“Night Will Fall” Uncovers the Grim Realities of Concentration Camps

28 04 2015

HBO and the British Film Institute delve into the grim realities of German atrocities during World War II in the recent documentary “Night Will Fall,” directed by André Singer. The film tells the tale of the British Government’s efforts, under the direction of Sidney Bernstein, to capture for posterity what happened in the German death camps, so that the deeds carried out by the Germans would not be forgotten.

Bernstein took on the overwhelming job of filming the scenes at the camps using Allied cameramen. Both the cameramen and the soldiers who captured the camps were unprepared for what they found: dead bodies of the Germans’ victims piled like cordwood, the gaunt figures of surviving prisoners, the defeated but unbowed officers who ran the camps, and, perhaps worst of all, the ordinary townspeople who lived outside the camps and ignored the overwhelming stench of death that filled the air. The survivors greeted their rescuers with joyful tears, but these same rescuers made the shocking decision to punish the Germans, soldiers and civilians alike, by forcing them to dig mass graves and bury the bodies of the dead.

As the Allied forces moved further into German territory in the days after the war, more camps were discovered and more reels of film were exposed – so many that Bernstein’s job grew to be completely unmanageable, presenting far more footage than could ever be used. Bernstein, an original member of the Film Society of London, called in his friend Alfred Hitchcock for help. They had last worked together in 1944, when Hitchcock directed the short propaganda films “Aventure Malgache” and “Bon Voyage.” Although Hitchcock was only available for a brief consultation, he made a few valuable suggestions about how to approach the project so that future generations would not be able to doubt the film’s veracity. Unfortunately, the project dragged on so long that it had to be shelved. In the early days of the Cold War, the Allies put their efforts into rebuilding Germany as an ally against the Soviet Union; a lengthy documentary reminding the world of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity was no longer considered useful. Some of the footage wound up in other, shorter films that were shown in the United States, but for the most part it was lost to history; some of it went on to be presented in the 1985 as the PBS film “Frontline: Memories of the Camps.” 

“Night Will Fall” reassembles much of that film, and presents it with tearful testimony from both concentration camp survivors and the former soldiers who freed the camps. For Hitchcock fans, it presents a look at a lost chapter in the life of the Master of Suspense, but most importantly, it is a stunning, clear-eyed look at one of humanity’s darkest hours, one that must never be forgotten.

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