It was a strange interlude in the savagery of war. In early 1945, with the full approval of the German commanders on the ground, a convoy of British soldiers was given free passage under a flag of truce to see the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. The ostensible reason for this unusual event was the Germans’ concern that the typhus rampant in the camp not spread to the neighboring towns when the British troops inevitably pushed through the beleaguered German lines.
Nothing could have prepared the battle-hardened combat veterans for what they saw.
Accompanying them were soldier-cameramen, a new kind of infantry, whose work would become the basis for what may well be the most devastating film about the Shoah never to be seen. The story of that film and its demise and resurrection is the subject of a new HBO documentary, “Night Will Fall.”
The appalling experience of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen left a permanent mark on the soldiers who witnessed the almost indescribable remains of the camp, the unremitting stench of death and decay, the smoke still rising from the crematoria, the piles of emaciated bodies, the all-but-dead survivors who were barely recognizable as human beings. Over 70 years after the events, one of the ex-soldiers interviewed for the film is unable to speak about what he witnessed. As Mark Lawrie, one of the British cameramen, says in interview footage from the 1980s, it was “like the End had come.”
The initial footage that was sent back to London merely confirmed the truth of Soviet films from the liberation of the Polish death camps months earlier. Film producer Sidney Bernstein, who was head of the film unit attached to the Ministry of Information, felt he had to go to Bergen-Belsen to see for himself, and came away convinced of the absolute necessity to make a film about the Nazi crimes as “a lesson to all mankind.”
Eventually he would enlist the aid of Foreign Office expert Richard Crossman (later famous for his work in the Labour government in the ’60s and ’70s and his highly intelligent and entertaining diaries) and a name from the recent British film past, Alfred Hitchcock, to help turn hundreds of hours of footage into a finished film.
“Night Will Fall,” directed by Andre Singer, straddles two subjects, combining the story of the film’s eventual shelving at the end of 1945 as the political climate shifted, and the horrors that the film’s footage documents. Ordinarily, such a bifurcated agenda would lead to chaos but, surprisingly, Singer manages to keep both stories compelling until almost the very end of the film. Only when he reveals that in the past year experts from the Imperial War Museum have reconstructed the film in its entirety, using Crossman’s written narration, the original footage and Hitchcock’s overall structure, does “Night Will Fall” begin to feel like a 76-minute trailer for another movie.
What makes the film work, despite its structural awkwardness, is the sheer brutal power of the footage we see. I am certain, despite having watched hundreds of hours of Shoah-related non-fiction films, that almost all of the footage shot by British, Russian and American cameramen is unfamiliar. I am equally certain that I have never seen more appalling documentation of human cruelty. Quite simply, the material in “Night Will Fall” is unique, horrific and definitive.
Singer makes excellent use of contemporary interviews with the few survivors left today and of older interviews with Hitchcock, Bernstein, Billy Wilder (who worked on a shorter version of the film for the U.S. Army) and, most telling, the cameramen and other soldiers who had the singular misfortune to be present for a piece of history without precedent or relief.
Ultimately, the most important function of “Night Will Fall” will undoubtedly be to make way for the finished product when it becomes available for theatrical and educational distribution. But the film can stand pretty well on its own merits, which are considerable.
“Night Will Fall,” directed by Andre Singer, airs tonight (Jan. 27) on HBO in conjunction with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Check your local listings for times.