During World War II, allied nations needed to throw everything they can to have a shot at defeating Germans, despite only fighting against one country. Even during the closing years when Nazis were retreating strongly, Allies were desperately looking at all kinds of ways to boost their chances.
One interesting angle was cinematography. Propaganda movies were shot in great numbers to convey patriotic messages, boost morale, dehumanize the enemy etc. Somewhere around 1943, British Ministry of Information and American Office of War Information came to conclusion that they need a film that would prove beyond doubt the extent of German atrocities.
Not having the slightest idea yet about the horrors that were happening in German concentration camps scattered across Europe but knowing that bad stuff is definitely happening, they decided to hire professional cinema men who would gather material and make a documentary out of it.
It was supposed to be a jab straight at the Germans, both those who would say that they had no idea about what actually happened in those camps and those who would deny that it even happened.
The political strategy at the time was to aggressively guilt-trip them into submission. Other audiences were not important, the film was expected to be distributed on the German market first and foremost.
Sidney Bernstein was the first man recruited for the job and project's most important figure. Serving in the Ministry of Information during war, the media baron was no stranger to war documentaries, making them almost since day 1 of the WWII.
Double-qualified for the job, he had visited Bergen-Belsen camp to personally see what had been happening there, and triple-qualified because he was a jew, which made it even more personal, painful, and motivating.
Bernstein was an ambitious man and he quickly started feeling that just cutting the film and putting it together is not enough and that it needs to be more artistic and sophisticated to hit harder and have a clearer message. He decided that the movie could use a professional director who could steer things better towards these goals.
He reached out to Alfred Hitchcock, his great friend with whom he also had a professional relationship, having worked with him on 3 movies: Rope, Under Capricorn and I Confess (he went uncredited in all three).
Hitchcock was also no stranger to propaganda movies during WWII, but at the time he was bound by Hollywood contract and couldn't just leave everything off mid-way and go to Britain. In February 1945, he agreed to join Bernstein when he can take a break from his current project at the time - Spellbound. In mid-to-late June 1945, it happened.
The project's enhanced scope came as good news to the U.S. government. Now willing to make it a really grand statement, General Eisenhower was to give speech at the beginning. At the end, it was to be concluded by Truman, Churchill and Stalin. In other news, representative of each of the main contributing countries would chip in.
Fortunately, nothing came out of this plan. Back in the day, Stalin's own atrocities were unknown by most people, and those informed kept their mouths shut, as Soviet Union was their ally and it was needed to defeat Germany.
If a person of his calibre would give a speech, it would do the opposite of what was intended. Soviet Union's track record of fabricating history was soon enriched when they began telling their own version of their brutal war activities outside the common cause.
The picture, which was supposed to be done in 3 months, now spanned for more than a year and it was nowhere near completion. After arriving, Hitchcock didn't have much time, so he had to work very fast. On top of that, the war was finally over.
The subject was still important (after all, it was expected to be released post-war), but political reality has changed. Soviets, who were allies, now became imperialist aggressors hungry to take as much bite out of Europe as they can. Putting the screws on Germans could make them again side with Soviets, which could spell disaster for entire Europe.
Seeking stability in the region, allied nations decided to soften the tone and make Germans hop on board as soon as possible. This made their horrific crimes quickly forgotten and put the entire Europe on a collision course with Russia. This conflict of interests remains to this day.
It all spelled the end for the movie. A heavy hammer that it was could never be used for patting Germans on their backs. It no longer served its purpose and was put on indefinite hold. Bernstein wanted to hear none of it. He decided to continue, even if all the costs he'd have to cover himself. He was a very rich man and the project was never about money anyway.
His complaints didn't work though. The decision from upstairs came that he is relieved of his duties, and instead Billy Wilder was given the spot. Under his guidance, a simpler, 22-minute version was quickly assembled and released to the public even before 1945 came to an end. It was titled Death Mills.
After that, all the materials gathered since Bernstein's arrival were packed and sent to the Imperial War Museums. All that they got there was a meaningless number F3080. That was the end of the full-length picture... for a short while.
Hitchcock's limited input was nevertheless important. He gave the idea of showing maps accentuating the fact that it all happened next to ambivalent citizens who were leaving nearby and had some knowledge about the camps.
