“In feature films the director is God, in documentary films God is the director” — Alfred Hitchcock
As a child in the early eighties, I remember one day after school wandering into the Hall of Remembrance in the Stratford Municipal Buildings, in Taranaki. Along the wall, hung photographs of all the soldiers who had been residents of the town and had fallen in the First and Second World Wars.
I was taken by these photographs in their faded, dusty and scratched shades of black, white and grey, and every now and then, with the recurring tones of sepia.
Beyond their visual appearance, it was the intrigue and sense of reverent curiosity that these photographs imparted on my young self, along with the impression of gravity and significance—for me, there is a magic that surrounds old photographs, films and film footage, and for a period of time I believed that colour only came into the world in the 1950s.
A clever animation has been making the rounds on the internet recently, detailing statistics of those who died during the Second World War— military and civilian. Though, as this animation reveals, the Holocaust makes up only around 10% of the estimated 60 million deaths in World War Two.
Still today, it is the unsettling nature and inconceivable circumstances leading up to, and during this series of events that continues to spring to mind when pondering the suffering and death that occurred during the conflict.
Night Will Fall chronicles the making of the German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, which came about as a result of Sidney Bernstein’s visit to the liberated Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. An entrepreneur within the burgeoning English film industry, Bernstein was an adviser to the British Ministry of Information, and would go on to become the founder of Granada Television.
Although cameramen from the British Army Film and Photographic Unit had already been filming the early days of the camp’s liberation, the visit left Beinstein with the conviction to make a film, and the production of the German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was ordered in April, 1945 (by the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force). The goal: to document Nazi atrocities, with the overall aim that it would be screened to the general German population.
More can be read regarding the German Concentration Camps Factual Survey and its restoration on the Imperial War Museum’s website. But a key piece of information to note, is that despite a rough-cut of five reels being completed, the film was quickly shelved.
The Imperial War Museum states: “From the start of the project, there were a number of problems including the practical difficulties of international co-operation and the realities of post-war shortages. These issues delayed the film long enough to be overtaken by other events [and] by September 1945, British priorities for Germany had evolved from de-Nazification to reconstruction.”
Thus, the film remained unfinished.
With the first signs of the cold war emerging, it is also thought that Allied authorities no longer saw the film as conducive towards creating good relations with Germany, as an anti-Soviet ally. There have also been views that political fears around the developing Zionist Movement were also to blame.
An interesting later development in the making of the documentary was the inclusion of Alfred Hitchcock as Director—a role which the Imperial War Museum describes, in retrospect, as that of a ‘treatment advisor.’
All the footage had been shot prior to Hitchcock’s month-long involvement and he was not in England to oversee the editing of the rough-cut. Yet Hitchcock was to provide valuable input, ensuring that the film would be an authentic record. And it is notable that this was to most likely be his only involvement in the making of a documentary.
The footage would manifest itself in various forms over the coming years, for instance in ‘Death Mills,’ produced by the United States Department of War (1945), and it was also used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials, among others.
It eventually came into the care of The Imperial War Museum in 1952, along with a script for the narration, a shot list and a further 100 reels of footage. The film eventually resurfaced when a researcher working on a biography of Sidney Bernstein (along with curators at the Museum), became aware of the importance of the material. The original rough cut of five reels was screened at the Berlin Film Festival (February,1984) under the title ‘Memory of the Camps,’ and was also screened in 1985 on PBS’s Frontline.
‘Memory of the Camps’ became a popular loan item, and it was eventually recognised that it was in need of digitization and further restoration. This was seen as an opportunity to complete the film in its entirety, using the original rough cut (as reference), script and shot list, and adding in footage from a sixth film reel from the original missing rough cut.
A common factor in documentaries that deal with the Holocaust is that footage shot by the various film units in the arm forces during the period, have generally made it into a myriad of films over time. It is also common that in order for the film makers to shape the narrative in their films, other recurring footage, such as segments of prominent interviews from some of the survivors of the camps, are also often used.
To a degree, this is the case in Night Will Fall and along with newly released footage from the sixth film reel we see the footage coming home to the one of the original films for which the material was originally intended.
It is a very harrowing and disturbing watch in many ways, but part of the magic for me is seeing how a project that started 70-years ago is finally brought together, giving a broader picture not only of specific events unfolding at that time, but also of the efforts made to capture them.
Night Will Fall is a documentary about the making of a documentary that allows the viewer not only to acknowledge and learn the dynamics and events in the aftermath of the concentration camps, but also to gain an insight into various factors that come together in the making of a documentary, and specifically, one made during WW2.