It is estimated that eleven million people — including six million Jews — were killed during the Holocaust. It’s a figure that is so monumental, tragic, and despairing, that it almost becomes abstract in its scope and dimension. Fully comprehending how deep the loss of eleven million lives is, how truly staggering the level of clinical hatred must be to perpetrate such a genocide, and how far-reaching the effects on religious communities and cultural legacies truly are, can be difficult when cold statistics are so large as to be unfathomable. The horrors of World War II have been chronicled multiple times in cinema, and in countless documentaries, but “Night Will Fall” is a bracing reminder of why this story still needs to be told. With the generation of first hand witnesses and survivors dwindling, more than ever, evidence and oral histories provide a clear-eyed, painful, potent and necessary reminder of how far unchecked evil can descend into madness.
This particular tale is one that for decades was never told. In 1945, as the war headed towards it final days, allied forces began to liberate the concentration camps, and only then was the full scale of the monstrous Nazi activities completely understood. Newly formed military units, armed with cameras but not much in the way of training perhaps, except how to turn them on and load film, were dispatched to Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Auschwitz to capture evidence and material for allied propaganda films, to give the public an idea of what soldiers had been fighting for. In Britain, a team headed by producer Sidney Bernstein, with Alfred Hitchcock called in as a supervising director, was assembled to create “German Concentration Camp Factual Survey,” from the reams of footage coming in. But no one was quite prepared for what they would see.
Time has certainly not dampened just how upsetting the scenes shown from the vintage film are. Dead, emaciated bodies, strewn carelessly outdoors, while the living struggle to survive nearby, speak to the inhumanity Jews and others faced in the camps. Piles of hair, glasses, shoes, clothing, and personal items, all carefully sorted, cataloged and stacked, taken from victims who would later be killed, is a shattering display of how brutally massive and coldly organized the Nazi operations were. “Night Will Fall” director André Singer judiciously serves out portions of ‘Factual Survey’ amidst interviews with the cameramen, camp survivors and more who were there. Even in these measured doses, in a documentary that runs less than ninety minutes, the effect is profound and nearly indescribable. It brings the reality of the Holocaust into terrifying, unblinking focus and it will leave you shaken.
So, what happened with ‘Factual Survey,’ and why are we only talking about it now? In a word: politics. When the war ended, the propaganda film became a problem both in the United States and Europe. With thousands and thousands of freed survivors from the camps, the question was now raised about where they would go, and rather astoundingly, the allied countries were reluctant to open their doors. Politicians feared that the public, upon seeing the film Bernstein and Hitchcock were spearheading, would grow sympathetic to the victims, and would want to provide refuge for them. It’s in this area where the Singer’s documentary truly could’ve used more context and padding. The post-war politics, as Europe was being redrawn, Germany rebuilt, and how to deal with the new future that lay ahead, is vital to understanding why ‘Factual Survey’ was ultimately boxed up and locked away for decades (though material was shown during the Nuremberg Trials as evidence). While we get the broad strokes of the situation, nearly as crucially as the reconstruction of the ‘Factual Survey’ decades later, and what it means to historians, are the events that led to it being unseen. And that deserved more time than the documentary gives it.
“I peered into hell,” says retired Sgt. Benjamin Ferencz, one of the cameramen who visited the camps, and later the lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. “Night Will Fall” shares that terrible vision the young soldier first saw decades ago. Ultimately, it’s not a matter of whether this documentary is good or bad; simply, it’s necessary. It’s an important reflection on a time in human history when one madman showed what was possible when everything that makes our species unique was stripped away in the pursuit of power. But as “Night Will Fall” shows, even in the darkest hour, sometimes the greatest heroes are those willing to stare bravely into humanity’s worst depths and tell the world what happened. [B]
“Night Will Fall” debuts on HBO tonight at 9 PM.