an animated documentary on the Warsaw Ghetto is presented as a challenge to conventional methods of dealing with inherited propaganda.

Images: Symbols of the Holocaust

Filming in the Ghetto

Theories of Seeing and the Resistance of the Image

Requiem dla 500 000: Limitations of Voice-Over

Marek Edelman's Chronicle: Memory versus the Film Record

CGI in the Service of Education

Debunking Propaganda: Cinematographic Conventions versus Animated Documentary

Ethics of Seeing the Warsaw Ghetto





Suggested Citation

Terry Eagleton (1991: 30) claims that “ideology signifies ideas and beliefs which help to legitimate the interests of a ruling group or class specifically by distortion and dissimulation”.1 In the most narrow meaning, archival footage from the Warsaw Ghetto produced by the Nazis is clearly false (though without a doubt it is also true, as it reflects the point of view of its makers, who communicated their deadly stereotypes by means of staging).2 Nevertheless, ideological vision (and projection) apparatus has blind spots (as seeing one thing is accompanied by averting one's eyes from something else). As a result, photographs or footage can only show a limited version of history. Several methods have been employed in order to overcome the determinism of found ideology: reediting footage with the addition of a voice-over narrative, including an expert whose authority can question the accuracy of the footage as a historical depiction of the place, various cinematic conventions, the more novel technology of digital image manipulation, and animated documentary. As ideology has a visual character, overcoming it requires a shift in the perception of the images. What therefore are the most efficient formal devices that can change the original meaning of the footage?

The topic of the present essay necessitates an inquiry into the posthumous life of this Nazi propaganda as any analysis of the postwar use of these materials cannot overlook the fact that propaganda relies on an uncritical adoption of its contents (Jo Fox 2007; Richard Taylor 1998; Rolf Giesen 2003).3 What then happens to propaganda when its political sponsors are no longer in power? We cannot forget that new contexts are themselves not entirely free from ideological tingeing, something that affects our perception of Nazi ideology. Liberal analyses portray the Holocaust as a reversal of democracy, a warning against the rejection of values held dear by those who criticise the mass murder (Peter Novick 2001). Enzo Traverso sums up left-wing interpretations of the Holocaust, including the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1999). Postwar interpretations of the Ghetto Uprising are a telling example of this phenomenon, with Nathan Rapoport's monument to it in Warsaw highlighting the difference of interpretations: its front depicts resistance fighters while the back shows a nameless crowd marching towards their extermination without resistance. The latter is based on a 1904 painting entitled Golus / Expelled by Samuel Hirszenberg from Kraków, portraying Jews leaving their homes after a pogrom (James Young 1994; Rapoport 1994; Konstanty Gebert 1994).

The above-mentioned approaches to archival material will be analysed in relation to the following films: Requiem dla 500 000 / Requiem for 500,000 (Jerzy Bossak and Wacław Kaźmierczak, 1962, Poland), Kronika powstania w getcie warszawskim według Marka Edelmana / Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising According to Marek Edelman (Jolanta Dylewska, 1993, Poland), Rotem (Agnieszka Arnold, 2013, Poland), 912 dni warszawskiego getta / 912 Days of the Warsaw Ghetto (2001, Poland),4 A Film Unfinished (Yael Hersonski, 2010, Israel) and Seven Minutes in the Warsaw Ghetto (Johan Oettinger, 2012, Denmark). The order of the analysis is chronological (from the earliest film to the most recent) but its main aim is to show formal changes in the reading of propaganda materials and approaches to Nazi ideology and its archival record. In addition to these, I will mention a number of other films such as The Warsaw Ghetto (BBC, screenplay and production Hugh Burnett, commentary Alexander Bernfes, 1966, Great Britain), A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto. A Birthday Trip in Hell (Jack Kuper, 1991, Canada) Tsvi Nussbaum. A Boy from Warsaw (Ilkka Ahjopalo, 1990, Finland), and The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (produced for the Ghetto Fighters’ House, 1993, Israel) in order to identify practices of recontextualisation and reinterpretation of archive materials.

With the exception of Seven Minutes in the Warsaw Ghetto, the abovementioned films rely on Nazi footage; therefore, they can be classified as compilation films (exclusively or partially). I shall start with three examples, showing potential manipulations of visual materials of different provenance and ideological intent – from amateur photographs with an unclear original ideological stance, to well-known propaganda material etched in the collective memory.

A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto is based on a collection of 140 photographs taken by Heinz Joest in September 1941 (Günther Schwarberg 2001). Even though we do not know the reasons why a Wehrmacht officer decided to celebrate his birthday by walking in the Warsaw Ghetto and taking photographs, one thing is certain: a photographed Jew takes off his hat in front of the photographer.5 This scene leaves no doubt that the latter must have been a uniformed German, a figure who aroused fear in the Ghetto.6 Traces of the presence of German photographers can also be found in film footage shot there. The photographers' intentions are less important than the reactions of the photographed, who perceived picture-taking not as an abstract threat but as hard proof of the racial hierarchy. Ahjopalo's film about Tsvi Nussbaum (Richard Raskin 2004) attempts to solve the riddle of a famous photograph allegedly taken in the Warsaw Ghetto in which we see a boy with raised arms (Nussbaum claims that it is him depicted in the photograph). The Israeli film The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, devoted to the armed resistance, mixes Nazi imagery with cartoons showing the fighters in action (the centrality of resistance is characteristic of the way the Holocaust is remembered in Israel – Alvin Rosenfeld 1997; Geoffrey Hartman 1994; Saul Friedlander 1994; Martin L. Davies and Claus Christian W. Szejnmann 2007). There are three perspectives on the meaning of archive material here: a neutral attempt at recording the Ghetto (with the photographer's approach unclear to the photographed), the opportunity of the self-identification in the famous photograph, and the one-sided image of the fighting in the Uprising, devoid of references to Jewish bravery. By virtue of these interventions, the original images acquire a new meaning.

