A British soldier, standing in Bergen Belsen concentration camp shortly after its liberation on 15 April 1945, speaks directly to the camera: ‘Now I know what I’m fighting for.’ His words echoed General Eisenhower’s statement after visiting Ohrdruf concentration camp only three days earlier: ‘We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least he will know what he is fighting against.’
Night Will Fall is a new documentary film about the making of a remarkable documentary film that, equally remarkably, was never completed. It is thus an echo of an echo that seems to have been travelling for 70 years to reach us. Previewed at the Frontline Club, director André Singer’s film will be shown on television in Britain and other European countries in January 2015 to coincide with the anniversary of the liberation of Europe. It will be a timely reminder that, when it comes to the effects of the Second World War, there is no end to the echoes.
In the case of Night Will Fall, a complex genealogy of echoes is at work to bring to a contemporary audience footage of the concentration camps that, at the time, was left unedited. Rather, the reels were left in a film can marked F3080, and rediscovered only in the 1980s in the same by then rusting can in the vaults of the Imperial War Museum. A very rough and unretouched fragment, entitled Memory of the Camps, was shown on American television in 1985 but it has recently taken the Imperial War Museum three years of remastering and restoring, including a frame-by-frame reconstituting of a lost reel, to produce a screenable version.
The original footage, known as the German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, was commissioned by Sidney Bernstein, then head of the Psychological Warfare Film Section of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, and was intended to reveal to the world, and to confront ordinary Germans with, the scale of the atrocities committed in the name of Nazism. Corpses, survivors, perpetrators, ignorant or complicit civilians, liberating soldiers and their commanders, and the piles of hair, teeth, clothes and children’s toys collected from victims, all combine to evidence the horrors of the camps so that, in the words of one of the scriptwriters, the future cabinet minister Richard Crossman, ‘No German can say he didn’t know.’
Singer, a documentary-maker known for his collaborations with, among others, Werner Herzog and Fred Wiseman, and for initiating the BBC’s Fine Cut series, once worked for Bernstein at Granada Television. As head of Granada, Bernstein did not attempt to revive the film, an omission that Singer cannot understand. Yet this feeling of something handed on or passed down cannot but resonate with any viewer who understands how few survivors remain to bear witness, and how it falls to the living to ensure that the dead are not forgotten.
Singer emphasises that his film about the making of a film was an evolutionary process. He eschewed reportage in favour of, as he puts it, the ‘experiential’. Interviews with surviving soldiers tasked with filming in the camps, as well as with camp survivors who recognised themselves from footage, contribute to creating what is indeed a direct and experiential record. This, in turn, is experienced directly by the viewer, who becomes the next point in an experiential lineage. It is perhaps the last opportunity for such a direct line to be drawn. Singer was conscious, too, that images of fragile, decomposing, desiccated and broken corpses would only revive the personal traumas of interviewees. Yet, as he points out, ‘the story had to be told by people who experienced it’.
In the light of this, it is ironic that the original film was shelved because it was taking too long and that, in the meantime, the political dynamics of post-war Europe became overwhelming, not to mention that other dynamic, the emigration of Jews to Palestine. Some will still find it incredible that in the space of a few months, between April and September 1945, the horrors of the Second World War yielded to an entirely new political reality: the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union, and the accompanying necessity of seeing post-war Germany as an ally. Nevertheless, the expedient decision to stop the film did not prevent the Americans from commissioning a separate film by established Hollywood director Billy Wilder, himself of Austrian Jewish origin. Die Todesmühlen, Death Mills, has been in the public domain for many years. More bluntly didactic than Bernstein’s footage, Wilder’s film served its accusatory purpose.
With the release of Night Will Fall, journalists will predictably seize less on the story of the original film but rather on the famous names associated with it. Most famous of all was Alfred Hitchcock. His contribution to the original project, minimal though it was, will no doubt inspire some to interpret the effect that concentration camp footage might have had on his subsequent cinematic output. Indeed, it has already been referred to as Hitchcock’s ‘lost film’. Certainly, the great director, as he sat in Claridge’s in June 1945, had useful suggestions, such as making shots as long as possible to preclude accusations of editorial trickery and to include simple maps to show the proximity of concentration camps to German and Austrian towns and cities, such as Dachau to Munich and the Ebensee camp to the idyllic Lake Traun, which was perfect for vacationing SS officers.
If Hitchcock’s name helps to draw the attention of a modern audience whose reference points are more cultural than historical, then those who care will not complain. History is a continuum, and there is no such thing as a testimony that is greater or more remarkable than any other. But Night Will Fall is an essential and exemplary work that transcends its historical subject matter. Seventy years on, with first generations giving way to second, third and fourth, the film’s greater point is surely acultural and ahistorical. As Bernstein said in an interview in 1984, the film must serve as ‘a lesson to all mankind’. Like the film about the making of a film, he was echoing Crossman’s closing words: ‘Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall.’
Nick Barlay is an author and journalist www.nickbarlay.com
Night will Fall is now on release at selected cinemas in London.