Since he went quickly though, it was up for Bernstein, Sergei Nalbandov (producer), Stewart McAllister (editor), Peter Tanner (editor) to complete. For his travel and other expenses, Hitch paid from his own pocket.
Buried for a reason
It is no wonder that the project was put on hold. Even people who have seen many concentration camp footages often say that this is the most gruesome and disturbing of them all. Today, we are used to the presence of gore in horrors and thrillers, and those kinds of movies have their place in our culture.
Back in the day, such detailed images of actual real people suffering were something completely out of this world. Piles of dead starved bodies lying next to half-living people, diseases roaming free, beds of barbed wire are a stuff of horrors to all but the most resistant psychopaths. To publish it for everyone to see or not must have been a tough decision to make.
Another potential reason why the film didn't see the light of day until decades later was that the Holocaust made people sympathize with Jews - its biggest victims. Since Ottoman Empire's rule, Palestine had seen a great influx of Jews, who increased in numbers and pushed out Arabs from their own land. After Great Britain took over the region, the pro-Jewish regional policy was kept on, leading to the creation of Israel.
However, Great Britain was strict about the limits of Jewish migrants moving to Palestine. Those limits Jews didn't respect and during the war, they migrated in aggressively. After being released from the camps, many of them stayed in the houses of torture, in those pits of despair... because they had nowhere to go! They lost everything, often everyone close to them, too.
Where were they supposed to go? In their Central/Eastern European countries they had a hard life because of widespread anti-Semitism. Many of those territories became graveyards, and Soviet Union's expansion to where they have been living in large numbers (ie. Poland) spelled potential trouble due to their rich history of anti-Jewish policies.
Palestine was the answer. Could British continue to deny Jews a new home after such horrible things happened to them? The British Empire was under huge pressure to let them off the hook, but that would effectively mean losing control of the region. They didn't want to do it, at least not yet.
How did a movie like Memory of the Camps fit into this picture? It didn't. Showing the full extent of Jewish suffering would only increase the pressure on the Brits. While there is no evidence of it being a reason (they would never be dumb enough to leave one in the first place), it is a possibility that this political mess knocked out the picture's chance of being seen.
Documentary role in German trials
Shortly after the war was over, trials against top German perpetrators of terror began. The few most important didn't make it, as they chose to take their own lives beforehand, but many others were tried and sentenced.
Suddenly, those supposedly useless tapes became useful. As they documented so well how much the prisoners suffered in German concentration camps, they became a top-quality proof to challenge the line of defense of many war criminals.
Josef Kramer, commandant of the Bergen-Belsen camp, was one of those. Known for his strong discipline, great organizational skills and sadistic tendencies, this rotten to the core ex-prison guard found himself at home during the war and quickly rose in ranks in the Nazi Germany. He became commandant of Natzweiler-Struthof camp, then Auschwitz, and finally Belsen.
When the war was coming to an end and German loss seemed imminent, more prisoners were transferred from other camps to Belsen and it quickly became overcrowded even for their standards. Germans were afraid that their atrocities will be discovered and moved their victims from camps close to the front line to safer ones (or killed them if there was no time for that).
Kramer either didn't give up his hopes, or felt that he needs to continue with his demonic duties no matter what. When the British army arrived at the doorsteps of Bergen Belsen, he greeted them and offered a camp tour, as if it was a routine tourist trip.
Lüneburg trial dealt with Belsen staff, but its title Trial of Josef Kramer and 44 others clearly showed who's got the highest priority from the list. Kramer's answers painted a picture of an innocent office typist who somehow reaches important positions and during his tenure at concentration camps almost walks as if he is blind.
Never able to see an immoral behavior from his guards, never in position to give a questionable order. According to him, practically all responsibilities tied to inhuman decisions lied on someone else's shoulders, and he had never seen any of his men or women doing something wrong!
On the contrary: when he saw staff carrying rods, he demanded they stop doing so... afraid that they might use them against camp prisoners. Why he would think so is a mystery, given their spotless record that he painted so vigorously during the trial.
One of million lies Kramer told was about food. When asked why the prisoners were so under-fed and short on water, he answered: because the camp was so overcrowded, he didn't have any left. Angel that he was, he supposedly took some from staff rations to give to the prisoners, and even sent a threatening letter up the chain of command, demanding more supplies for the camp.
