There are few Americans—few people in the developed world, really—whose lives have not been affected for the worse in some way by the economic crash of 2007. Yet other than some CEOs making humiliating but brief appearances at congressional hearings, no one has been called to account for what happened, or how. So far the closest thing to a comprehensive indictment of the companies and practices that allowed, even encouraged, the squandering of trillions of dollars—and of those in an oversight role who allowed, even encouraged it to happen—to emerge is Charles H. Ferguson’s Oscar-winning 2010 documentary Inside Job, new to Sony Pictures Classics DVD and Blu-ray.
Not only does the film deliver a polished and comprehensive takedown of the irrationally exuberant, fraud-baiting financial-services industry that took the American people and their economy for a ride over the past decade, it does so with exquisite poise and precision. Ferguson, a software mogul and scholar turned documentary filmmaker, is no gut-leading Michael Moore-style polemicist. He lines up the facts, the figures, and the talking heads before laying it all out in just enough detail. How the financial services industry, ever on the lookout for more profits, engineered a new wave of “financial instruments,” including derivatives and credit default swaps, that essentially ballooned more and more investment and more risk based less and less on solid assets. How those in charge of such economic titans as Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers took huge gambles with the country’s finances and carelessly edged them toward ruin, stoked by vast financial overcompensation and a masters-of-the-universe mentality. How the regulators and the academics and consultants who were supposed to keep such grand-scale banditry and malfeasance in check were either undercut or underconcerned, or actively turned a blind eye—perhaps not surprising, since many profited handsomely from supporting this ultimately untenable system.
If all this sounds dry and unengaging, it’s far from it. Ferguson not only has a gimlet eye for the telling statistic or sharp graphic to bring the layperson along, he also gives a number of key players the 60 Minutes-style grilling they deserve. Watching a fence-hopping academic/economic consultant/Federal Reserve governor like Frederick Mishkin stammer and cavil when asked about his seemingly myriad conflicts of interest doesn’t restore anyone’s job, but it makes for a nice righteous high and it may be as close to justice as this broken system’s going to see for a while. Even if you never bother to check out anything else written about in this column, see Inside Job.
A more oblique settling of accounts takes place in another recent and new-to-home-video documentary, A Film Unfinished (Oscilloscope Laboratories DVD). At the heart of director Yael Hersonski’s work here is an hour or so of footage shot by the Nazis in the walled-off Jewish ghetto of Warsaw, Poland, in May 1942, just months before more than a quarter-million of its inhabitants were shipped off to the Treblinka concentration camp. The raw silent footage, which had been lightly edited before being mysteriously abandoned, was discovered in Nazi archives after the war, labeled simply “Ghetto.” Through painstaking research and lining up the footage with accounts of life in the ghetto that spring, Hersonski provides not only a less refracted window into ghetto life but also a tantalizing glimpse into the minds and motives of the men who would make such a film in the first place.
The original footage verifies many of the horrors history attributes to ghetto life: skeletal children dressed in rags, dead bodies lying in the streets where they fell. It also includes several scenes of well-dressed Jews drinking Champagne, throwing dinner parties, and blithely stepping past corpses. As Hersonski demonstrates, the latter scenes were staged. Using contemporary diaries from ghetto residents and on-camera accounts of a handful of ghetto survivors who were children when the original footage was shot, he provides a detailed running commentary on the lengths the Nazi filmmakers went to stage certain segments, including rounding up well-fed, if unwilling, actors and suitably luxe locations and props. (One survivor, watching footage of a well-dressed young woman placing a vase of flowers, scoffs that had they actually had access to such flowers, they would have eaten them.) Even more telling is an ancillary reel, ignored for decades, that includes outtakes—many of the same “documentary” scenes filmed over and over from different angles until the desired effect was achieved.
The exact effect desired remains a mystery. Even a German cameraman who shot much of the footage was unable (or unwilling) to say what its point was, other than propaganda. That said, the mostly unedited footage plainly contrasts the abject suffering of some ghetto residents with more high-living and presumably uncaring types—an anti-Semitic standby turned inward on the ghetto Jews themselves. Whether the project was conceived to demonstrate the fact that the ghetto wasn’t so bad, or further illustrate that the Jews deserved to be penned there, or some combination thereof, may never be known. Hersonski’s film serves as yet another reminder of the Nazis’ cruelty, their vanity, and their outrageous body of lies, and we can always use more of those reminders, especially when this uncanny and compelling.