At the synagogue where I happened to be singing last Saturday, the rabbi wrapped up her regular notices with a timely exhortation to her congregants to try to watch the André Singer documentary Night Will Fall.
In 1945, as the Allied forces fought their way across Europe, in the process uncovering the hideous network of Nazi death and slave-labour camps, film producer Sidney Bernstein was despatched by the Ministry of Information to lead a few dozen army cameramen tasked with documenting the astonishing extent of the German atrocities.
The project was intended to serve not merely as a current affairs update for the edification (and/or mortification) of the British public, but as evidence for the criminal trials which were certain to follow and an incontrovertible document to be placed before the (now occupied) German population. Considerable thought was given to ensuring that no-one could subsequently claim any of the footage had been faked.
The cameramen went around the camps for weeks, required by the nature of their brief to record the situation in appalling detail. ‘I will never forget it’ is a constant refrain. ‘I wanted to forget’ is another. A member of the Red Army camera crew says that what he witnessed at the camps was ‘more shocking and horrible than anything else I filmed during the war.’ Unfortunate staffers at the MoI processing labs received four hours’ worth of negatives simply marked ‘DACHAU’.
Within weeks a full-length documentary was being authorised; Hitchcock was brought in as an editorial supervisor; Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and were actually going to appear in it.
And then the film was shelved, by order of the British and American governments – Singer’s assessment being that neither nation was prepared to risk a groundswell of hospitable sympathy for the surviving Jews. It was also felt that the Germans had perhaps got the message about their war guilt, not least as they were being sized up for alliances in the fast-emerging Cold War scenario. Instead, they were let off with a screening of Billy Wilder’s abridged Death Mills, after a Lilian Harvey operetta in Würzburg. Most of the audience walked out.
Bernstein’s reels were indeed used as evidence during the Nuremberg trials, but that was the closest members of any public got to seeing them until a screening of 5/6 of the material at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984.
Night Will Fall is not that film (which goes by the laudably underdramatic title of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, recently remastered by the Imperial War Museum) but a documentary about the making of that film. It’s an interesting story, certainly, even if it incorporates tantalisingly little of Bernstein’s original, and the couple of hours of extras include Death Mills, the Russian Oświęcim, news footage from Nuremberg, interviews with a handful of academics, and a booklet of ‘making of’ essays.
All of which brings you that little bit closer, in this unhappily commemorative season, to a time before everybody was familiar with the name of Auschwitz, a time before the banality of the banality of evil: a time when the BBC held Richard Dimbleby’s report from Bergen-Belsen until they were sure that he had seen what he had seen.
The seeing remains all-important, as Bernstein and his cameramen (and Dimbleby) were well aware. As one British soldier tells the camera in Night Will Fall: ‘The things in this camp are beyond describing.’
In his original script for the Bernstein project, Richard Crossman concluded: ‘Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall.’ As I was leaving the synagogue, my eye was drawn to the Holocaust memorial wall at the far end of the foyer. A dark, red lamp illuminates the legend: Our memories are their only known grave.
Night Will Fall is released by the BFI on DVD and Blu-ray, today.
A.S.H. Smyth is a freelance writer and singer.