Images: Symbols of the Holocaust

Images recorded in the Warsaw Ghetto have become synonymous with the Holocaust. This is due to a dearth of images of the death camps in operation (especially Treblinka where the majority of Warsaw's Jews were murdered) but also to the fact that postwar filmmakers used precisely these images to illustrate the story of the Uprising, the life of Jews under German occupation in Poland and the existence of individual Jews under the Third Reich.7 Attitudes towards the archival material have changed: in the immediate postwar period they provided a source of images to edit together new films, while later filmmakers combined them with postwar footage, e.g. Nuit et Brouillard / Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955, France), which uses American images of the liberation of camps, or rejected them as Claude Lanzmann did in Shoah (1985, France). This does not imply that he forgoes the historical truth about the Uprising because two fighters talk about it at the end of the film.8 And even though filmmakers have not respected the prohibition spelled out by Lanzmann, it has to be stressed that his unrelenting attitude towards archival visuals is a symbol of wider changes in their perception. What is more, a different set of rules governs the recollection of the past in documentaries.

Writing about films that show the Ghetto Uprising, Mikołaj Jazdon (2004: 225-232) bemoans the limited perspective of narrated stories, frequently limited by the physical distance of the camera to the fighters. The critic argues that the constant repetition of the same symbols leads to history being turned into mere clichés. Documentary films are not free from this weakness as it is impossible to set the recorded materials aside which, despite their documentary value, reduces the image of the Uprising to German triumphalism. Jazdon perceives a few methods of bypassing these limitations: voice-over commentary, reenactment, filming historical sites and documents, and witness testimony.

Jazdon comments upon two films studied herein: Requiem dla 500 000 and Kronika powstania w getcie warszawskim według Marka Edelmana. In Bossak's film he sees: “a story about the Ghetto Uprising told in the context of life in the Jewish district, or even the further history of the genocide of Polish Jews during World War II” (ibid.: 230). This film is “a story about the Holocaust using the Warsaw Ghetto as an example.” In Dylewska's film he highlights such elements as reframing, repetition in slow motion, and freeze frames.

It is worth highlighting the ideological underpinning of the visuals, the omissions and limitations of perspective. On the one hand, these images are utilised for their cognitive value (the informative purpose is evident in the structuring of the material, commentary or the attitude towards the images). On the other hand, Requiem dla 500 000 realises a complicated aesthetic blueprint. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the formal aspects of how the archival footage is used, as well as the objectives of the film. Based on these objectives the film caters to a specific audience that is being written into the film (one cannot forget that the original documentary had its own audience and these two audiences meet in the reedited archival materials). One of the key problems a documentary filmmaker working on the Holocaust has to face is both a need to refer to the oppressive discourse of the perpetrators and to keep a critical distance from it. There is no denying that ideological underpinnings were crucial to the perpetration of the genocide.9

Filming in the Ghetto

Lucy Dawidowicz (1992: 146) argues that no proof exists that the fighters shot any material in the Ghetto and claims that the Polish underground did not record anything either. Dawidowicz singles out the BBC documentary, The Warsaw Ghetto, which, in her opinion, distorts the truth about the Ghetto as it has been edited from German footage of not entirely clear origin. There are three confirmed sources of this footage: material recorded in May 1941, film shot by the SS in May and June 1942 (on the eve of the Great Action, i.e. the liquidation of the Ghetto, which started on July 22, 1942), and photographs taken in April and May 1943 on the orders of Jürgen Stroop.10 The photographs taken during the Uprising follow the generic conventions of photojournalism while earlier materials consist of “elaborately staged fakeries” (ibid.: 146).

Dawidowicz acknowledges the fact that the film was produced in order to show the fate of Jews as prepared for them by the Germans, to invoke dread in the postwar audience by presenting these terrible deeds, and to evoke compassion for the Jewish victims. The filmmakers' main objective was to condemn the Nazis even though at times the narrative is at odds with the images shown. What is most problematic for the historian is the persistence of the visuals amongst an audience who would most probably forget the commentary. Therefore, the contemporary audience would memorise the images in the same manner as their German counterparts were meant to. These images are no less repulsive; Dawidowicz (1992: 148-149) refers to Joseph Goebbels – the head of Nazi propaganda – who said that subtitles cannot change the meaning of a photograph. The historian claims that despite the good intentions of the filmmakers, the film falsifies the truth about the Ghetto. In order to prove this she points to images of a ritual bath – reedited to cut scenes in which men and women had been forced to bathe together – which erroneously show the mykveh to be a place where Jews washed in public to get rid of lice. Thus, the meaning of the ritual bath is distorted. Dawidowicz argues that no positive aspects of life in the Ghetto were filmed as it would run contrary to the filmmakers' propaganda agenda.11 On the other hand, she sees the present as “an era of photomania” in which the careful study of history has been replaced with an attachment to mechanical representations of historical events perceived as “the essence of truth”. Dawidowicz's essay is complete with excerpts from Ghetto diaries which counter the simplifications and lies of the original footage as well as the unavoidable shortcomings of an edited film employing hostile propaganda. These critical arguments have been heeded by other filmmakers learning from the aforementioned mistakes but who also see documentary conventions in a different light.

