I have been wanting to write about Night Will Fall, aired last week on HBO. It’s a documentary about a documentary. The original, produced by Sidney Bernstein for the British Psychological Warfare Division in 1945, had the working title, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey—a purposefully non-dramatic title. It was never finished or released, for what might seem to be largely cynical political reasons. It was based on a compilation of footage shot by mostly British and American soldiers present at the liberation of several of the Nazi death camps. It was made because military officials were convinced that the world would not be able to believe what happened in these places unless they saw it with their own eyes—and in prophetic anticipation of later deniers. It was the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, who was brought in to assist in the direction, that called for the kind of long, unbroken panning shots—some with recognizable officials and trusted figures—that would be impossible to accuse of exaggeration or fakery.
Much of the footage is familiar: the haggard faces and the skeletal bodies of survivors, the piles of naked bodies stacked up like cord wood, the long trenches filled with the remains of the thousands who died, the camp guards, male and female, and the SS officers and men forced to engage in the disposal of the corpses of their mass murder victims, the German civilians from neighboring towns lined up by Allied forces and required to witness what had been perpetrated in their name. We have seen these images, and each time we see them we are repulsed by the barbarity of the Nazis—and are called upon to reflect upon that sad but unavoidable old phrase, “man’s inhumanity to man.”
What is new—and, to me, surprising—in the original footage are the follow-up scenes, taken two or three weeks later, which show the remarkable resilience of human beings who had lived through hell, had suffered from rampaging typhus and other camp illnesses, and had nearly starved to death. The scenes show women sorting through clothes and trying them on (“as women like to do” the commentary noted! Not something any documentarian would dare to say today!) They show survivor couples strolling down tree-lined country roads with every appearance of good health and cheer. The reality, of course, went far deeper than this, after so terrible a trauma. But still, it was a refreshing addition to the visual record. Liberation, which to so many had become an impossible mirage, had in fact arrived.
Andre Singer’s “Night Will Fall” does not attempt a reconstruction of the original film, but it does include an extensive amount of the footage—mostly in black and white but some, from American photographers, in the newly available medium of color. Singer uses the perspective of a number now-aging survivors, their liberators and responsible officials of the time to describe the experience of that moment in history at first hand; to explain both the purpose of the original film and the reasons for its non-release (some believed at the time that it would have a negative impact on the “de-Nazification” process then in hand); and to detail its subsequent history, most notably its effective use in the war crimes trials at Nuremberg.
Singer’s documentary is a heart- and gut-wrenching reminder of that thing that we must “never forget.” It is timely, coming at a moment in history where we will soon no longer have either the last of the survivors or their rescuers to bear witness, and will need to rely more heavily on documents such as this. It is thorough and clear in its purpose to carry out the intention of the original, to create the kind of record that would withstand every attempt to deny or minimize this most appalling and sickening event in human history. Because of its historical, and sometimes perversely political perspective, it should be a part of every 20th century history class.
There is one proviso—one I confess would not have occurred to me until I read this excellent review by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, "Auschwitz Was About the Jews" and realized there was justice to his complaint: that the words Jew and Jewish were almost entirely absent from the film and that, as his title suggests, Auschwitz was about the Jews. There were other victims, who should not be forgotten. There were gays and communists, there were gypsies and (as one commenter points out in the lively and fascinating discussion that follows the Rabbi’s review) Jehovah’s Witnesses. There were people of all faiths who dared to oppose the Nazi regime. But to make such a film with no mention of the Jews as the primary targets of Nazi hatred and brutality is to do a disservice to the truth.
That said, this is an important, compelling, often enraging, and immensely saddening documentary. Each one of us owes it to himself or herself to know about these things, and there is no better way of knowing than to watch it.