In the closing weeks of the second world war, work began on an uncompromising and essential documentary about the Holocaust, which is being remembered today on Holocaust Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” was conceived by Sidney Bernstein, who later founded Granada television. It includes footage filmed by Bernstein himself at Bergen-Belsen and by the Soviets and Americans at Auschwitz, Majdanek and Dachau. Later this year the film, recently restored by the Imperial War Museum, will be released in Britain by the British Film Institute. The rough cut was completed in 1945, and this will be its first general release.
The story of the making and shelving of Bernstein’s film is told in “Night Will Fall”, broadcast on Channel 4 last weekend and now available to watch online. In the third week of April 1945 Bernstein, then working for the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, arrived at Belsen, which had just been liberated. The bodies of some 13,000 men and women lay around the camp, in barracks, on the ground, in piles; a further 60,000 were dying of starvation and disease, and not all could be saved by the medical teams. The dead and dying were skeletons, barely human, shapes of bone and skull. Bernstein ordered his team of cameramen to film everything: the corpses, those barely alive, the SS guards who were made to carry the bodies to pits for mass burial, as well as the survivors receiving warm clothes and being given baths. He demanded that the mayors and dignitaries of the surrounding villages be brought in to witness what they had chosen not to see, and he filmed them too, staring in horror at the pits full of naked and half-naked corpses. He asked his cameramen to take wide-angle and tracking shots to make the geography clear, so that later it would not be possible for anyone to say that the film had been staged.
Back in London, Bernstein put together a team of writers and editors, among them the future Labour politician Richard Crossman, who was drafted in to write the script. He then persuaded his old friend Alfred Hitchcock to cross the Atlantic to advise on editing and to supervise the rough cut. Bernstein contacted the Soviet and US armies and requested their footage of the camps they had liberated. The Soviets had been the first to reach a major Nazi camp: on July 23rd 1944 they had come across Majdanek near Lublin in Poland. Seventy years ago today they entered Auschwitz, by which time many of the surviving prisoners had been dispatched on the infamous “death marches”. They found 100,000 men’s suits and 14,000 pounds of human hair.
Bernstein’s documentary was intended to be shown throughout Germany and to German prisoners of war. By September 29th 1945 a version of the film was ready. But then the Allied priorities for Germany changed. Denazification was to be replaced by rehabilitation. The Germans were to cooperate and act as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Showing them scenes suggesting widespread complicity in the atrocities was deemed counterproductive. The film was shelved and vanished from sight, to be forgotten for almost 40 years. In the 1980s, the five-reel rough cut was shown at the Berlin Film Festival and by PBS in Boston. Even then, little was made of it.
Bernstein’s film, now fully restored and running to 72 minutes, isn’t only an extensive film record of the Holocaust. It also raises broader questions of remembrance. Holocaust Memorial Day is officially dedicated to all those who suffered under Nazi persecution and in the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The word “genocide”, in the sense of crimes against humanity, was coined in 1943 by a Polish-Jewish lawyer called Raphael Lemkin to describe the extermination of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. The Armenians complain, understandably, that the massacres of their people are not remembered on Holocaust Memorial Day.
A long and acrimonious debate also continues between the “universalists” who wish to see remembered all 11m people massacred by the Nazis—the Romanis, freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and disabled people along with the Jews—and the “specialists” who insist on recognising only the 6m murdered Jews. Whether or not the Holocaust was “unique” to the Jews is a subject that never goes away.
For Bernstein, filming in Belsen and picking through the footage as it arrived from the other camps, these distinctions were irrelevant, and at one point in the film he meticulously lists all the races and groups who died in the camps as a result of Nazi brutality. What he saw and captured was man’s inhumanity to man, and he hoped that by recording it he could help to ensure that such atrocities were not committed again. What concerned him, at that moment, was barbarity of a kind and on a scale that seemed to suggest civilisation itself was under threat, something that could be repeated in other places and at other times unless the world was made to see and understand what had taken place. In the light of the history of the last 70 years, the final words of his script have a somewhat bitter ring to them. “If we don’t learn the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn”.
German Concentration Camps Factual Survey BFI Southbank and selected cinemas nationwide, April. Night Will Fall out on DVD, February 2nd