16 May 2015

Night Will Fall (2014) - film footage from Nazi concentration camps

Historian Taylor Downing is well worth reading - he analysed the British 11th Armoured Division liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hanover in mid-April 1945. British Army Film Unit cameramen recorded images of bodies piled one on another and of the captured SS guards throwing the naked corpses into vast burial pits.

In London, the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force realised that this footage provided the most powerful record yet of Nazi war crimes. Sidney Bernstein, a film consultant at the Ministry of Information (who later founded Granada Television), along with future Labour minister Richard Crossman, produced a project that would feature the footage from Belsen as well as other camps across Germany.

Bernstein invited Alfred Hitchcock to supervise the edit, though it is now clear that Hitchcock played little role in its production. In any case, the film was never completed. The Americans pulled out of the collaboration and Billy Wilder produced their own short film about the camps, Death Mills (1945); the Americans believed the Soviets would become more dangerous than the Nazis had been, and that it was therefore time to rebuild Germany’s image.

And the British were little better. Bernstein was stonewalled by political authorities, nervous of the growing Zionist movement and the desire by Europe's Jewish survivors to get to Israel.

 The British soldiers liberated  Bergen Belsen  in April 1945
and filmed what they found

In 1952 five reels of rough cut were deposited at the Imperial War Museum. This has now been restored as a film called German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. The IWM team had to complete, from the production notes, a sixth reel that was never cut, using mostly Soviet footage of Auschwitz. They had recorded the commentary that they believe Crossman wrote. It included a fascinating sequence about the recovery of some of the women in the camp, a rare moment of hope.

After 70 years, a visual record of the liberation of Belsen has been restored - a new documentary called Night Will Fall was directed by André Singer in 2014. It includes interviews with soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen and with the cameramen who shot the footage. David Dimbleby describes the initial BBC disbelief at his father’s radio broadcast from the liberated camp. Bernstein features in a 1984 interview and Hitchcock appears in a 1962 interview. Several survivors were interviewed.

I agree with the conclusion that it is still vital to look at these film-records of crimes committed just two generations ago. The original footage from the 1945 documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey has not been altered, but recent interviews with survivors and with the British soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen camp have been added. As were interviews with the editors and cameramen who produced the original 1945 footage, and those who filmed in Auschwitz and Majdanek camps in Poland.

What struck me as particularly nasty and hypocritical was that, back in 1945, footage from Soviet cameramen had been dismissed as “atrocity propaganda” by right wing Americans film companies. Russia lost 20,000,000 civilians and soldiers fighting the Nazis while the Americans remained neutral till January 1942!! Fortun­ately Night Will Fall has included the precious footage filmed by the Russian soldier-liberators.

Night Will Fall aired on major networks around the world during Holocaust Remembrance Day 2015, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. Now I would like the film to be shown at British and German film festivals, history departments in universities, the History Channel on television and anywhere the Holocaust deniers might have influence.


In one sense it is easy to see why the Americans would want to block Sydney Bernstein's British film or Billy Wilder's American film of the extermination camps. The Motion Picture Production Code, under the control of Will Hays, was the set of industry moral guidelines that was applied to American films released by major studios from as early as 1930!! The Hays Code also controlled political censorship. When Warner Bros wanted to make a film about genocide of the Jews and socialists in Nazi Germany, the Production Office forbade it. In fact in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Code prevented any anti-Nazi films being produced at all. Had anything much changed by late 1945?

And while it is more difficult to see why the British would want to block any footage of the concentration camps from reaching the public, it is easy to see why the Germans would not want to acknowledge their responsibility for genocide. Labyrinth of Lies, directed by directed by Giulio Ricciarelli, is a film that exposed the conspiracy of silence amongst prominent German institutions and government branches.

public prosecutor Johann Radmann in the archives
in the film Labyrinth of Lies

A young prosecutor in post-war West Germany investigated a massive conspiracy to cover up the Nazi pasts of prominent public figures. The Frankfurt public prosecutors, led in real life by Fritz Bauer (1903–1968), Joachim Kügler (1926-2012) and Georg Friedrich Vogel (1926-2007), brought Auschwitz's atrocities to trial. The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials ran from Dec 1963 to August 1965, charging 22 defendants under German criminal law for their roles in the concentration camp complex. The rest of the 8,000 surviving Auschwitz staff presumably lived out the rest of their lives in peace, working in successful careers in the German public service.

In the film, the main hero was Johann Radmann, a fictitious public prosecutor. In Frankfurt in 1958 Radmann discovered that important institutions and branches of government were deeply embedded in a conspiracy to cover up Nazi crimes during WW2. Johann worked with a journalist and Jewish concentration camp survivors to uncover the evidence linking thousands of SS soldiers to mass murder of civilians only 13-16 years earlier.

Dispute Resolution in Germany blog shows that Labyrinth of Lies captured a major historical period in which Germany resisted any attempt to discuss Nazism and denied the nation’s war crimes. This was despite the sincere intentions of the Nuremberg trials to expose those very war crimes. If only the film used Fritz Bauer’s real biography and his written records.

This film opened in German cinemas in November 2014 and will open in Israeli cinemas in May 2015.


Andrew said...

What motivates deniers? Usually money or power are motivators but I cannot see how they could greatly benefit. Ok, they sell a few books and get paid to speak at times. Really though, what other motivation can there be apart from hatred? Fortunately so much is on the record including the efforts of film makers.

Lord Cowell said...

After reading your post I went in search of the movie and found Hitchcock's film here:


Very grim and ghastly. It is still hard to believe mankind is capable of such things.

