Feb 18, 2016
On DVD: Night Will Fall (2014), A Concentration and Extermination Camp Liberation Film, and Alfred Hitchcock
Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall, but by God's grace we who live will learn.
In 1945, army cameramen documented the liberation of Nazi concentration camps across Germany and areas of Poland that were annexed by the Germans during World War II. Their mission was to provide proof of the atrocities and bear witness for the rest of the world. British Ministry of Information's Sidney Bernstein, a producer in peacetime, was tasked with overseeing the film. The production is perhaps most famous for the involvement of Alfred Hitchcock, who provided valuable guidance to his friend Bernstein once the project was underway.
The official title of the Bernstein documentary was to be German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. That film was eventually withheld from the public, and put into storage. In 2008, the Imperial War Museum, which had stored copies of the footage since the 1950s, completed the film. After nearly seventy years,it was finally screened at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival. The documentary Night Will Fall, now available from Warner Archive, tells the story behind that footage, the making of the film and the lives of its subjects and creators. It's a horrifying tale, told with much of the graphic footage collected by Bernstein's cameramen, but in a world where bigotry and dangerous regimes still pose a great danger to many innocents, it is important to see the damage hate run rampant can cause.
This is an unforgettable document of a dark history. Footage shows captured SS soldiers dragging skeletal bodies to mass graves, and tossing them in like rag dolls, their humanity all but erased. There are stacks of the dead and dying, and people so emaciated that they look like walking skeletons. Amidst the despair and horror there are children who are given chocolates, cookies and hugs from British soldiers and told to "be calm, help is on the way." Some of them have forgotten their own names though, and their families are lost.
There are also stacks of clothes, shoes, eyeglasses, all from Nazi victims. The act of killing thousands of victims a day has its costs, so prisoner's teeth are removed and mined for gold, before death women's hair is cut and stuffed in bags to be sold to textile mills. The ashes of burned bodies are given to farmers for fertilization. These camps were in many ways a boon to the German economy. The heartlessness of this enterprise is driven home by footage of children's toys and albums full of prisoner's photos before their capture. These people brought their most treasured items to the camps; they didn't know that they were going to be killed, or worse tortured or experimented upon.
Footage of these horrors is interspersed with interviews conducted with soldiers, liberated prisoners, cameramen who filmed the camp liberations and family members of broadcasters and other major players in the documentation of the camps. Most of the soldiers are still unable to speak about what they saw without breaking into tears. The childhood survivors are more stoic as they reminisce, but it is clear that all who saw the camps have been held captive by the memory ever since. Whatever the differences in their stories, there is a collective shock among them all.
Though Hitchcock was not a driving force in the film, his involvement has been the source of much fascination. The director was eager to help Bernstein as he was too old and overweight to serve in the war. According to the film, he offered helpful insight, the most useful of which was the suggestion that the filmmakers add maps that showed how close large populations of people were living to the camps, near enough to smell rotting corpses and the smoke from the furnaces continuously burning victims.
Bonus features on the Warner Archive disc include a pair of short films made with the Bernstein footage. Death Mills, a Hollywood production overseen by Billy Wilder takes on a deeply accusatory tone, asking why such brutality was allowed to exist for so long. Oswiecim (Auschwitz) is a Soviet propaganda film that shows many of the same images, but focuses on claims of heroism shown by the Red soldiers it says have led the liberation. An interview with historian Rainer Schulze repeats much of what is discussed in the film, but also includes useful insight into the footage. Of particular interest is Schulze's advice that modern viewers be advised to note how the victimization of Jews is downplayed in the footage, taking away the opportunity to discuss the racial motivation behind many of the killings.
Night Will Fall is a compelling film, perhaps not for everyone, but very important to see nevertheless. Though it's hard to watch, it's important that we as a society don't shield ourselves from these aspects of our history. We need to be reminded to stand up for each other, because the hate that drove these atrocities still exists today. Knowing our history gives us context, and reinforces the importance of speaking up and addressing bigotry before it turns deadly.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.