Holocaust: Night Will Fall
Director, Andrè Singer
2014, running time: 75 minutes
A shocking documentary about the concentration camps that was suppressed by the British in 1945 will be released in April to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. The film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, includes footage by British, American, and Soviet military cameramen of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Magdanek, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and other camps.
On January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, HBO aired a film about the Factual Survey. Entitled Holocaust: Night Will Fall, it explains how Factual Survey was made and why the British never released it—until now.
Night Will Fall includes much footage from Factual Survey. Narrator Helena Bonham Carter warns viewers: “This is some of the most disturbing and harrowing footage ever recorded. It is shown here in the hope that scenes like these will never be forgotten—or repeated.”
Factual Survey was directed by Sidney Bernstein, head of the film section of Britain’s Ministry of Information during World War II. Bernstein hired some notable people in the film industry to help him, including Alfred Hitchcock as director.
To document the reality of the atrocities, cameramen took close-up footage of corpses and the skeleton-like survivors. We see exactly what the soldiers saw as they entered the camps—the jubilation of the liberated prisoners set against the utter devastation of thousands of dead and dying.
Sgt. Mike Lewis, one of the British army cameramen, says, “No film which I’ve seen since really conveys the feeling of despair and horror that can be done to people, who are Europeans of another faith, for no other reason.”
Hitchcock used maps in the film to show just how close the camps were to population centers. He was struck by the contrast between the normal lives citizens were enjoying and the horrors endured by the prisoners.
Bernstein gave very clear instructions to the army cameramen: “Film everything that would prove one day that this had actually happened.” And they did. I cannot overemphasize how difficult this film is to watch.
When General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, came to the camps to see the devastation firsthand, he said, “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.”
The original film also documents the healing process, as the Allies provided food, clothing and shelter for the camp survivors, many who made a surprisingly rapid recovery.
But the Allies faced another problem after liberation. Thousands of the freed prisoners did not want to go back to their home countries, where their lives as Jews had been deemed expendable. Many wanted to emigrate to the United States or Britain, but neither country would take them in. So, in spite of British objections, from May–July in 1945 many left for Palestine. But when they arrived, the British turned them back or interned them in camps.
The cameramen documented this in the Factual Survey. This was an embarrassment to the British, who knew the film would evoke public sympathy for the Jewish survivors’ desire to move to Palestine. In addition, the Allies were involved in the post-war reconstruction of Germany, and they felt the German citizens had already been inundated with the message of their guilt. So on August 4, 1945, the British foreign office sent Bernstein a letter which said, “no atrocity film.” By September, the unfinished film, cameramen’s notes, reels of footage, and a copy of the completed script were filed away.
However, the footage proved extremely valuable as the Nazi war crime trials began in the autumn of 1945, furnishing the prosecution with powerful evidence with which to confront the defendants.
In recent years, a film team from London’s Imperial War Museum began restoring and reassembling Factual Survey, now ready for its April release.
Why would you want to watch such a graphic portrayal of these horrors? Because, as the narrator of the original film says, “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall.”
-review by Matt Sieger
For another recent, controversial film on the Holocaust, watch That Jew Died for You at http://thatjewdiedforyou.com/