Joe said...

Night Will Fall was featured in November 2014's JIFF/Jewish International Film Festival in Melbourne, Sydney and other major cities.

In Melbourne, ACJC Director Mark Baker talked about the ethical and historical issues that the film raised relating to knowledge of the Holocaust after the camps were liberated.

Hels said...

The film makers were brave young soldiers who a] liberated the camps and even more importantly b] took the evidence back to England to be processed. Did they face hostile authorities back at home? Did they have to deny having seen the results of mass murder when they were in Germany and Poland?

In the modern era, I wonder what happens to the camera men who photograph refugees in sinking ships at sea.. or behind barbed wire detention camps on Nauru.

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

thank you for the url which was published on the 31st of Dec 2013. youtube will reach a large group of people who would never go to history conferences or international film festivals.

I am assuming the youtube film is using a lot of the same footage as Night Will Fall but that it has a different narrator.

Hels said...


perfect! I looked at the 2014 JIFF programme and found Night Will Fall was offered in each city a few times. And it was an excellent idea to have a formal discussion on the ethical and historical issues that the film raised, post-liberation of the camps.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Even in the 1930's, there were lots of people who knew what was happening and showed the highest level of concern in letters and other writings. Those who escaped from Europe were also able to confirm and report. Although footage like that you discuss reveals the full horror and enormity of the Nazis, only deliberate non-cognizance of what was going on, or as Andrew stated, willful hatred, could prevent people, both then and now, from acknowledging what took place.

Hels said...


I doubt if there is a nation on earth that hasn't been involved in mass murder of other nations' citizens at some time in the past. But, significantly, war against an external enemy is almost always memorialised and often shown great respect eg war shrines are built, songs are sung, memorial holidays are held each year.

Mass murder of a nation's own citizens, on the other hand, is difficult to acknowledge, let alone celebrate. The Germans putting millions of their own citizens in gas chambers is unthinkable, even at this distance of 70 years.

I am similarly watching the genocide of up to 1.5 million Armenian civilians in Turkey. Turkey of course denies the genocide, but so do 90% of the other nations on earth.

Snobby Bear said...

Hollywood Directors Faked Scenes for War-Propaganda Says New Book
Scenes from John Huston’s 100% staged, fake documentary, The Battle of San Pietro, complete with grateful townspeople. While the film portrays a happy ending — See how we are helping these people? — in reality the American bombardment left San Pietro in ruins that are unoccupied to this day.
Five Came Back by Mark Harris (a columnist for Entertainment Weekly) says that film-directors John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George ¬Stevens faked scenes for propaganda-films that they made for the government of the United States during the Second World War.
Mark Harris on how John Huston faked The Battle of San Pietro:
“San Pietro was seen as a new pinnacle of realism. In some ways it was, insofar as John Huston’s faked war-footage looked more like what we now think of as war-footage than anything that Americans had seen. He knew that you needed to have a shaky camera. He knew what a kind of vérité-style for war-footage should look like. But the fact is, it was all faked. He and his crew got to the battle after it was over. They had gone to Italy with the assigned mission to find a town that the Allies were about to liberate, and to film the victory, the liberation of the town, and the joyous return of the villagers. And when they got to San Pietro what they found instead was an abandoned town that had been shelled to bits, the Germans already in retreat, corpses of American soldiers all over the place, and mines and boobytraps everywhere they looked. So, the movie that became San Pietro was a restaged version of that battle that was shot over the next six weeks.” [Mark Harris, NPR 22 February 2014]
Harris suggests that a realistic representation of what was happening might have damaged public support for the war:
“When you take away the whole question of fakery, it makes the combat look rough and frightening and punishing and makes the advance of a line of ¬soldiers look slow and ¬hesitant in ways that set it apart from Hollywood war movies and even from a lot of other documentaries.” [Express, 9 March 2014]
There are aspects of film-fakery during the Second World War that Harris likely does not discuss to any great extent in his book.
In addition to simulating battles, the directors would simulate atrocity-footage. Frank Capra used footage of Chinese Nationalist troops executing Chinese Communists to portray Japanese troops wantonly killing Chinese civilians. He accomplished this by cropping the frames and adding dramatized segments that induced viewers to interpret what they were seeing as a Japanese atrocity rather than what it was.
Capra was also not above misrepresenting clips from German newsreels, showing the suffering in eastern Poland under Soviet rule, as scenes of suffering under German rule.
At the end of the war, professional film-directors were also employed to make the Germans appear as monsters, thus justifying the war. Alfred Hitchcock was engaged to make a film that represented Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald as places where gassings had occurred — which is officially acknowledged now not to be true — but Hitchcock (not a Jew) never finished the film and it was never shown until PBS Frontline got hold of it in the 1980s, a few years after Hitchcock’s death. Billy Wilder, a Jew who had left Germany a few years earlier to become a famous director in Hollywood, was similarly engaged.

Hels said...


Thank you. I have not read Five Came Back by Mark Harris. But I am quite prepared to believe his conclusions i.e that film-directors John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens faked scenes for propaganda-films that they made for the American government towards the 1939-45 war. I am sure governments encouraged propaganda films, newspaper articles, radio programmes, posters, musicals etc in every country.

Perhaps you are correct that the USA government encouraged the propaganda more vigorously than other countries. As I suggested, Russia lost 20,000,000 civilians and soldiers fighting the Nazis while the Americans remained rigidly neutral till January 1942.

I warmly encourage you to see Night Will Fall, the most reliable footage saved from WW2.