Maciej Kubicki reconstructs the agenda of the Nazi film crew in the Warsaw Ghetto on the basis of Ghetto diarists' accounts and the cultural practices of interpreting the film medium in Germany. Kubicki (2006: 351) aims to decipher the “fragmentary and disorganised” film material in order to identify “coherent sequences” and “read propagandist intentions”. Kubicki (ibid.: 352) ties the contrast present in numerous scenes (e.g. pitting the poor against the rich) with modernist film practices employed here for the purposes of visual propaganda. Not infrequently, staging lays bare the artifice when random people spoil the shot or “the actors” stop performing too soon (ibid.: 356). “Symphony of the city” is yet another generic context referred to (ibid.: 357). Kubicki provides an appendix containing fragments of diaries as a form of “production reportage,” with the caveat that their authors could only have guessed at the real purpose of filming.

Dawidowicz and Kubicki undertake a historical contextualisation of filming in the Ghetto but their respective agendas differ. The former points to the traps into which postwar filmmakers fell because they had taken the Ghetto footage for a bona fide representation. The latter, meanwhile, seeks context in prewar film productions, linking propaganda devices with “neutral” film conventions.

Theories of Seeing and the Resistance of the Image

I will now move on to theoretical considerations of the relationship between seeing and the possibility of showing what is seen in the film reel and subsequently in the edited material. Andrzej Gwóźdź (2002: 240) couples seeing with blindness: “[...] to see always means not to see something else as the things filling the film image are also a register of the invisible, absent, as the film representation creates blindness alongside visibility, as without blindness there is no seeing.” The audience, after the Holocaust, sees and knows more (Dominick LaCapra 1998) than any war-time German audience (which never had a chance to see photographs of the liquidation of the Ghetto or the footage recorded in the spring of 1942).

Gwóźdź claims that digital technology frees the camera operator from the necessity of looking through the lens, and in my opinion, when it comes to reusing the archival footage from the Ghetto, this is a blessing as the filmmaker and the audience do not adopt the “evil eye” of the propaganda. The digital medium allows a direct intervention in the frame which facilitates shifting meaning (it does not rule out commentary as digital image manipulation is frequently employed in educational film relying on the redundancy of meaning and repetitions as methods of persuasion). Using the archival material, or a refusal to do so, is entangled in a conflict of different ethical assessments concerning the admissibility of quoting. In addition to this, in narration about the Holocaust the perspectives of victims, survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders converge.

Film theory until the 1960s frequently employed the term “editing” in order to refer to formal operations connected to working with the film material, and this term was also used as a synonym for image processing in general (Miczka 1998: 144-201). In literary theory “montage” is construed as the juxtaposition of pieces of other texts. I will return to this literary meaning of editing later in a discussion of the concept of a “palimpsest.”

Within the first three decades of the existence of film, editing achieved the status of a creative process, consisting in the organisation of the composition-narrative structure of the cinematic work, at the same time giving direction to the flow of represented events, phenomena and processes as well as the types of its reception according to the assumptions in the screenplay, frequently modified during the production of the film (ibid.: 146).

In the formative years of film history Lev Kuleshov performed crucial experiments in which he combined a still photograph of an actor's face with images of objects triggering associations, proving that the audience would “write” emotions into an unchanged image of the actor's face. This experiment is relevant to my argument as it shows how filmmakers perceive found footage, which despite being unchanged becomes malleable in editing. The advent of sound did not diminish the role of editing as the combination of sound effects with images ushered in a new freedom to shape content: “the conscious contrasting of sonoric effects with the visual content will not destroy the culture of editing, to the contrary, it will become an occasion to hone methods meant to create aesthetic impressions and suggestion, and emotional sensations even deeper than heretofore available” (ibid.: 163). The adoption of sound is called vertical editing (in contrast to traditional editing, namely, horizontal). Tadeusz Miczka refers here to Karel Reisz's classification in which every compilation film (that is, edited using found footage) is an experimental film (ibid.: 172).

The replacement of one message with another while preserving the original medium brings to mind the phenomenon of the palimpsest. This term refers to an ancient or medieval manuscript from which an earlier text was either scratched or wiped. In a figurative sense we can talk about a palimpsest in reference to an ambiguous text in which we can identify hidden meanings behind the obvious ones. In the past the reuse of the parchment was dictated primarily by economic considerations, but religious ones also played a part as pagan manuscripts were overwritten by the Church Fathers (Britannica 1998: 85). As regards film, the interaction of different elements – the visuals, sound, dialogue and the plot – is key. However, a film palimpsest does not imply a value judgement on the original materials. I would like to stress the ideological dimension of the palimpsest, especially when the new message radically departs from the original one.

The overwriting of a propaganda text is proof of there being critical distance in relation to the material that is being taken over, but it can also serve as proof of its indispensability.12 Faced with the absence of other images, filmmakers need to decide whether to struggle with the unwanted effect of ideology or to find alternative ways of filling in the blind spots inherent in the image. The quoting of period commentary (e.g. Mary Berg's Diary in A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto) is one method of adding a postscript to found images.

