Seventy years ago, British, Soviet and American forces were unprepared for the atrocities they encountered when they liberated the Nazi concentration camps. Combat and newsreel cameramen recorded these harrowing discoveries at camps that included Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz.
In April 1945, the footage was to be turned into a film, "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey," and was supposed to be screened in Germany after the collapse of the Third Reich.
Despite having Alfred Hitchcock as a supervising director, the 1945 film was never completed. In 1952, London's Imperial War Museum inherited the rough cut of five of the six planned reels of the film, as well as 100 compilation reels of unedited footage, a script for voice-over commentary, and a detailed shot list for the completed film.
"Night Will Fall," a new HBO documentary airing Monday [1/26/15] on the cable network and then repeating on HBO2 on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Tuesday, chronicles the making of "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey." The actual 1945 documentary, which has been restored and assembled by London's Imperial War Museum, will also screen Tuesday at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Here's a trailer for Night Will Fall:
(The New York Times also has a good write-up and Metro UK rounds up British viewers' powerful reactions.)
I haven't seen either film in entirety yet, but the footage from 1945 has featured in plenty of previous Holocaust pieces, and some completed segments from German Concentration Camps Factual Survey have been shown before, including sections demonstrating Alfred Hitchcock's approach of using wide shots, panning shots and long takes where possible. (He was sadly prescient about the possibility of Holocaust denial.) Some of the footage is indeed harrowing. An excellent Guardian piece on both documentaries recaps a segment from the 1945 film that's stuck with me for years:
In one piece of film, from Majdanek concentration camp, we see huge bags containing human hair. Collected from the murdered, it would have been carefully sorted and weighed. “Nothing was wasted,” says the narrator. “Even teeth were taken out of their mouth.” Bernstein’s film then cuts to a large pile of spectacles. “If one man in 10 wears spectacles,” we are asked, “how many does this heap represent?”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. features something similar – 4000 shoes, which make a lasting impression on visitors:
The focus of the day has always been on (horrific) historical events but also on the general idea of human rights. Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl observed that there are limitations to comparing suffering, because it is like a gas filling a room, and "suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little." Meanwhile, Akira Kurosawa once said that "The role of the artist is not to look away," and that's certainly true of great documentary filmmakers, good historians, and really anyone who bears witness to injustice. (The documentary The Act of Killing is also well worth a look.) Injustices may vary in scale, but here in the United States, I can't help but think of indefinite detention without charges in the present, the U.S. torture regime in the recent past (and efforts to keep it unexamined), the oppression of Jim Crow laws and internment camps in living memory, and slavery and the treatment of Native Americans in the more distant past. Of course, not everyone wants to look at those events in our own nation's history, some vehemently deny them (in part or in whole) and the effects of those events are hardly limited to the past. Personally, I plan to see both Holocaust documentaries, but I suspect they serve as reminders not only of essential historical events but our own sadly enduring capacity for inhumanity. (Where we go from there is the big question.)
(A version of this piece is posted at Hullabaloo.)