This film will haunt me forever.

Although I had a pretty clear idea what the content contained before the screening, I was totally unprepared for the reality of its images.

Night Will Fall is a documentary that traces the story of film footage that soldiers/cameramen of the Allied Forces created when they arrived to liberate German concentration camps – including Breslau, Dachau, Aushwitz – in April 1945. A full length film was planned, produced by Sydney Bernstein and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but for political reasons in the sensitive and charged political post war atmosphere, and with the Cold War already threatening, its release was vetoed. The Imperial War Museum has now completed and restored the original film, called German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, which will be screened at The London Film Festival this October.

Night Will Fall contextualises the original footage and also includes interviews with those who were involved in its creation – soldiers who saw first hand the horror of the camps – as well as with those who survived the camps. The film also includes images from German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. I see them these images again now as I write, almost unbelievable in terms of the scale of the horror and human devastation that they reveal. But undeniably believable too, as authentic archives of the reality that they depict, speaking of a truth that remains so difficult to countenance.

The archival footage shows vast numbers – thousands upon thousands – of dead bodies, cast aside and decaying in mounds amongst the living when the Allies arrived. We see bodies thrown like slaughtered animal carcasses (by SS officers who were still in the camps at the time of liberation) into mass graves. The sheer quantity of human loss and suffering defies words.

Bernstein’s aim was to create something that made the fact of what happened in those camps undeniable. To this end, he also filmed local German dignitaries visiting the camps post liberation, forcing them to witness the mass burials, to see what had been happening short distances from where they themselves had lived throughout the war. For some it was all too much, and they had to be carried away as they fainted, faced with a horror they had either been totally unaware of, or had chosen to ignore.

If we learn nothing from such human devastation, the prophecy of the film’s title – night will fall – will be realised. And have we learned? I am not sure.

I wondered afterwards why I endured a screening of such relentless horror (I wanted to turn away from many of the images). I am glad that I experienced Night Will Fall. As I watched so many of the concentration camp dead being thrown without dignity or compassion into mass graves, creating layer upon layer of death and annihilation, it felt like it mattered, at the very least, to witness and to acknowledge the suffering of the unknown and the now long dead, but who remain today, fellow human beings.

 

CQ

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