Requiem dla 500 000: Limitations of Voice-Over

Erik Barnouw (1993) in his history of documentary cinema claims that in the immediate postwar years documentary films performed an accusatory role. The footage for Jerzy Bossak's Requiem dla 500 000 comes from a captured film warehouse in Neubabelsberg. Private photographic albums documenting Nazi crimes were also found there. These images were used during the Nuremberg Trials as evidence (and the trial itself was also filmed). In subsequent decades the convention of accusation lost its appeal and was replaced by elegy or historical distance. Editing is a classical strategy in cinema of changing the meaning of any given image by juxtaposing it with another image. If one were to use solely the abovementioned footage, the shortcomings of this strategy would quickly become apparent. Therefore, the reliance on Nazi footage as the only visual material necessitates the introduction of a voice-over. Such is the path taken by Jerzy Bossak in Requiem dla 500 000. The narrator's commentary informs the film's structure, revealing for example the precise moment of its production: the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The narrative takes the invasion of Poland in 1939 as its starting point. A moment later we learn that the resistance movement is commencing its fight with the enemy relying on the best forces in the nation. The connection between the resistance and the subsequent German retribution is hard to miss; we watch an array of punitive measures: arrests, round-ups, and executions. Interestingly, Jewish suffering is mentioned in the same breath as Polish martyrology: “the German extermination of Jews takes especially harsh forms” (0:02:25). An order to impose compulsory work begins a list of such measures and we are shown the draining of a bog. A photograph of an elderly Jewish man with an armband illustrates an order to mark clothes with the Star of David. The following sequence of images depicts the ghettoisation: a close-up of an armband, a photograph of German notices posted on a wall, and a long shot of a crowd from a bird's eye view. Therefore, the film moves from visual details to social reality.

The opening credits appear when the Ghetto is already complete and a moment later a wall dividing the city into two parts is shown (on the Jewish side there is a dense crowd shown via a high-angle shot).13 Despite these measures, as the narrator points out, the Ghetto is not tightly sealed off from the rest of the city – the smuggling of food continues unabated. This talk of smuggling is accompanied by an observation made in Ringelblum's chronicle that the Ghetto is a class-ridden society. In order to prove this statement German shots of elegant people dining in a restaurant are shown sans any commentary on the intentions of the Nazi film crew and the staging. On the other hand, life in the Ghetto is not just an occasion for enriching oneself as “Janusz Korczak, Emanuel Ringelblum and tens of others attempt to protect the youngest from hunger” (0:13:28). Such a social history of the Ghetto carries a Marxist note as it starts with the necessities of life only to move on to offer a perspective on social life.

The narrative about the Ghetto tries to reconstruct the state of mind of Warsaw's Jews when the film was shot; a theatrical performance proves that the hope to survive remained strong. Both leaving the Jewish district and help extended to Jews on the “Aryan side” are punished by death. Nevertheless, there is an emphasis on the resistance to German orders: the smuggling (the image recorded by the camera and the reality are put in contrast: smuggling was punished by death, only initially were those caught punished with arrest – yet the film makes us believe that one could get away with mere confiscation of the contraband). The film crew acknowledged the sensibilities of the audience, hardly eager to face horrific images of how the New Order was introduced in the East. No efforts of Ghetto dwellers could prevent their mass death from starvation – part of the plan for the Final Solution. This is how the tragic fate of the Jews is revealed.

We then see the Resistance organising the Uprising (a representative of the Polish Workers' Party claims that everybody is facing the same enemy) and the occupiers prepare the deportation of the inhabitants to interfere with these plans. The burden of responsibility for the swiftness of the Great Action is placed on the shoulders of the Jewish Council and the Jewish police (due to the latter's brutality). The appeals of the Resistance – who try to convince their compatriots that the transports leaving the city feed the gas chambers in Treblinka – fall on deaf ears. The deportees do not heed the warning and go to their deaths without protest. Thus, a double history of the Ghetto is created: resistance and its negative – namely, passive acceptance of death. This voice-over comment refers loosely to the chronology of the Ghetto as we hear that the fighters barricaded themselves in while waiting for the signal to start the Uprising (which did not in fact begin until 9 months later). The topic of this armed resistance is a preferred narrative when it comes to the responses of Polish society to German occupation, as is evidenced by numerous feature films about partisans produced in Communist times.

The problematic character of the narrative becomes evident in linking the outbreak of the Uprising to the Christian calendar: “Easter, a holiday that a German author called: 'the happiest of all Christian holidays', 'Hallelujah' and the image of Christ rising from the dead are its symbols” (0:24:25). This remark justifies the destruction of the Ghetto and its inhabitants in religious terms, referring to the meaning of Easter (as a Christian version of the Jewish story of the Exodus) as well as a conceptualisation of Jewish suffering in terms of Christian eschatology. Moreover, Handel's “Hallelujah” chorus, used as a soundtrack, may symbolise German triumphalism in which even high culture serves as a weapon. Last but not least, the Christianisation of the Holocaust and stereotypical presentation of Germans as a nation of art lovers are typical tropes for fiction films.

As there is no film material showing the liquidation of the Ghetto, Bossak uses photographs, resorting to conventions of photography compilation film (or iconographic film) in which panning/zooming and other film techniques “animate” static images. The end of the Uprising is communicated in a letter from Jürgen Stroop to Hans Frank dated 16 May in which Stroop declares that the Jewish district has been destroyed. The final shots depict the blowing up of buildings; eventually, the camera moves from filming a building in ruins to showing that the whole district has been turned into rubble. An intertitle at the end of the film reminds the viewer that the footage and photographs were taken by the Germans: “Wehrmacht, SS and Gestapo cameramen” – this claim is perfectly illustrated at the beginning of the film when a German cameraman looks into the lens of another camera and consequently through his own.

