As the WWII tide turned in their direction in 1944-45, the Allied forces had more than military liberation on their minds: They wanted to win the propaganda war as well, to forever discredit Nazism in Germany and around the world. Commissioned by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, shot by combat and newsreel cameramen accompanying troops as they liberated occupied Europe, and supervised by a remarkable team, the film “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” was intended to be their weapon. But politics prevented the pic’s completion and distribution, as recounted in British helmer Andre Singer’s powerful, must-see documentary “Night Must Fall,” which chronicles the untold story of the film’s history.
Providing important context, “Night Will Fall” is premiering in conjunction with the release of the restored “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” which arrives 70 years after its inception, and after four years of labor by Britain’s Imperial War Museums. The restored “Camps” made its debut at the 2014 Berlinale, where “Night” screened as a work-in-progress.
Although the two works complement one another, “Night” definitely works as a solo piece, and of the two films, it is the one most likely to be widely presented. Clearly a work of passion and scholarship, it is both time capsule and teaching tool. Its title comes from the epigraph to “Camps”: that the world needs to learn the lesson that the film teaches, or night will fall.
“Night” not only conveys the almost unbelievable atrocities captured by the Russian, American and British camera teams and photographers, but also highlights the dedication of the team determined to document and disseminate this evidence and the changing policies of those in charge of postwar reconstruction. Singer makes use of graphic, disturbing excerpts from “Camps,” other archival footage and moving eyewitness testimony from camp survivors and liberators.
Singer also clarifies the historical record concerning the earlier film. Although Alfred Hitchcock is credited as director of “Camps,” he was involved with the project for only a month. As shown here, the true force behind the pic was producer Sidney Bernstein, who, via his position at Britain’s Ministry of Information, assembled a small but expert crew, including editors Peter Tanner and Stewart McAllister, and writers Colin Wills and Richard Crossman. He sought Hitchcock’s help in putting the film together; according to Bernstein, Hitchcock planned and outlined the film, and was keen to show the close relationship between the camps and the local communities, thereby illustrating that local people must have been aware of their presence and, as such, should share some of the culpability.
As reams of footage arrived from the field, the editors scrambled to log and view it. Among the most unique perspectives that “Night Will Fall” provides is that of the men shooting the material and those on the home front who were cutting it. Several cameramen describe how they had to disassociate themselves from what they were filming, while one editor describes footage from Dachau, seen in negative, as “the most appalling hell possible.” Singer includes some of this rare white-on-black negative footage as well as 16mm color footage shot by the Americans. He also uses contempo interview footage from the now elderly survivors, who appear in archival footage as skeletal presences welcoming the liberators.
Even as Bernstein’s team toiled long hours, circumstances beyond his control disrupted his vision of “Camps.” Rather than wait, the impatient American government commissioned Billy Wilder to use their footage. Singer includes an excerpt of Wilder’s short film, “Death Mills,” intended for German and Austrian audiences, and clips from an interview with Wilder.
Meanwhile, as Bernstein traveled to the U.S. to work with Hitchcock, the official policy of the British government toward the former Reich was changing from retribution to reconstruction. After a screening of a rough cut in September 1945, the film was shelved, unfinished. Singer points out, however, that the Nuremberg war crimes prosecutors screened footage to help convict Nazi war criminals.
Clocking in at a trim 75 minutes, the expert assembly smoothly blends an assortment of materials.