It was the movie from 1945 that had barely seen the light of day —until earlier this week. Reels upon reels of raw footage recorded by military and newsreel cinematographers after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by Allied forces are the basis of “Night Will Fall,” a powerful documentary that HBO ran Monday, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the most notorious of the death camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The images are hauntingly searing, particularly scenes of well-dressed German citizens walking through concentration camps amid piles of emaciated bodies– some naked, some in inmate uniforms – all frozen in a grisly diorama of hellish death. It was as if the Allies were forcing them to bear witness by saying, “Look at what was done in your name.”
The documentation of mass extermination was the motivation behind recording the horrific discoveries at Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz in the immediate aftermath of the Nazis’ declining power during World War II. The plan, as envisioned by Sidney Bernstein of the British government’s Ministry of Information and aided by supervising director Alfred Hitchcock, was to create a harrowing film titled “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.”
Reports of the depravities at the concentration camps had quickly made their way to Great Britain and to the United States. Bernstein had traveled to Bergen-Belsen a week after the camp’s liberation to see the devastation firsthand.
Despite all the best efforts and the artistic pedigree of those involved and the initial support it received, the documentary provides a revealing look at why the film was never widely seen. It was supposed to be screened in Germany after the fall of the Third Reich. But by May 1945, with the war in Europe finally over, priorities from earlier in the year had changed.
“Night Will Fall,” narrated by Helena Bonham Carter and directed by André Singer, features archival interviews with Hitchcock, director Billy Wilder and the Ministry of Information’s Bernstein, who went on to found Granada Television.
It provides insight from concentration camp survivors, several of whom identify younger versions of themselves in the footage. Soldiers who liberated the camps and those who shot the footage are also interviewed, testifying to the horror they experienced.
“This was not only an extraordinarily gripping story but was potentially important in bringing a different perspective to the story of the Holocaust,” Singer said about the documentary. “Once I watched ‘German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,’ I knew we could make something both different and importantly powerful.”
In 1952, London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) inherited the rough cut of five of the six planned reels of the film, along with 100 compilation reels of unedited footage, a detailed shot list and a voiceover script with the commentary.
A five-reel rough cut had screened at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival and later aired on PBS’ “Frontline,” but four years ago, the IWM began an ambitious project to digitize and restore the footage, including the never-before-seen sixth reel, all of which served to transform the grainy images of the past into the vividness of the present, making its scenes of tragic devastation an unforgettable lesson to all who witness them.
(“Night Will Fall” can also be seen on HBO Jan. 29 and Feb. 7, 12, 15 and 24; on HBO2 Jan. 27 & 31, as well as Feb. 6 and 10; on HBO On Demand through Feb. 22, and on HBO GO always.)