The multi-layered structure of Requiem dla 500 000 has a palimpsest form both in its technological dimension (silent German clips have audio commentary added) and in the relationship between different layers of meaning in the commentary. It is my hunch that Bossak uncritically repeats the myth of Jewish passivity. In addition to this, the chronology of events and their subjective assessment may prompt a conclusion that only the fighters were right (the scope of this article prevents me from going into a detailed historical analysis of the viability of the fighting, what is more, a moral reckoning regarding this decision is tied to an ethically dubious judgement a posteriori). The logic of the ending is somewhat surprising, as if the Uprising was the inevitable culmination of the Ghetto, and the Holocaust is treated here as a form of Polish martyrology. Finally, the monumental ending repeats the Germans' arrogance. Unfortunately, the concept of the palimpsest fails as a method of ideological interpretation due to shortcomings in the voice-over narration, the director's inability to see through propaganda, and the resistance of the original footage.

Marek Edelman's Chronicle: Memory versus the Film Record

Re-editing, which had come to define documentary practices, lost its charm in the 1990s in favour of witness testimony, especially that given by key participants in landmark events. Jolanta Dylewska's Kronika powstania w getcie warszawskim według Marka Edelmana starts with an enumeration of German anti-Jewish legislation, each prohibition written in white letters against a black background – there is no voice-over (28 October 1939 is the first date). The first archival photograph of an elderly Jew is reedited so that we first see an armband and only then his face. An exchange of gazes between Jewish subjects and Nazi cameramen can be seen in German photographs illustrating the year 1940 (their gazes meet “inside” the lens). Of course, the Jewish men doff their caps. Some of the photographs are out of focus or blurred, as if the photographer was not in proper control of his handheld camera. Music composed by Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz accompanies the images, but it is muted once the Ghetto has been closed. The high-angle shot of the crowd makes the audience feel superior to those filmed. On the other hand, it is the cameraman who really looks down upon the crowd, convinced of his superiority over the Jewish inhabitants. The gaze of the viewers was preplanned and is a function of the gaze of the cameraman.

A coupling of images and dates fuels the narrative: in 1941 we again see the crowd in the Ghetto; the archival film is damaged by water (and has not been “cleaned” for the new film). The original footage is silent and the director does not want a mediated testimony or impersonal narrative. The fact that the film is a personal chronicle made by Marek Edelman rules out the presence of another narrator. In 1942 there is a display of German brutality: Jews are forced to look straight into the camera (an elderly woman is “positioned” for the shot with a whip handle) or to dance on their knees for the camera. The final sequence of loading the cattle cars shows the Great Action. The lack of voice-over can be understood in two ways: as a call to the audience to reconstruct the chronology from fragmentary images or as an elegy for the victims (in this case chronology is relegated to the second row). The latter reading is confirmed by an image with which the documentary makes a transition from telling the history of the Ghetto to chronicling the Uprising: there is a matzeva (tombstone) with a date of someone's death – 1943.

The chronicling commences on the eve of the Uprising on 18 April; at first Edelman's voice is audible from the darkness, and when we finally see his face in low-key lighting, the witness is given a monumental aura. This monumentality is, however, undermined by that same fact as Edelman, literally, speaks from the shadows. The narrative is accompanied by frames taken from German footage/photographs chosen to complement the events described. When Edelman talks about “Mrs Ruta,” a mother who rejected an offer to leave the Ghetto with her child as her own mother was sick, the German visuals render a woman with a child and an elderly woman lying on the ground. Edelman honours the resistance fighters, recalling the names of the fallen and the circumstances of their deaths (undoubtedly, this counters the “blindness” of the German photographs). He also refers to emotions which escaped the curiosity of the camera and the ease with which fighters formed new relationships as “nobody wanted to be alone”.14 Thus, the subjective act of remembering comes to the fore.

Edelman, as the last commander of the Uprising still alive in Poland at the time of making the film, talks about his crucial role in the fighting. Images from the German films are decontextualised and illustrate the current story, and in addition to this, the director repeats certain sequences a few times while concentrating on a chosen fragment of the frame. Such repetition allows for a close reading of the image contrary to the wishes of the original cameraman. A father with three children repetitively walking in Dylewska's film breaks with the anonymity of the crowd in spite of the fact that their names remain unknown. However, only the fighters can actually have their names returned to them – each identification photograph comes complete with the first and last name of the photographed. After this identification the filmmaker again shows the crowd suggesting that even though the identity of each person in the crowd is beyond retrieval we cannot uncritically adopt the gaze of their executioners.

The refusal to come to terms with the German manner of representation speaks loudest in the chronology of the Uprising presented by Edelman. He finishes his story on 10 May, when the fighters left the Ghetto, without a word about the Nazi triumphal coda: the blowing up of the Great Synagogue. The siege of the bunker in 18 Miła Street and the suicides of Mordechai Anielewicz and other commanders were the turning points for him. Calling Edelman a chronicler is by no means a conventional gesture – as a bona fide historian he subjectively orders the importance of the events. Therefore, the chronological order is a form of historical interpretation, departing from the understanding of chronology in Requiem dla 500 000. In Bossak's documentary it serves to show the razing of the Jewish district, whereas here it conveys the perspective of the fighters.

