While dining with Henri Langlois some time in the 1970s, Alfred Hitchcock informed the co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française: “At the end of the war, I made a film to show the reality of the concentration camps, you know. Horrible. It was more horrible than any fantasy horror. Then, nobody wanted to see it. It was too unbearable. But it has stayed in my mind all of these years.”
Yet, as André Singer reveals in the documentary Night Will Fall, the master of suspense only played a limited role in the preparation of footage that had been gathered by British, American and Soviet cameramen as Allied armies advanced across Nazi-occupied Europe. Ultimately, political considerations would prevent the film to which Hitchcock referred from being released. But, in his discussion with Langlois, Hitchcock may well have identified another reason why German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was shelved for several decades. “I don’t think many people actually want reality,” he explained, “whether it’s in the theatre or in films. It must only look real, because reality’s something none of us can stand for too long. Reality can be more terrible than anything you can imagine.”
Peering into hell
The footage of what Singer calls “the most searing, brutalising horror that humans can witness and endure” was recorded by ordinary soldiers like Brits Mike Lewis and William Lawrie, American Arthur Mainzer and Russian Aleksander Vorontzov. Yet it so shocked the chiefs of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force that they commissioned Sidney Bernstein of the Psychological Warfare Division to compile a definitive record of the atrocities that could be used both to show vanquished Germans the industrialised slaughter that had been undertaken in their name and to ensure that such crimes against humanity could never be repeated.
As veterans Leonard Berney and George Leonard concede in Night Will Fall, no one knew what to expect when British forces entered the camp at Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945. But neither has forgotten the sight of the naked and emaciated corpses piled high or strewn around the compound and the evidence captured by the British Army’s Film and Photographic Unit has lost none of its power to dismay and appal. While helping liberate camps like Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Dachau with General Patton’s Third Army, Benjamin Ferencz (who would later prosecute war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials) felt as though he “had peered into hell” and Bernstein realised that he would need expert cinematic assistance to make the most effective use of the reels reaching SHAEF from the US Army Pictorial Services, as well as those being promised by the Red Army.
The Hitch factor
While acting as film adviser to the Ministry of Information, Bernstein had collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on two propaganda shorts for French audiences, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache (both 1944). Despite protests from compatriot filmmakers that Hitchcock had shirked his duty by remaining in Hollywood, Bernstein recognised the political sophistication of his MOI films and asked him to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing to advise on structuring the material from the camps.
By the time Hitchcock arrived in late June, however, three reels had already been assembled by editor Stewart McAllister, while a script had been drafted by Bernstein’s deputy Richard Crossman and Australian journalist Colin Willis. Yet Hitchcock still played a pivotal role in the project. Bernstein credited him with instructing the cameramen to film in long takes to avoid any accusations of fakery, while he also suggested bringing civic and religious dignitaries, as well as ordinary residents of the communities nearest the camps, to witness the barbarism that been sanctioned by their leaders.
Assistant editor Peter Tanner particularly recalled the order “to avoid all tricky editing and to use as far as possible long shots and panning shots with no cuts, which panned for example from the guards on to the corpses”. Tanner also remembered Hitchcock’s abhorrence of the material he forced himself to watch in a small Soho screening room. Yet, during his short, unpaid stay in London, he managed to bring an ethnographic objectivity to reels four and five that stands in stark contrast to the more emotive approach adopted by Billy Wilder in his 20-minute short, Die Todesmühlen (1945).
While Bernstein was striving to produce a “systematic record” of what had happened at the concentration and extermination camps, SHAEF became increasingly impatient with his meticulous methodology. Even though 8,000ft of footage had been submitted from 11 camps (some of it in colour), the Americans wanted a picture they could show to German civilians and prisoners of war as part of the reconstruction process. Consequently, Wilder, who had been made colonel in the Psychological Warfare Division, was invited to produce a short from the same footage that Bernstein was using (and which had also appeared on 15 June in the Anglo-American newsreel, Welt im Film, No. 5).
Given that Wilder embarked upon Death Mills (as it was known in the US) shortly after discovering that his father Max’s grave had been desecrated in Berlin and that his mother, Eugenia, had perished in Auschwitz, it’s hardly surprising that the tone of the commentary was so uncompromising. Where Hitchcock opted for long takes, Wilder employed cross-dissolves between Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and shots of indifferent Germans visiting their local camps. He also incorporated footage of the white cross procession at Gardelegen on 22 April to reinforce the idea that the people who tolerated the Third Reich were now bearing “the crosses of the millions crucified in Nazi death mills”.
Unsurprisingly, when Wilder previewed the film after the screening of a Lillian Harvey operetta, few of the Germans in the audience stayed to the end. None filled out the preview cards left in the lobby, although all the pencils Wilder had supplied were stolen. His film scarcely bears comparison to a more measured masterpiece like Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), but it very much reflected the rapidly changing times in which it was made.
Things were happening so quickly, in fact, that the Americans withdrew their support for Bernstein’s documentary on 9 July 1945, five days before SHAEF was dissolved. Moreover, diplomatic pressure was also being exerted to discontinue the project, as the battle for German hearts and minds became crucial in the early stages of what would become the cold war.
As Bernstein later said: “The military command, our Foreign Office and the US State Department, decided that the Germans were in a state of apathy and had to be stimulated to get the machine of Germany working again. They didn’t want to rub their noses in the atrocities.” Thus, the film was abandoned after a progress screening on 9 September and, in 1952, it was placed in the Imperial War Museum archive with the file number F3080, along with the approved script, 100 unedited reels and a shot list for the sixth reel that was to have featured the long promised, but never delivered Soviet coverage of Auschwitz and Majdanek.
In 1984, the rough cut was released under the title Memory of the Camps. Hitchcock was credited as ‘treatment adviser’, while Trevor Howard spoke the commentary, which ended with the lines: “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn.” Sadly, humanity has failed to heed the Holocaust. But surely few who see Night Will Fall and the newly restored version of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey will be left unmoved.
Watch the trailer for Night Will Fall (2014)
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