Hitchcock's Secret Horror Film of the Holocaust

Concentration camp footage that had been hidden for decades — and the story of why — are the basis of two films screened at Jerusalem's film festival

Sidney Bernstein had a secret that he kept until he was 84 years old.

By then he had lived in Hollywood, produced the films of his partner, director Alfred Hitchcock, returned to England, where he set up the Granada cinema chain and television station, become a pioneer in the British television industry, and earned the title of lord. But for nearly 40 years he did not tell anyone about what was the biggest project of his life — the film he made at the end of the World War II at the behest of his government, a film that was shelved for reasons that remain unclear. No one knew he had been involved in it, not even his wife, whom he married after the war.

The documentary he produced, which was called “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” and a later film "Night Will Fall," about the making of Bernstein’s film are a story larger than life, in which the personal becomes national and international, and the private is also historic. Both films were screened this week at the Jerusalem Film Festival, in the presence of Bernstein’s daughter, director Jane Wells, who is also part of the story.

At the end of the winter of 1945, only a few months before the Allies defeated Nazi Germany, Bernstein, who headed the film division of the British Information Office, was assigned to make a short propaganda film that would be based on materials filmed by military photographers in Germany. The materials give to him were horrifying, presenting inconceivable brutality. Bernstein decided to turn the short documentary into a full-length film, went to Germany to supervise the filming done in Bergen-Belsen and also obtained material that had been filmed in Dachau.

To ensure that he would never be accused of tendentious editing or fabrication, he developed a cinematic language based on long, uncut camera shots of the atrocities. Pits of deaths and mass graves, piles of bodies piled casually on top of one another, people whose very humanity seemed to have been taken from them – all are depicted by the slow, inquisitive camera movements. Lengthy shots were also taken of visits by Germans from the peaceful towns adjacent to the death camps. Bernstein, who initiated those visits, documented their reactions. His project was assigned several filmmakers and editors, and Bernstein himself recruited his good friend Hitchcock to direct the film.

The work on “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” was supposed to be intensive, from April 1945 through July. But in May the Allies secured the Nazis’ surrender and although work on the film continued, it was never released; all its reels were wrapped and placed in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Forty years passed until an incomplete version of the film was shown in 1984 on BBC as “Memory of the Camps,” and another 20 years passed until the making of “Night Will Fall,” Andre Singer’s disturbing documentary about the making of “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.”

Wells, an independent documentary filmmaker focusing on human rights, was a guest and participant at the Jerusalem festival. She lives in New York with her husband and four children. Her first film, “The Devil Came on Horseback,” was screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival seven years ago, which was when she visited Israel for the first time.

From her perspective, her film and its subject – the massacre in Darfur – is deeply connected to the family heritage. It centers on a U.S. Marine who documented the atrocities there, after which the State Department shelved the material.

“After the [concentration camp] film was discovered my father told me that the biggest regret of his life was that it was never shown or never completed,” Wallace said. “So for me to have ‘Night Will Fall,’ which explains why the story wasn’t shown, is really the fulfillment of the family as I far as I am concerned. Because as an old man, he said it was the biggest regret of his life.”

What was it like to hear from your father about what he went through after so many years of silence?

“It was so sad really, that he had lived with that secret and that sense of disappointment. I think as a Jew who was in the British army at that time, whose older brother had been killed in the First World War, to be tossed with something they had seen, and to not be able to show it to the world, was just a stifling burden for him throughout his life.... I think as his child, it just makes me want to weep to know that this film has been finished and the world can really see his work. And as a filmmaker, I was just amazed by the quality of the camera work, of the technical work. They did a really good job in wartime with the equipment and sources they had then.”

The images in the film are brutal, even for someone who has seen Holocaust documentaries before. Wells says that when her father spoke of the film for the first time in 1984, and shortly afterward, when images were broadcast on television programs, she was in her 20s and didn’t understand the importance of the film. But as the years went by and she began to grasp the the post-traumatic stress disorder that is evident in everyone she works with in her films, she understood that her father also suffered from it.

“Night Will Fall,” which is narrated by actress Helena Bonham Carter, deals rigorously with the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of those sent to document it. Bernstein’s mission was to explain to the soldiers and civilians of the Allied countries why they were fighting, but the result is a far greater product, which touches on questions of humanity and the chances of losing it, and the possibility of sinking to such moral depths that a walk along the lake or in the mountains is not disturbed by the smell of the bodies. Wells says that her father cried the first time they talked about the hidden project. She believes that that experience, and the deep desire to do the right thing, guided him in all his fields of endeavor.

Wells says that what most impresses her was her father’s intuitive foresight. He knew to film in a way that no one would be able to later claim that these things never happened, that the film was edited or altered, as if he and his team knew there would later be Holocaust denial. He had the instincts to understand that these acts were so barbaric that people would later want to deny they had ever taken place, and that how they were filmed would have to take that into account.

The question of why “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” was archived without being released is not unequivocally answered in “Night Will Fall.” The dominant theory blames the era’s quickly changing circumstances – the victory in Europe and the need to rapidly rehabilitate its crumbling states; the Allies’ reluctance to alienate the German public, whose cooperation was vital; the first signs of what was to become the Cold War; and the change of government in Britain that led to a change in policy. Some wondered if part of the motivation for hiding the film was anti-Zionism – the fear that the images might influence world opinion on behalf of establishing a state for the Jews.

Whatever the reason, the horrors documented in the film were shelved, at least until now.

Olivier Fitoussi