The film is dialogical: first, the documentarian's voice is audible outside the frame when she entreats the witness to be more specific, and second, there is no overt commentary concerning the footage used. It seems that the director decided that, after over four decades, straightforward persuasion no longer passes muster. Therefore, it is the audience who have to tie the image to the chronicle in the absence of clues regarding how to watch the film. In addition to this, manipulation of the image and repetition of sequences focus attention on select individuals who, having gazed into the lens of the German camera, start looking at us.

Dylewska's film is not the only example of using testimony in order to interpret the Ghetto Uprising. Simcha Rotem, one of the fighters, is the main protagonist in Agnieszka Arnold's Rotem. As the film is devoted to the inner workings of the Jewish Fighting Organisation it devotes little time to the Ghetto before the Great Action. Brief clips of Nazi footage at the beginning serve illustrative purposes, e.g. when Rotem addresses cultural life in the Ghetto, the entrance to the Azazel Theatre appears momentarily. The deportation is depicted with the following sequence of images: the Jewish police chasing people in the street, the deportation train, and a father with his children. The footage has been edited this time, but without freeze frames or slow motion. The gist of the story concerns actions which left no visual record and are recounted in testimony by Rotem, Edelman and Luba Zylberg-Gawisar. Internally edited photographs from the Stroop report go with Edelman's story about burning people in the Ghetto. Despite the lack of overt commentary on the Nazi images or a very rudimentary editing of these materials, the film argues that they only scratch the surface when it comes to understanding life in the Ghetto or the actions of the resistance. Instead the surviving witnesses take centre stage.

Dylewska's film can be seen as a form of reference to the expert narrative frequently employed in educational or persuasive films. Nevertheless, in the context of the Holocaust, talking about expertise strikes a false note. What is more, Edelman belies such a classification, never boasting about his own achievements and giving credit to other fighters. He does not abuse his special position, talking modestly and without pathos about events he witnessed or participated in. Frequently, he admits his own lack of knowledge: when the fate of a person is unknown to him he weaves probable stories or speculates as to what might have happened. How is criticism of ideology undertaken here, one might ask? The witnesses never openly comment on the propaganda footage, while on the meta-level commentary is offered by the filmmakers, aptly combining testimony with re-editing of found footage.

CGI in the Service of Education

The educational film 912 Days of the Warsaw Ghetto sets out to question the ideological determinism of German films by means of modern image processing and older approaches such as voice-over and citing written documents.15 We do not encounter a homogenising perspective of Polish suffering, as found in Requiem dla 500 000, instead the uniqueness of the Jewish fate is highlighted. In a voice-over Władysław Bartoszewski stresses the peaceful coexistence of the two cultures while Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński (a famous prewar intellectual) wished for closer ties between Polish and Jewish culture on the eve of the war. This proposition leads to a shift in the manner of depicting the Holocaust: images of annihilation are juxtaposed with the once thriving Jewish culture.

Photographs of Jews whose beards are being shorn illustrate the first anti-Jewish laws. The images used have been processed: individual frames are superimposed on one another and people walking down the street have armbands with the Star of David digitally drawn on their clothes. When further restrictions are mentioned, images showing different activities are marked with the word “verboten” (e.g. Jewish prayer; the footage was recorded in 1942). The superimposition of the street plan of the Ghetto on footage of Jews walking in the streets of Warsaw is an interesting way of showing the creation of the closed district. The closing of the Ghetto is depicted in a similar manner, across the screen we see a “rushing” wall, separating the Jewish district from the Aryan side, added in postproduction. Such manipulation serves to highlight select parts of the image: when Emanuel Ringelblum recounts the murder/execution of a Jewish woman who left the Ghetto without permission, the outline of a person is traced in white and deleted.

The falsity of the German images is consciously laid bare as regards the Ghetto profiteers – there is no denying that the exquisite dinner we see was staged at the behest of the German crew. The images of affluence are in stark contrast to Mary Berg's account of starvation in the Jewish district and also to a report about high mortality (the number 100,000 is superimposed on an image of carts used to collect corpses from the streets, standing for the death toll due to starvation and diseases). The arrangement of layers of information can be explained as either the redundancy typical of educational films or a method of processing the original material (processing as a palimpsest). The juxtaposition of the archival footage with written documents shows aspects of life in the Ghetto ignored by the Germans: charity, Ringelblum's endeavours, the Oneg Shabbat archive, and letters sent by relatives deported to the death camp in Chełmno.

The producers of the documentary address the work of the German crew (highlighted and thus separated from the rest of the frame – this separation is a task every documentary compiler has to face, despite the fact that there is no guarantee of success). A few staged scenes are exposed in the narration: the bathing in the “mykveh” (with pious male Jews crammed with “indecent” women), a “bris” (circumcision), a party, and a lavish funeral.