Here, he was unfortunate, and this is when Bernstein's documentary comes in. Materials gathered for it clearly reveal that they had more than enough food and starved the camp because they wanted to. Together with other proof, it helped discredit Kramer's desperate lies.
With Irma Grese, his 25-year old lover in charge of death chambers, and 10 others, he was sentenced to death by hanging and soon executed.
Bernstein's and Hitchcock's unfinished documentary served as proof for discrediting other lies as well. Camp recordings were used in Nuremberg and Lüneburg trials.
Frontline's Memory of the Camps
After the war, the unfinished picture lied sealed in the archive room. It took almost three decades for curious people to grab a hold of it. In 1984, an investigative group of people specializing in documentaries called Frontline took those materials and tried to make the most of it.
Appreciating the big names behind the project, Frontline nevertheless was not aware how powerful this material is until they saw it. Their motives were pure - they decided to bring it back to life in the shape as close to the original, without alternating it in a way that would make it more polished, but at the same time possibly deviating from what the original message was supposed to be.
Because full plan of every shot and scene, with every bit of detail carefully laid out, was also in those boxes, their work was relatively simple. They just had to stay as close to those instructions as possible. Narration was never recorded, but the script was finished and present among other materials, so Frontline took it and asked Trevor Howard to narrate the picture.
One problem was that the last, sixth film roll made by the Soviets went missing. Frontline decided to finish the documentary without it, but maintaining the original commentary nevertheless.
It was first shown during Berlin film festival Berlinale (one of Europe's leading film festivals, first edition of which was opened with Hitchcock's Rebecca, by the way) in 1984. In the next year, it debuted in the U.S.A. through Public Broadcasting Network.
Full version is available to view on Frontline's website here, and through Youtube below.
IWS' German Concentration Camps Factual Survey
In 2014, another party entered the picture. Imperial War Museums is a chain of museums dedicated to British Empire's military conflicts since World War I. They also have a branch which collects, restores and publishes related war documentaries, rough video footages etc. Their most famous creation is an Oscar-winning picture The True Glory.
Using original plans, they compiled materials from other footages to get the scenes that these plans call for, restored the images so they look better and asked Jasper Britton to narrate it.
They also stayed true to the original name - while Frontline invented "Memory of the Camps" title for the film, Bernstein's plans were to call the finished product German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.
Aware that the Soviet film will probably never magically appear, Imperial War Museums made it as close to the finished original project as it could possibly ever get, so it was only natural to finally brand it with the original name.
Because the last set of sequences was added, GCCFC is considerably longer than MOTC. Compared to the latter's run time of 57 minutes, it is a 72-minute long lecture.
Below is a long BFI public session with people involved in creation of GCCFC. Conveniently, it starts with an Alfred Hitchcock question.
Night Will Fall documentary
Also in 2014, a full-length documentary called Night Will Fall was released. Rarely you see a documentary about a documentary, but when people like Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein are involved in something that was largely forgotten, what better chance to make one?
It was assembled by Andre Singer, a talented producer who has a long record of interesting collaborations, including 8 Werner Herzog movies (probably the best of that bunch is Into the Abyss), and Holocaust-related Oscar-nominated Prisoner of Paradise.
His directing record consists of only 4 pictures, of which Night Will Fall was the first that didn't go straight to TV.
It's core message is laid out at the beginning of the movie already and gives context to its title. As horrendous as these scenes are to watch, it is a lesson that every adult individual needs to go through. The scenes need to be seen by each next generation, history of the events has to be cherished and protected against all attempts at manipulating the facts, or otherwise night will fall again.
The content is interesting. There are interviews with few survivors who were captured in video footage of the original documentary, as well as testimonies from military men involved in liberation of concentration camps. Toby Haggith from Imperial War Museums talks about the original footage.
Some of the unique color film material is present too. Because it needed to be sent back to the U.S.A. for processing, it didn't go back in time to be included with the rest of the film. Hitchcock's role in making of this documentary is also briefly discussed (47:52).
Overall, it is a great lecture for everybody. People who have no idea about Holocaust can get a bit of interesting insight into it. Those who have seen one of the documentaries can get a lot of quality background information.
