Thursday, January 22, 2015

Night Will Fall: Documenting the Concentration Camps

It was a case of one legendary director replacing another. Billy Wilder was in and Alfred Hitchcock was out, but the project was not a suspense-thriller, like Double Indemnity. It was a Holocaust documentary that was to incorporate devastating footage shot by Allied film crews during the liberation of National Socialist concentration camps. Only years later would a partial, incomplete cut see any sort of meaningful exhibition. However, the British Imperial War Museums have recently reconstructed and restored the intended director’s cut of the bureaucratically titled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. Yet, there is still more to the story that is finally told in Andre Singer’s documentary, Night Will Fall (promo here), which premieres this coming Monday on HBO.

Some Hitchcock completists will be familiar with what was retitled Memory of the Camps when it aired on PBS, but the print was decidedly rough and the final reel was missing. Technically, it had never been completed (a problem the restoration team rectified using the surviving screenplay and cue lists). While it was generally known Hitchcock was more of an advisor than a hands-on director, Singer and company actually make a compelling case his vision largely guided the direction and aesthetic of the planned documentary.

While Hitchcock researchers really should consider it part of his filmography, producer Sidney Bernstein was the man most responsible for its day-to-day production and editing. Unfortunately, he would not see it to completion. With signs of the Cold War already surfacing during the early days of the Occupation of Berlin, the Allies essentially put the project in turnaround. The Americans still wanted a picture to convince Germans of their national guilt, so they recruited Wilder to recut some excerpts into the documentary short subject Death Mills.

As fascinating as the story is, Hitchcock fans will be disappointed he does not factor into Night to a greater extent, but he was only assigned to the project for a month. Nevertheless, they will gain a considerable appreciation for Bernstein, his team of editors, and the brave military cameramen who recorded the nightmarish footage in the first place. Ultimately, it is a tribute to their work, which in many cases left deep psychological and spiritual scars.

There are some dramatic interviews with surviving veterans and the excerpts from the finally finished film are truly horrific. Night also supplies a good deal of explanatory context that ought to be quite familiar to most viewers, but sadly is probably necessary given the declining level of historical awareness among younger generations and the precipitous rise of anti-Semitism abroad. If you have seen the work of Lanzmann and Ophüls, you should already know full well the bigger truths, but there are still telling details to be found throughout.

At just seventy-nine minutes, Night is brisk but surprisingly comprehensive. It also further burnishes Hitchcock’s reputation and gives Bernstein his long overdue acknowledgment. One can imagine it works best screening in conjunction with the restored Factual Survey (as it did at last year’s Berlinale), but it easily stands alone (as it will on HBO). Highly recommended for general audiences and particularly for students of history and cinema, Night Will Fall debuts this Monday (1/26) and repeats on various arms of HBO over the following days and weeks.