The discovery of the Nazi plans for the Jews is gradual – in the film we read an encrypted letter identifying Treblinka as a death camp (the letters and sentences of the Yiddish text appear one by one). We could seek in vain scenes of loading the cattle trains in the depiction of the Great Action, but instead two facts warrant mention: fear on the Umschlagplatz and Janusz Korczak's decision to accompany orphans in his care to the very end (we see a close-up of a portrait of the Old Doctor, as Korczak was known before the war). The only scene in the film shot in the 21st century heralds the story of the Uprising: shaky footage of a basement with an infamous photograph of Jürgen Stroop among his soldiers watching the destruction of the Ghetto visible to the audience through the basement's peephole. The photographs of the Uprising have “digital life” breathed into them: the addition of smoke in windows and visual distortions create the impression that we are watching the Ghetto through the shimmering hot air of fires. A remark closing the narrative about the armed resistance glorifies the sea of ruins, claiming that the fighters achieved a moral triumph. This victory did not come cheap – the film ends with a “letter” read by Anna Meroz to her murdered daughter.

This documentary film serves to educate in a number of ways: it presents an objective, chronological narrative about the history of the Ghetto, departs from the thoughtless quoting of archive materials, rejects earlier interpretations of Jewish fate as part and parcel of Polish martyrology, and to a large extent hides its own ideological stance. The search for an objective historical narrative plays down controversy and seeks interpretive closure.

Debunking Propaganda: Cinematographic Conventions versus Animated Documentary

Hersonski's A Film Unfinished uses a variety of cinematic conventions in order to unmask the constructed character of German images of the Warsaw Ghetto taken in May 1942. A voice-over narrative explains the purpose behind the documentary, namely, to debunk the propaganda of the Ghetto film. In this capacity the documentary is a visual equivalent of Dawidowicz and Kubicki's critical discourse.16 The images are contrasted with a variety of written documents read by actors speaking the respective national languages of the authors (Polish, German and Yiddish), while reenacted postwar court testimony from a cameraman sheds light on how it was shot. Ursula Böser (2012: 51) highlights critical visual analysis of the footage undertaken to reveal the incongruities, e.g. when a man briefly picks up a photographic portrait “from a heap of garbage he has been carefully sifting through”.17 Additionally, child survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto give an affective response to the screened rough cut of the Nazi film. Despite an overt cognitive aim to create a multilayer comparison of the preserved footage with other records – outtakes as well as an extra reel of colour 16mm stock with “the making of” reportage – the affective testimony/viewing takes centre stage.18

Hersonski employs a standard approach of comparing the visuals with written records, nevertheless, without prioritising Jewish sources. In addition to excerpts from Czerniakow's diary and Ringelblum's chronicle, Auerswald's reports explain the reaction of Jewish arrestees to the arrival of the film crew (the former were convinced that it heralded their execution), but also living conditions in the Jewish district as seen from the perspective of the Nazi administration.19 In the reenacted interrogation Willy Wist, a cameraman from the crew, is read excerpts from Czerniakow about a circumcision – performed for the purpose of the film – on an undernourished infant, but Wist denies having any memory of shooting the scene in question.20 Hersonski dramatises Auerswald's reports (without showing the officer himself) by zooming in on the typing up of an official report. These dramatisations add immediacy to the viewing experience, highlighting the fact that the ghettoisation and its use as propaganda were the actions of concrete, identifiable people (even though Wist is the only known cameraman and no other Germans from Auerswald's chain of command are mentioned).21

The documentarian has been taken to task for her use of seemingly diegetic sound to complement the images: the sound of street traffic, songs performed in the cafeteria scene, etc.22 Historically, silent documentary footage had sound added to the final cut in the form of a voice-over narrative or other non-diegetic sound. The superimposition of diegetic sound was the domain of fiction film or some experimental films by Vertov (Geoffrey Cox 2011: 43-62). In A Film Unfinished the addition of aural aspects ushers in an element beyond the control of the original filmmakers but the foley room effects hardly cover the entire sonicsphere of the closed district. Alison Landsberg (2010: 532) notes the power of sound: “in transmitting certain kinds of knowledge about the past”. And yet, “Film-makers and audiences are more sensitive to the truthfulness or veracity of the images presented as ‘factual’ than they are with the soundtrack” (Leo Murray 2010: 133). Landsberg (2010: 134-135) argues that the use of sound in film serves the story first and authenticity second, with certain documentaries making expert use of non-synchronous sound. If one is to look beyond the conspicuous attempt to make the experience of watching the film more appealing to modern audiences, it becomes evident that the filmmaker was pointing to the shortcomings of the documentary medium in recording reality.

Johan Oettinger's puppet animation Seven Minutes in the Warsaw Ghetto is based on Richard Raskin's screenplay and “inspired by an actual event” (Raskin 2014: 224-225). The animation merges stop motion footage of porcelain puppets on a set with filmed human eyes which are superimposed onto the puppets in postproduction.23 This black and white film narrates the story of an 8-year old boy, Samek, who is initially shown lying on the floor in his apartment drawing a caricature of Hitler. The Fuehrer is being smeared with excrement by a crow while the presence of such a bird on the balcony outside can be seen both as a source of graphic inspiration and a harbinger of death.24 The boy's mother quickly recognises the inherent danger of this form of cultural resistance and burns the caricature in the oven. Samek is both the only male member of the family and an artistic prodigy. The animation oscillates between the boy's fantasy world (especially in a scene where he plays with stones animated by raven's feather) and the grim realities of the Ghetto (the puppets have cracks on their “skin” representing emaciation, and there is a wall separating the house from the rest of the city).25 This ability to shift between fantasy and documentation is recognised by Paul Ward (2008) as the generic superiority of animated realism which can pierce the mere surface of appearance typical for indexical documentaries. The boy is shown using low angle shots which are contrasted with a bird's eye view of two SS guards who are setting up a trap for an unsuspecting victim: as the protagonist is trying to pull a rotten carrot through a hole in the Ghetto wall with a piece of wire, one of the SS-men lowers his pistol and shoots him in the eye.

