Sidney Bernstein’s documentary of concentration camp footage and the reconstructed version of the long-suppressed film.
It feels like the word ‘holocaust’ is all too easily bandied about these days in reference to any global conflict you care to imagine. Sometimes, it’s just hyperbole, sometimes it’s a deliberate and cynically provocative use of the word. But, just as ‘Nazi’ is now casually thrown around as an accusation against anyone who disagrees with us, rarely does this most powerful of words seem genuinely appropriate. This is not to diminish the horrors of modern conflicts. But there’s a reason that the Holocaust exists as a singular thing, and that’s because only once in living history has a state set out to obliterate an entire race or religion with systematic ruthlessness and organised efficiency. Yes, other conflicts have their atrocities, their massacres and their human rights violations. Yes, millions died in the Russian gulags, in Rwanda, the killing fields of Cambodia and ISIS dominated Syria and Iraq. But The Holocaust was such a determined and effective act of ruthlessly organised and state-mandated ethnic cleansing, it seems reasonable for the word to be singularly attached to this event.
The sheer unimaginable horror of what happened in Nazi concentration camps is so unimaginable for most people that it’s unsurprising that they will make the assumption that a bombed-out market place is essentially the same thing. So films like Night Will Fall remain vital, the further we get from the events of the time, as a reminder. I’m not one for constantly harking on about the War(s) and find the way British remembrance often turns to jingoistic celebration rather nauseating – but World War 2 may be unique in being a just war – the only one that should have been fought, even if the reasons that made it just are not the reasons it was fought.
Night Will Fall is a documentary about the Holocaust, though more specifically, it is about a documentary about the Holocaust. When Allied troops began to liberate the death camps in 1945, they took film cameras with them and captured the nightmarish horrors they encountered – thousands of bodies, survivors who were so emaciated that they looked like living skeletons and the evidence of slaughter on an almost unimaginable scale. The ovens, the mass graves, the storerooms full of possessions. All this footage – British, American and Soviet – began to make its way back to London, where Sidney Bernstein at the Ministry of Information set out to compile it into a documentary, rather prosaically titled German Concentration Camps Factual Study. With an edit overseen by Alfred Hitchcock and Stewart McAllister and an impassioned but sombre script by Richard Crossman, the film was envisioned to be a warning from history and a reminder for a German people in denial. But as the Second World War slipped comfortably into the Cold War, the government decided that Germany was to be an important ally against the USSR and upsetting the people with evidence of their nation’s war crimes was going to be counter-productive. They wanted happy, successful Germans, not people crippled with a collective guilt. The film, unfinished was shelved (interestingly, the Americans were less worried about making the Germans feel bad and took the footage to make their own twenty-minute movie Death Mills, directed by Billy Wilder and shown across Germany. It’s powerful stuff, though marred by a hectoring tone and a sense of melodrama. It pretty much proves that the approach being taken by the British production was the right one). Some of this footage has turned up in assorted newsreels and documentaries over the years of course, but the original documentary, as planned, remained incomplete and buried.
Night Will Fall takes the footage from German Concentration Camps Factual Study, which has now been completed and restored according to the original production notes and shooting script and contextualises it with new interviews with surviving prisoners and army cameramen, as well as people like John Krish who worked on the footage in London. There are older interviews with the various filmmakers like Bernstein and Hitchcock as well, and all these eyewitness accounts give the film a genuine sense of history. There’s the danger, after all, that simply presenting old black and white footage allows the viewer to maintain a certain distance, not only because the events are so long ago but because the monochrome style immediately removes it one step from ‘reality’. Having new interviews with those who were there, seeing how the cameramen who filmed at the camps are still, permanently wounded by the sights they saw, makes this more immediate and impossible to ignore.
You would, in any case, have to be a peculiar sort of monster to look at this remarkable and horrific footage without being utterly devastated. Night Will Fall takes a certain risk by introducing the scenes of unimaginable atrocity early – there’s the risk that the sheer horror of the footage will so distress some people that they are unable to continue. And it does appear, relentlessly, throughout. The endless piles of emaciated bodies, dumped into mass graves because there is nothing else the liberating soldiers can possibly do with such overwhelming numbers of corpses, is genuinely devastating. They are so wasted that they hardly look like human beings at all until you see the contorted faces – there was no death in death for these people. The survivors almost feel worse, if only because you wonder how many of these naked living skeletons would die after liberation – so close to salvation yet so far from hope. And most horrific, in a way, are the scenes without the dead. The huge stockpiles of watches, spectacles, clothes and shoes, and the carefully weighed and stored bales of human hair suggest a horror beyond imagining – not just the mass destruction of humanity, but the strange obsessiveness and ruthless, businesslike efficiency that would store and catalogue this material like a deranged collector. That the hair and the ashes of those burned in ovens were sold on for profit makes you realise how accurate the term ‘death factory’ was. This was an industrial-scale slaughter that actually paid for itself.
I could almost describe the film as numbing, but in fact, the impact remains sharp throughout. The final shots of the half-blown off heads of corpses lining a road remain as shocking and distressing as the early scenes. It goes beyond any imaginable sense of horror, and when people talk about walking into Hell, you believe them. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to walk into Belsen, Auschwitz, Buchenwald or Dachau without any sense of expectation and to have been confronted with this. It’s even harder to imagine how anyone possibly survived being held in such places.
Night Will Fall is a timely reminder that we should not turn a blind eye to the horrors that people do around us. As the original film tells us, this is not an exclusively German situation. It’s the kind of thing that could easily happen in any society where we allow the Other to be dehumanised, and where that dehumanisation is allowed to continue unchecked because of politics, denial, greed or hatred. It is entirely essential viewing.
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