A conflict rich in inhumane horrors, it was the discovery of Nazi concentration camps by Allied forces as the battle in the European arena drew to its conclusion that remains most potent to this day. In Night Will Fall (2014), directed by The Act of Killing (2012) producer André Singer, we’re provided with a harrowing but necessary insight into what the first Allied troops met as they stumbled upon the nightmare of the Holocaust. Though comparisons will be drawn with Joshua Oppenheimer’s own exploration of the machinations behind mass genocide, Singer focuses not on the culprits or victims but the photographic units that found themselves charged with documenting one of the darkest moments in human history.
In 1945, a group of filmmakers took it upon themselves to put together the indisputable visual evidence of the Nazis’ unspeakable crimes against the Jewish people. Entitled the German Concentration Camps Factual Survey and combining deeply upsetting footage shot by British, American and Soviet cameramen, the project was led by Sidney Bernstein, then Chief of the Film Section at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. At his command were a wealth of British talent including editor Stewart McAllister (known for his work with Humphrey Jennings), writer and future cabinet minister Richard Crossman and, as supervising director, a one Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, despite support from both Britain and America, it’s taken over 70 years for the work to be completed by the Imperial War Museum and given a release.
Within mere minutes, we see emaciated cadavers thrown over shoulders and piled in huge burial pits. Visibly light and mannequin-esque in their appearance, it takes a few moments for the brain to look beyond the uncanny and compute the desperate imagery it has just been confronted with. The Allied troops, stoic in their duties, carry out their instructions with dignity, but its incredibly difficult not to appreciate the grisly nature of the task at hand as interviewees begin to describe the horrendous smell that permeated the camps. Meanwhile, unsure as to their level of collusion (or indeed ignorance), German civilians are taken from the surrounding areas of the least remote camps before being frogmarched through these real-life incarnations of Dante’s Inferno. Most tragic of all, however, are those Jewish prisoners that remain. Some of them will die before truly tasting freedom, while others will forever be haunted by their ordeal.
Remarkably, Singer’s Night Will Fall takes on yet another dimension as it describes the tug of war for the vital footage between the British and the Americans. The Brits, under the stewardship of Bernstein and with Hitchcock in their corner, wanted to to create a sombre tome that could be used to objectively inform not only Allied audiences but also the German people of the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler’s fascist regime. The US, on the other hand, had Austrian-born director Billy Wilder on board to create a shorter, punchier and ultimately far more didactic piece (the provocative Death Mills) that would prove a chastising viewing experience for the broken Germans. Ultimately, both versions of the film were shelved due to a shift in policy towards Germany – one of reconstruction over retribution – in response to the perceived threat of Russia to the East that constituted the spiritual beginning of the Cold War.