The Holocaust needs to be retold forever, but it’s a tough topic to address without distortion or trivialization. André Singer’s docu is about the Allied film record of the liberation of the camps — horrific footage that was used in the war crimes trials and cut into documentaries — that were then suppressed and locked away. In 2008, an abandoned film supervised by Alfred Hitchcock was finally finished.
Night Will Fall
The Warner Archive Collection
2014 / Color / 1:78 enhanced widescreen / 75 min. / Street Date January 27, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Narrators Helena Bonham Carter, Jasper Britton.
Cinematography Richard Blanshard
Film Editors Arik Lahav, Stephen Miller
Original Music Nicolas Singer
Written by Lynette Singer
Produced by Sally Angel, Brett Ratner
<Directed by André Singer
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Documentaries about the Holocaust have always been problematical. In some ways the subject was deemed a cultural taboo, to be discussed in only the gravest terms. For years after the war most Americans saw only chosen snippets of film footage, glimpses of the horrors in the death camps. The images published in magazine photo articles were more than people wanted to see.. There were plenty of exceptions, but most ordinary Americans first saw extended documentary footage in — of all things — a for-profit Hollywood picture in which big stars portrayed victims and villains. The movie, Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg was actually in good taste, and had a laudable social purpose. The graphic film from the camp was part of the actual Nuremberg trials, after all. It showed a reality of our times that had been suppressed, whether for questions of taste or decency, or because ‘the public couldn’t take it.’ I believe America accepted ‘not seeing’ because we were not yet a nation of morbid voyeurs. (Live and learn… from Joe Dante: “Actually I think the first time American audiences were exposed to Death Camp footage was in Welles’ The Stranger, long before Judgment at Nuremberg.”)
Art film viewers saw Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, a quiet, haunting film that avoids emotional sensationalism by telling the story through views of Auschwitz as it was in 1955 and non-confrontational narration. Italians, East Germans, Russians and others eventually made dramatic movies that showed the experiences of various concentration camp victims. Many of these dramas were good, but none could embrace the near-cosmic immensity of the horror. Can any single experience help us to come to grips with the fate of millions? And then there’s the problem of the endless footage of corpses — these formerly taboo images are still too much for sensitive people.
The English, the Americans and the Russians all filmed in the camps that they liberated. Night Will Fall tells the story of the 1945 production and then abandonment of a long-form film documentary officially sanctioned by the Allied victors. It was produced by Sidney Bernstein and partly overseen by Alfred Hitchcock. The director developed a script and an approach for a document intended to quash present and future claims that the mass murders were faked, exaggerated or a political illusion. A cut called German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (GCCFS) was prepared up to a certain point, but then shelved, with no go-ahead for a finish. The U.S. Army finally brought in Billy Wilder to supervise a shorter version called Death Mills. But Wilder’s film also remained classified, and was not released to the public either. A version of it was shown to German audiences. The docu footage was also projected at the Nuremberg trials, as evidence against the German war criminals.
Night Will Fall was announced almost ten years ago, in newspaper articles that explained that the British Imperial War Museum was finally going to complete the original GCCFS. Yet we had already seen much of GCCFS on PBS TV in 1985. All but the last reel of the film was located, in its work print form. It screened at least twice on PBS as Frontline: Memory of the Camps; I taped the second airing on VHS and have a burned DVD of it around somewhere. The ‘new’ Memory of the Camps was finished in 2014.
The Warner Archive Collection’s Night Will Fall is a documentary about the making of these movies back at the close of the war. Holocaust survivors, surviving Signal Corps cameramen and the producer of Schindler’s List — himself an Auschwitz survivor – are among the on-camera interviewees. Various personalities including directors Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock are represented by archived interviews on film and audiotape.
The details of the liberation and the Signal Corps’ activities are certainly interesting. We also want to know about the involvement of Hitchcock and Wilder, although all we get are a few remarks and notes on Hitchcock’s concerns with the narrative, in audio bites that I would guess were taken from the famed Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews. Hitchcock asks for the inclusion of panning shots, to help prove that what was seen wasn’t being faked. Wilder says much the same thing. When it comes time to explain why the project stalled, we’re shown a couple of paragraphs in some documents that suggest that America did not want to antagonize the German population with this negative material. The inference is that with the Cold War heating up, most forms of de-Nazification were abandoned after the obvious death camp villains and high-ranking Nazis were executed or locked away. Washington wanted German cooperation in opposing Stalin, and put a halt to the bringing of many more German war criminals to justice. The Russian attitude was quite different. A Soviet Army cinematographer interviewed for Night Will Fall tells us that when their troops liberated a camp, their first action was to shoot every German guard as soon as they were positively identified. That’s sounds okay to me.
As I said, the ‘finished’1945 film German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was also released in 2014. It retains the title Memory of the Camps and is credited to Sidney Bernstein and Alfred Hitchcock. Night Will Fall ends with a final couple of minutes of the ‘finished’ Memory. It consists of a semi-poetic narration and an edited sequence showing, in graphic close-up, ten or so victims by the side of the road, presumably executed during the retreat of the camp guards. It’s everything the movie shouldn’t be, a repetitive series of shock cuts to staring corpses with parts of their heads blown away. I can only compare it to one of the intolerably gory highway safety films that aim only to shock the audience. The brain of one corpse lies in a neat heap alongside a skull blown wide open; another man’s head seems to be missing above the nose. I’m not sure what the point is. If it’s done to produce a blast of more extreme horror to reach the audience, it’s a failure. I must admit that I’m conservative on this issue, as I believe that too much of the audience will compare this real carnage to effects they see in the latest zombie thriller. That sickens me the same way I felt when I witnessed high schoolers on a bus describing the awful 9/11 coverage as, ‘really cool.’
