A compelling film documenting the story of the footage taken by Allied soldiers at the liberation of the Nazi camps in 1945 is nearing the end of its nationwide release. Night Will Fall, directed by André Singer and narrated by Helena Bonham-Carter, tells the story of the grotesque scenes which greeted the liberating soldiers, the process of filming the results of the atrocities, and how the fast-changing political context caused a planned film of the footage to be shelved. This film, now completed and remastered by the Imperial War Museum and entitled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, is also being screened at film festivals; and due to be shown on television next year.
The footage was taken by soldiers trained as cameramen, who had no conception of what awaited them. In her memoir survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch describes how ‘we and our liberators saw the camp with different eyes. We had lived surrounded by filth and death for so long that we scarcely noticed it. The mountains of corpses in their varying degrees of decay were part of the landscape and we had even got used to the dreadful stench’. 19 year old Anita appears in film taken soon after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, and her present self is interviewed during Night Will Fall.
Night Will Fall is part absorbing documentary about the process and politics of making a film about the unfilmable, part compelling and moving testimony from survivors and liberators, and part preview of the sickening, unflinching and unreal pictures which make up German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. Watching the slow, clear images of multitudes of mutilated corpses on a cinema screen is nauseating. The victims are dehumanised and are denied dignity in death – the reason that HMDT never reproduces photographs or film of the dead bodies of people killed in genocide. Yet this graphic rawness was necessary to fulfil the film’s function. The cameramen were instructed to film everything they saw, to show that it happened, to ensure nobody could deny it happened, and ‘to provide a lesson for all mankind’. Alfred Hitchcock, who advised the makers of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, ensured that the gruesome pictures were edited in a way which used long shots and panning shots with no cuts. Local German residents living near the camps, including mayors and priests, were filmed being led around the dystopian scenes in order to demonstrate their realness.
Film of the faces of those ordinary Germans as they are confronted with results of Nazism is especially captivating. The variety of emotions is fascinating – as well as horror and distress there seem to be other reactions – blankness, detachment, even annoyance at having to bear witness to others’ suffering. The chiefs of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force commissioned the film to demonstrate to the German people the evils of Nazism and their complicity in its crimes. Yet within months the film was shelved, its reels consigned to the archives of the Imperial War Museum. The pressing realities of the Cold War, and the need to build West Germany up as a bulwark against communism, quickly sapped the desire of the Allies to continue forcing the German people to confront the crimes of their regime.
The commentary of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (co-written by Richard Crossman, later a cabinet minister) ends with a sentence very pertinent to the mission of Holocaust Memorial Day: ‘Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall.’
Channel 4 have commissioned an exclusive video interview with the director, Andre Singer and producer of the film, Sally Angel which explores why they embarked on the project, and the importance of raising awareness about the Holocaust. You can watch the film here.
Night Will Fall will be aired on Channel 4 on Saturday 24 January, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
BFI Programme Notes for Night Will Fall, 2014