I would like to place this short animated documentary (Sue Vice 2014: 199-201; Raskin 2014: 223-226; Jodi Elowitz 2014: 219-222) in the context of Nazi footage of the Ghetto. The constructed character of the visual reenactment serves different purposes than the elaborate staging in the Nazi footage. It humanises the Jewish boy by relying on low-angle camera work and a presentation of his creativity contrasted with the ruthlessness of his killer. Furthermore, in the propaganda film the smuggling of food by Jewish children is presented as a prank discovered by the Jewish policemen without dire consequences to those caught. The animation debunks this version. Even though there is no mention of the wartime film, the animation enters into a dialogue with the perpetrators' images by virtue of illustrating blind spots in the ideological reading of the Ghetto. The use of animation “challenge[s] pre-existing assumptions about credible documentation” (Nea Ehrlich 2013: 249) while the eye movement adds “a sense of human-based naturalism” (ibid.: 253).26 Oettinger's universalisation of suffering (downplaying the Jewishness of the characters) runs counter to the ideological line of the Nazi film blaming social ills in the closed district on the ethnicity of its inhabitants.

Hersonski has two heterogenous objectives: a critique of representation and to record the passing of the last witnesses. The study of the reactions of these viewers/survivors to the projection of the propaganda film echoes the final scene in Chronique d'un été / Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch, 1961, France), this time however transporting them back to the historical Ghetto. Oettinger also takes his viewers to the Ghetto but the success of his animation hinges on the conventionality of the visuals. As much as the former film openly criticises Nazi ideology, the latter comments on the original footage in a highly mediated form.

Ethics of Seeing the Warsaw Ghetto

There are critics who claim that we need a specific “ethics of seeing” in relation to Holocaust images, e.g. Siobhan Kattago (2002) writing about the expectations with which Germans were photographed after the war's end. The German archival footage was also guided by a set of expectations which influenced the choice of topics and camera angles. In this way the desired effect was a combination of intentions with which Nazis appeared in the Ghetto with cameras, the reality they found there and their ingenuity in staging scenes to conform to their preconceived ideas. Therefore, it is worth asking what the “ethics of seeing” postulated en passant by Kattago would be. Would it be not turning one's gaze away? In a sense it would, as it would allow for filling in the blind spots in the ideological construction of the images of the Ghetto. The filmmakers adopt a historian's responsibility, and in Dawidowicz's fashion they expose the lies and understatements. From a different perspective it would not, as some critics valourise turning one's gaze away from images made in the Jewish district.27

Both visual and rhetorical methods have been employed to debunk the Nazi propaganda. The former entail belief in the power of editing and voice-over while the latter employ interference with the visuals and critical commentary (wartime and postwar). The rhetorical methods of laying bare the falsity of film rely on historical contextualisation (the history of the Ghetto and film history). The changes to that which is visible fall into three categories: retaining the photoindexality with the addition of voice-over, changing it or discarding it in favour of animated images. Oettinger's animation rejects a wider chronology in favour of a single episode. The educational objectives of compilation films and documentaries relying on testimony typically place the history of the creation and destruction of the Ghetto in a wider perspective. The decision of the writer of Seven Minutes in the Warsaw Ghetto to concentrate on a single protagonist and his death is a radical departure from the Nazi film, focusing on that which was “typical” for Jews in the Ghetto. Hersonski's strategy of tackling the falsity of propaganda head-on seems to be the most effective, with educational film and animation trailing behind. Undermining the indexical “sanctity” of the historical footage gives leeway in expressing postwar messages.

How should we deal with the problematic inheritance left by the perpetrators? No golden rule exists regarding how to display these materials. A critical analysis discovers the ideological positions of postwar filmmakers. Therefore, there is a need to stress the problematic features of the archival footage and the potential pitfalls when quoting it. The temporal distance to the events blurs the original meaning, but it also shows that postwar approaches such as repetition, laying bare, or rejection of Nazi ideology fall prey to cultural amnesia, and the propaganda image does not stop separating the viewers from the Ghetto.


The research for the project was funded by the National Science Centre granted in decision no. DEC-2012/07/B/HS2/01612.

An earlier version of this essay appeared as Łysak, Tomasz. 2006. “Życie pośmiertne propagandy nazistowskiej. Powojenne filmy dokumentalne o getcie warszawskim.” Kwartalnik Filmowy 54-55, 2006: 163-176.


Tomasz Łysak

University of Warsaw

Dr. Tomasz Łysak, University of Warsaw, received his PhD in Philosophy from the Polish Academy of Sciences. His work focuses on representations of the Holocaust in relation to trauma studies and psychoanalysis. He has held fellowships at the University of Washington, Seattle, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Chicago. He has been published in Polin. Studies in Polish Jewry, Kwartalnik Filmowy, Slovo and in a number of edited volumes. He has been awarded a research grant from the National Science Centre entitled “From Newsreel to Post-Traumatic Film: Documentary and Artistic Films on the Holocaust” (2013-2015).


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Suggested Citation

Łysak, Tomasz. 2016. “The Posthumous Life of Nazi Propaganda. Postwar Films on the Warsaw Ghetto.” Ghetto Films and their Afterlife (ed. by Natascha Drubek). Special Double Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 2-3. DOI:


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