Olga Lenczewska reviews the documentary “Night Will Fall” by shedding light on its use of daunting yet compelling footage and on the testimonies of concentration camp survivors
For the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz (27/01/1945), the world has been given an extremely powerful, agitating, and much needed gift. Why a gift? At times of human massacres in Europe and the Middle East, André Singer’s documentary “Night Will Fall” strikes, hurts, and shows things which cannot be unseen. Most importantly, the film reminds us of how easy it is to live unaware of the tragedies which take place in a country neighbouring one’s own.
The contemporary “Night Will Fall” makes use of video material collected immediately after the end of the war by the British, American, and Soviet soldiers, who were asked to film the first days of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Poland: Bergen-Belsen, Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Dachau. In 1945, the tapes were of instrumental use as footage in a British documentary called “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey”. It is worth noting that the producer Sidney Bernstein and the director Alfred Hitchcock had also been working on the project for a number of years.
Unfortunately, due to political reasons, their work never reached the public. Both the British and American governments became concerned with the prospect of people providing asylum to the survivors, as a consequence of watching the documentary. It must be remembered that this took place at a time when Germany was regarded as a potential ally against the Soviets. The 1945 version of the film has been reassembled by experts from the Imperial War Museum in London and includes featuring comments of the Holocaust survivors and the cameramen who contributed to the original material. The new film has been recently shown in cinemas and television under the title “Night Will Fall”, as a token of public remembrance and, as we hear in the opening scene, in the hope scenes like this will never be forgotten or repeated.
The documentary presents the aftermath of the World War II from the liberation of the concentration camps to the reactions of the newly arrived soldiers to the burial of those murdered and the healing of those few who survived. Never before have one had the courage to concentrate on close-ups of decaying bodies of prisoners starved to death, or on the work of people dragging such bodies bare-handedly and throwing them into huge pits. The most powerful image is witnessed when prisoners who survived the war sit down on the ground awaiting help, their faces turned away from the piles of bodies lying just a few metres away from them.
A cameraman amongst the former prisoners
But do not think this is too much for you. Watch it because no book on Auschwitz, no history lesson will make you as acutely aware as these images do of the horror and scale of the concentration camps’ massacres, and of the fine line between life and death. These half dead people walking about… There was hopelessness, despair, the appalling smell, the whole atmosphere, depression… It was another world. If you had become too involved, you would have become mad, reveals one of the British witnesses. Another war correspondent, Richard Dimbleby, described these images for the BBC radio in 1945. His son comments in the film: It was so horrific that the BBC initially waited before they broadcasted it because they had doubts whether my father had actually accurately described what he’d seen. It’s the moment he describes people no longer behave like human beings that you realise what he’s actually saying, what the implied message is: this isn’t just Germany, this isn’t just the people in those camps. This could be anyone of you, anywhere – if civilisation breaks down like it did.
Bernstein and Hitchcock’s unfinished film from 1945 asserts the importance of producing historical documentaries, since they are a great means to inspire remembrance and desire to learn. Shortly after the end of the war, the footage served as evidence in the war crime processes of the Nazis. Today, the images and the impression of historical continuum (namely the use of video materials from 1944-45 and the interviews from the 1980s and 2000s) remind the audience that this tragedy is not as removed from the present as it appears at first. The people in the 1945 video material talk to us now, older but still alive, only to enforce the difference between their fate and the fate of the 11 million prisoners killed at the camps. They show that the line between death and life is fine and solid at the same time, and that its strength depends on us.