Reading through message boards on the Internet Movie Database is a mixed experience. That’s where we find lots of opinions coming from idiots of a varying kind, uncompromising (and thus uninteresting) fanboys, as well as those who have actually put some thought into what they’re saying. In the case of the excellent British documentary Night Will Fall, it is interesting to read discussions about the film’s background and Alfred Hitchcock’s involvement in the original WWII-era footage.
It is also frustrating to read derisive comments like a comparison between Hitchcock’s film and Billy Wilder’s Holocaust documentary Death Mills (1945), which someone describes as a “hatchet job”. There’s another person trying to offer critique of Night Will Fall that amounts to more or less “we’ve seen this before”. That is entirely missing the point.
The background story is as follows. In April 1945, British forces reached the German concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. As we learn early in the film, the soldiers found Bergen to be a picturesque little German town, but the soldiers soon noticed the stench coming from a nearby camp. Belsen was never one of the Nazi extermination camps, but conditions were poor enough with dead prisoners lying everywhere. The survivors tried to get by among the corpses, denied any kind of humanity or dignity. This was a shocking sight to the British soldiers who came there. What faced them was soon documented by film cameras with the expressed purpose of making sure that no one in Bergen could deny knowledge of what was going on in their midst…
Never properly released
André Singer’s documentary tells the story of the soldiers’ experiences, complete with touching interviews with some of them as well as survivors of the camp. There’s also footage from Auschwitz and Majdanek, camps that were even worse than Belsen, showing how well the Allies used film as a way of documenting Nazi crimes; the footage was subsequently invaluable evidence at the Nuremberg trials.
Night Will Fall also tells the story of a British producer, Sidney Bernstein, and how he created a documentary called German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, with help from one of the world’s most successful directors of the time, Alfred Hitchcock. The film was never properly released due to its shocking content. The British government needed the German people as an ally, and the film might damage the hope of that relationship; there was also fear that the film would strengthen Zionism, which could cause problems for the British in the Middle East. Some of the footage was used in other films, such as Death Mills, but most of it was shelved. What we see now in this documentary is beyond terrifying, taking us to the shame and horrors of Belsen, but also giving us some insight and understanding into how necessary it must have been for everyone involved, prisoner, executioner and liberating soldier, to detach oneself to some degree and seize to look at all these corpses as human beings. The effect is sickening.
As a film, Night Will Fall portrays its two aspects, the horrors of the Holocaust and the politics behind its documentation, in a very tight, fascinating and deeply unsettling way. We can’t say “we’ve seen it before”. We have seen footage before, but not in this way and not this story. And we have to keep coming back to different aspects of this historic event, because if we don’t Islamophobia and antisemitism prevails and night will indeed fall.
The film is also a reminder of the necessity of documenting war zones – and the crucial job of journalism.
Night Will Fall 2014-Britain. 75 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Sally Angel, Brett Ratner. Directed by André Singer. Screenplay: Lynette Singer. Music: Nicholas Singer. Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter.
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Stephen Frears. Outside of Britain, the film premiered largely on various TV networks.
Last word: “There’s a major debate going on with educationalists about how old you should be in order to see a film like this, but I am firmly of the belief that if you show and access footage like this – atrocity footage – out of context, which kids see by pressing two buttons on the internet, it becomes a kind of atrocity pornography. But if you put it in context, it has a hugely important role to play in teaching people about the reality of what mankind can do to fellow humans. That’s one of the most interesting and contentious things, not just about our film, but about using film and imagery like that in order to teach or to learn about the Holocaust itself.” (Singer, Interview Magazine)