Night Will Fall is an HBO documentary about one aspect of the Holocaust. Specifically it’s a documentary about the making of another documentary: German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey. GCCFS was filmed, written, and edited — by among others Alfred Hitchcock — in the spring and summer of 1945, but then shelved for political reasons; it was only completed recently, by members of the Imperial War College. It has not yet had any general release, but hopefully Night Will Fall will help change that.
Indeed the most compelling features of Night Will Fall are a few minutes of excerpts from GCCFS, along with digitally restored footage taken for the making of the older film. A few observations:
1. One of the striking aspects of both the British and American response to the liberation of various concentration camps in Germany was that military authorities in both nations immediately mobilized considerable resources to document what their troops had found. Gen. Eisenhower in particular insisted on having a delegation of leaders of both houses of Congress visit the camps at once, even though the war in Europe was still being fought. (The report to Congress this visit generated is well worth reading, as among other things it illustrates how relatively little understanding the Allies had of the true scope and nature of the Final Solution even by the end of the war).
The Russians also brought in cameras to Auschwitz and Majdanek immediately after capturing them. The latter camp was unusually well preserved, because the rapid advance of the Red Army caught the SS by surprise, and much of the sort of evidence that was destroyed at other camps was preserved there. German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey employees some of this footage as well.
All this demonstrates how the Allies appreciated at the the time that the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes would be met with incredulity, no doubt in part because both world wars featured the use on all sides of exaggerated or wholly invented atrocity stories for propaganda purposes. In the case of the Holocaust, the atrocity stories turned out to be considerable understatements.
2. Night Will Fall isn’t an easy film to watch. The restored footage from the camps is in many cases extremely disturbing — as an Imperial War College expert who took part in the restoration notes, the tradition among those who photographed and filmed war had until then been to avoid graphic representations of war’s carnage, but this tradition was certainly not followed by the camera operators (almost all of them military men who had just learned to use their equipment) who chronicled what they found in the camps.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the images is that they make clear the extent to which the deaths in places like Dachau and Bergen-Belsen were products of brute starvation: the sheer emaciation of the corpses (and the film features thousands of corpses, including those of many women and children) is almost beyond belief. A couple of the camera operators — hardened soldiers being interviewed nearly 70 years after the fact — break down in tears when recounting their memories of their roles in the making of the original film.
3. For all the indescribable barbarity and horror of the concentration camps, these camps were in a sense peripheral to the core of the Holocaust: a point which GCCFS cannot have possibly conveyed, since this wasn’t understood at the time, but which the makers of Night Will Fall should have noted.
Although I’m far from an expert in these matters, it seems to me unfortunate that the sites that did make up the core of the Holcaust — Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Auschwitz Birkenau — are referred to in English, following the German usage of the Nazis themselves, as “camps.” The word camp is properly applied to the forced labor prisons, designed originally for political prisoners and other “undesirables,” that are the focus of GCCFS and Night Will Fall. These concentration camps were qualitatively similar to the Soviet gulags, in that, although they ended up killing large numbers of their inmates as a consequence of extremely brutal conditions, rampant disease, starvation diets, and arbitrary executions, they were not designed to carry out bureaucratized, industrialized, carefully cataloged mass murder on a daily basis. What could more properly be called the Nazi murder factories were designed for no other purpose. Indeed these “camps” had essentially no residents, since, with the exception of a handful of inmates conscripted into the sonderkommando, the millions sent to them were murdered within a few hours of their arrival.
The word “camp,” even in the form of “extermination camp” or “death camp” can, I think, obscure what the essence of the Holocaust really was. The Nazis went to extraordinary lengths to hide the existence of these places, and indeed unlike the concentration and labor camps, the murder factories were never liberated or filmed (Auschwitz Birkenau was shut down and mostly dismantled months before the Soviets captured the territory on which it had operated, while the other murder factories were obliterated by the SS when they were abandoned, well before the lands on which they had stood were overrun by the Red Army. The one exception was Majdanek, but it was primarily a concentration camp, and it operated as an extermination center on a relatively small scale).
Holocaust denial is based almost exclusively on this fact, which once again illustrates the prescience of the Allies in doing what they could to document through film those parts of the Nazi murder machine that could not be disassembled before Allied troops swept over them.
Hopefully now that it has finally been completed, German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey will have a general theatrical release, and be made available on DVD. In the meantime, Night Will Fall is a film that ought to be seen.