Finally, those too sensitive to survive through all the scenes can get a shorter, slightly less terrorizing experience, as there is still a lot of the original footage in Night Will Fall, but it's constantly broken by other materials, which makes things easier to digest.
The beginning of the movie already betrays that it is an unfinished work that has been troubled by many obstructions. An introductory narration briefly tells us about the Nazi party's initial triumphs, we hear a sentence or two about their successes on the front and then we land in 1944.
It is a chaotic narration that doesn't know what it's trying to say, and if the point was to just give general idea (most probable scenario), it did it very poorly.
Fortunately, we quickly get to the bottom of things, as the precious camera footages start appearing. The cameramen who contributed were part of British, American and Soviet military and were part of forces that liberated the camps.
The material is very rich and contains scenes from 10 concentration camps and other extra footage. Twenty eight U.S., eight Soviet and seven British cameramen produced the materials for us to see (here is a full crew list).
Their films speak for themselves and need no narration. Unfortunately, most of them are devoid of sounds, as the sound crews was usually arriving later to the liberated camps and up to that points only cameras were operating.
That doesn't impact the final effect, as the whole thing is so disturbing that lack of sound does little to change it, especially that starved, tortured and neglected prisoners rarely had the strength to be loud and vocal anyway.
Because cameras reached the camps at the time of setting the prisoners free and not a minute earlier, a large amount of material witnesses them smiling. Getting their first showers, being catered by the nurses, picking up and trying various clothes to wear, they were enjoying a comeback from hell.
It is an interesting and heart-warming footage, but it can still get easily forgotten among all the suffering that we see in other scenes, which makes a much stronger blow and is hard to shake off.
Guilt-tripping Germans is the main priority of this picture. After arriving in Britain and getting to know the gathered materials, Alfred Hitchcock felt that it is especially shocking that next to those camps, there lived normal Germans, half-aware of what is going on between the barbed wires, and oblivious to uncomfortable truths.
He decided that accenting it will be a great angle for the movie. By doing so, he shaped the picture, gave it a much-needed direction.
The director agreed with British government's opinion that it should be a movie that would demonstrate beyond any doubt that these monstrous things soon to be written in history books actually happened, and are not just products of political propaganda coupled with media hysteria.
That is why the film is full of long shots, demonstrating the surroundings and prisoners in great numbers, one after another. Faking these would be incredibly hard to do at the time.
Frequently filling the screen are maps - another idea of Hitchcock. They mostly show locations of concentration camps relative to ordinary living populations and sometimes locations of military forces.
The narration accompanying the film is more poetic than it is informative. Colin Wills is responsible for its initial draft, which he did shortly after consulting Hitch. Soon, Labour Party's key British politician of his era Richard Crossman took charge and wrote the final version. It is unknown how much it differs from what Wills cooked.
Tho observations are solid sometimes, but not always. The voice only occasionally joins, mostly leaving room for the images to speak. It's not without it's fair share of troubles, in part because it's misleading. By concentrating solely on Bergen Belsen, it gives the impression that the entire footage is from one camp only, which cannot be further from the truth.
Trevor Howard's voice is the weakest element of the film. The British actor known for supporting roles in The Third Man and Gandhi sounds as if he had arrived into the recording studio in a good mood and read it not realizing what kinds of scenes are going to be displayed as he speaks.
At times, he sounds as if he is forecasting a sunny weather, other times it feels like reporting Hobbit's adventures. The tone, mood, accent are all completely off and it's strange that after hearing it Frontline did not ask him to re-record.
Hitchcock's brief attempts to give the film some shape are the only things driving it. Those ideas are left unfinished and beyond basic order and chronology it is in a very rough state. Given how much time it took to go that far, it's not a good piece of work by Bernstein. Lacking clear message, it is hard to even classify it as a propaganda movie.
Still, that doesn't matter. What these brave cameramen recorded makes such strong impression that it silences everything else. The inhuman sadistic conditions, people stripped of dignity, forced to live in hell on Earth, these images are a message in itself that any kind of commentary, or extra footage can tame to a limited level.
And because of that, despite being an unfinished product, it is a timeless and very important lecture that outshines many more polished works. Stripping the picture of all the extras and leaving just the footages on sight would not harm it at all. Due to how devastating some of them are, MOTC and GCCFC are still an essential position among the Holocaust movies.