Night Will Fall has value, but to me its style, making even mild use of editing techniques from today’s Reality Programming, is inappropriate. The horror of this reality is blatant, banal even. The most responsible way to use the the horror footage would be to simply lay out the raw takes, with slates and camera stops, like legal evidence. Night Will Fall aestheticizes many shots. In one sequence, close-ups of massed corpses are rendered in negative, turning the horror into stylized ‘art.’ Fake ‘end of reel’ blips and flashes are added for style, as in any modern Reality Show, where the only rule is to hype the subject matter using any editorial trick that will keep the frame alive. A s hort piece of footage has been digitally sharpened, and looks as if a sub-par tape source had been run through a bad electronic filter. Is this splitting hairs, and being oversensitive? I suppose that times change and that revisionism happens with everything. But this grim, vitally important history is now leaning toward becoming another entertainment choice.
Other snippets of the new ‘finished’ Memory of the Camps are glimpsed in Night Will Fall. The new film appears to use the same or much of the same narration text. I can’t tell if that reconstituted ending was part of the original, because when the original Memory showed on PBS, a card came up informing us that the final ‘Auschwitz’ chapter had been removed at an earlier date. What remained of the original rough cut ended there. I’ve always theorized that it was snipped off to be given to documentarians and Stanley Kramer. Many of the standard shots of Auschwitz that we see, often in terrible quality, may have come from that reel.
The new Memory of the Camps doesn’t retain the original narration, as read by actor Trevor Howard. The original version was unusually eerie and effective because it was just a sequence of raw shots with insert title cards and maps, and the only audio on the soundtrack was Trevor Howard’s distinctive voice. It is a very good read. Howard seems to be suppressing his anger all the way through, reading the more ironic comments as if he’s personally offended. It’s as if the Army Intelligence officer Trevor Howard plays in The Third Man had been asked to record the narration. The new narrator in the finished (2014) clips we see gives a smooth and uninflected read, which to me revises and re-interprets everything. The Holocaust shouldn’t need mood music to tell us how to react — although I realize that that a music track might have been part of the plan in 1945 as well. And it’s possible that Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein, when they heard Trevor Howard’s interpretation of the narration script, already knew that they wanted something else. But Howard’s track is the one that came from the battlefield of the original production, and should be preserved.
I remember buying a copy of a previously classified Army movie about 1950s atom tests, only to find that the original narration had been similarly tossed away and replaced with a new one that sometimes didn’t even align with the graphics on screen. This to me makes the movie a censored, worthless revision. Watch William Wyler and John Sturges’ docu Thunderbolt on TCM sometime. The Army wasn’t keen to show that movie either, and we can tell why — it’s an honest account of how fighter bomber pilots, mostly unopposed in the air, pressed their advantage over retreating Germans in Italy. The narration and the comments by the pilots are bloodthirsty and merciless. Apparently the Army did not like seeing its personnel presented as gleeful killers. Thunderbolt was released only several years after it was finished, by a small studio.
Like I said above, I realize that my comments about the style of Night Will Fall are highly subjective and prejudiced. But they are my honest thoughts on the film.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Night Will Fall is a good enhanced encoding of a show that consists of new interviews and the old atrocity documentation footage. The improved quality of the film from the camps spares us nothing. If there are more ways to mangle, burn or abuse a human body, I don’t want to know about them. The audio and other technical specs are of a high quality as well.
The disc’s three extras offer much added value. The first is a lengthy lecture by Professor Rainer Schulze, who re-traces basically the entire subject matter of Night Will Fall on a higher plane, with more detail and information. The lecture answers many questions that the main feature doesn’t touch. Schulze also discusses the politics behind the ways the ‘hot potato’ death camp footage was shown, and then not shown. Frankly, I can see a spokesman like Professor Schulze being excluded from a new ‘entertainment’ documentary because (a.) he probes deeply into uncomfortable aspects of the subject and (b.) he’s a German with a German accent. Want to learn more about this appalling yet essential history lesson? This is a fine study piece.
The second and third extras are two shorter concentration camp docus that show how both sides depicted the horror, using much of the same footage. Oświecim (Auschwitz) is the Russian film. It has a Russian title card but English opening and ending text cards — with a misspelling. It identifies the ‘great men’ that will insure that the Fascists are brought to justice as Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill — even though Roosevelt had been dead for a year. The Russian docu refers to the war criminals mostly as Fascists, not Germans, perhaps because they wanted to show the film in the Russian sector of defeated Germany. The narration is fairly specific about what we’re seeing, describing the things done to individual prisoners and identifying a number of them by name. Adults and children pose for the camera as Russian doctors examine them.
The last film is indeed the Billy Wilder supervised Death Mills, which covers much of the same content. Although it consists mostly of British and American film, it also uses a great deal of Russian footage, with a narration track that says totally different things about some of the victims we see. At one point the narration refers to the brutish-looking female SS guards as Amazons, and says that they are ‘Deadlier than the Male.’ Is that evidence of Billy Wilder’s input?
My bias against Night Will Fall is probably a more generalized rant against today’s commercial documentaries, many of which are, I think, compromised by the need to compete with other forms of entertainment. The show does have interesting content and may be perfect for someone unfamiliar with the subject. If a viewer wants a show to introduce the subject of Genocide to children, I can’t see this or any atrocity footage being the right thing to show them. For others, the excellent extras greatly enhance the film’s desirability.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night Will Fall DVD-R rates:
Video: Very good
Supplements: One informational lecture short subjects and two short docus made right after the war (see above)
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 18, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson