A compelling new documentary about the Warsaw ghetto during World War II, A Film Unfinished is about the strength of propaganda films and deciphering between truth and fiction.

Everybody has seen and heard of many Holocaust atrocities, yet this film brings audiences something new. Discovered in 1954 in an East German archive, a lone film simply titled Das Ghetto (The Ghetto) was viewed for the first time. Historians took the four unfinished silent reels as factual knowledge of the Polish Warsaw ghetto, where half a million Jews lived within a square mile. The film did not have any titles, credits or words, just images of impoverished and wealthy Jews living among one another.

The time was May 1942. The film crew showed starving Jewish children and adults who were too sick to leave their beds, feces piling up mixed with trash in the streets and children who were caught smuggling food into the ghetto being punished at the border. This was in stark contrast with other images showing Jews living lavishly, enjoying theater, restaurants, sunbathing and generally enjoying the good life living in the ghetto. In 1998, a fifth reel was found on an American army base titled Das Ghetto. A historian was very familiar with the Warsaw ghetto film and knew that this was another piece of the puzzle. This film contained outtake after outtake of scenes from the other reels, as well as Nazi SS cinematographers directing scenes using “actors.”

“This is what’s so fascinating about propaganda filmmaking: It never relies merely on lies, but a combination also of what is in fact truthful. That is what makes it so efficient and deceiving,” states director Yael Hersonski.

Hersonski brilliantly weaves in actual footage from the film, narration from journals, tapes of interviews from the only camera operator on file and stories from survivors who were brave enough to revisit the horror.

“I wanted to add visual breaks in order to go out of this world of the ghetto and keep your eyes fresh for the following scenes,” explains Hersonski, who received the Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award for her first feature documentary.

Viewers find out that these “actors” were quite fearful of their own outcomes as they are given direction. Scenes can be matched up verbatim to journal entries kept by residents of the ghetto. Waitresses were told to line up outside the restaurant looking their best and ignore the begging children with outstretched arms and hands. Food was brought into the ghetto while they were filming to show that they were eating well and lavishly. This was an effort to show that the wealthy Jews would not share their good fortune. Starving men shown next to plump women were asked to perform a ritualistic bath for the cameras, which was demeaning.

“You can film a man walking by a corpse and say he is indifferent but not realize that he is terrified that this could be his fate the following day,” says Hersonski. “I was trying to give voices to these silent images.”

The sole filmmaker on file for the footage is Willy Wist. In the ’60s, his entry permit was found in paperwork, and he refused to testify against his colleagues and swore he knew no names associated with the film. He could only assume that it was shot to juxtapose the rich and the poor while dehumanizing the Jews of the ghetto.

“The last stage of his life he didn’t want to discuss it anymore, but after he passed, his children were released from the guilt and were willing to talk about it and show pictures,” Hersonski says.

No one truly knows why the film was shot or what purpose it was to be used for – only speculation exists.

“It remains an open question, but the Nazis made as many films as possible to have materials to educate the future generations of the Third Reich and snap an image of this community, even if they were creating it,” states Hersonski. “I wanted to create a film that contained both historical and emotional content, while showing people who tried to retain their human dignity until the very end.”