There will be a new HBO documentary about the discovery of the German concentration camps at the end of World War II will be shown on January 27th, 2015. The HBO documentary, Night Will Fall, was directed by André Singer and narrated by Helena Bonham Carter and Jasper Britton, tells the story of how a lost film came back to life.
The HBO film is about a “lost” documentary directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock titled German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey.
According to The Daily Beast, Sidney Bernstein, the chief of the Psychological Warfare Film Section of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, was commissioned to create the documentary chronicling the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945.
His goal was, in his words, to “prove one day that this had actually happened” and have it serve as “a lesson to all mankind as well as to the Germans.”
He eventually brought in his good friend Alfred Hitchcock to be the film’s supervising director.
However, the horrifying and heartbreaking footage of numerous concentration camps, shot by British, American, and Russian World War II soldiers as they were being liberated, became tangled up in a complicated web of politics and artistic rows.
The new HBO documentary rediscovers and uses footage from German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey.
The film-on-a-film, called Night Will Fall, will premiere January 27th, 2015 on HBO. It is narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, produced by Stephen Frears and Brett Ratner, and directed by Andre Singer, who serves as president of The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and who executive produced the documentaries The Act of Killing and Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss.
It was done in concert with London’s Imperial War Museum and took 18 months of looking through thousands of feet of film to trace the making of the unmade epic.
“When I first saw material, it was shattering to see; a horrific experience,” Singer tells The Daily Beast. “I’ve been in the film world a long time and seen lots and lots of footage and you think you’ll get anesthetized to it, but that isn’t the case. This is something that is once seen, never forgotten.”
Singer’s documentary opens with footage from German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey of the British 11th Armored Division liberating the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Northern Germany on April 15, 1945. There, the Allied troops discovered a strange sight.
“Neat and tidy orchards. Well-stocked farms lined the wayside. And the British soldier did not fail to admire the place, and its inhabitants—at least, until he began to feel a smell,” says a narrator in voiceover.
The decommissioned film was resurrected for the HBO documentary. Authorized in the spring of 1945 by the Allied forces, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey captured the monstrous realities found during the liberation of Nazi death camps, including Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz.
Yet by August of that year, the film was shelved by British authorities. Everything—reels of footage, the script, the cameramen’s notes—was boxed up and buried in the archives of the Imperial War Museums (IWM) in London.
After the American and British governments approved his film, Bernstein handpicked a powerhouse team, including Alfred Hitchcock and other influential filmmakers. They had just three months to complete the documentary from footage captured by British, American and Russian cameramen.
Night Will Fall shows many of these scenes, and they are rife with unspeakable details: Dead bodies are strewn across plots of land, some in heaps and others lined up like a carpet of human carcasses.
German Concentration Camps Factual Survey is Hitchcock’s only known documentary feature. Though his tenure on the film lasted just one month, he made lasting contributions, helping to outline the story and emphasizing the importance of showing just how close the concentration camps were to picturesque villages where German civilians lived during the war.
Hitchcock wanted the film to be as believable and irrefutable as possible to ensure that the massacre of 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, would never be forgotten.
In the summer of 1945, plans for German Concentration Camps Factual Survey began to unravel. The American government grew impatient with Bernstein’s slow, meticulous process and pulled its footage, hiring its own director, Billy Wilder, to create a shorter film.
Wilder’s Death Mills premiered in Wurzberg following an operetta with Lillian Harvey. Of the 500-odd people in the audience at the beginning of the screening, less than 100 were in their seats at the end.
Bernstein’s work had also become a political headache for American and British officials. The consensus was that the film was no longer necessary.
“Policy at the moment in Germany is entirely in the direction of encouraging, stimulating and interesting the Germans out of their apathy, and there are people around the Commander-in-Chief who will say ‘No atrocity film,’” read a memo Bernstein received on August 4, 1945, from the British Foreign Office. German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey was shelved in September 1945, though its footage was key evidence in the trials of Nazi war criminals.
Four years ago, the Imperial War Museum began restoring and completing Bernstein and Hitchcock’s film, as they had originally envisioned it, including the sixth reel, which was unfinished when the project was shut down. Night Will Fall ends with a scene from the now-completed documentary German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey. A large group of civilians (it’s unclear who) walk through one of the camps, passing by decaying bodies on both sides of the road. As the camera zooms in on the grotesque faces of the dead, the narrator speaks: “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But by God’s grace, we who live will learn.”