The Holocaust Footage That Even Shocked Hitchcock

The master considered his Holocaust documentary his great contribution to the war effort, but production abruptly ceased in a real-life thriller detailed in a new HBO film.

Associated Press

Alfred Hitchcock’s genius lay in building tension through the unseen – what lurked just beyond the camera lens, in the shadows, across his victims’ terrified faces: that tip of a knife edging into the shower.

But when he agreed to direct his first and only documentary – about the liberation of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and other camps for a film to be titled “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” – he had to throw subtlety out the window.

The goal was instructed by his friend and filmmaker Sidney Bernstein, who was in charge of film projects for the Allies’ psychological warfare division in London: Don’t dance around the culprit but unflinchingly indict him. Show the full extent of the Nazis’ atrocities.

It was a mission Hitchcock took on with zeal, leaving Hollywood in 1945 to do his part for the war effort. But even he wasn’t prepared for the harrowing images he would soon screen.

Viewer beware: Once seen, the graphic images cannot be unseen. Even those who have sat through all nine-plus hours of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” or watched Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog” might not forget what Hitchcock put on display. We see body parts strewn in piles, punctured skulls dotting empty fields, corpses  thrown like mannequins into mass graves, survivors with skeletal frames and hollowed eye sockets staring into the camera.

It’s devastating to watch even by today’s standards – that’s why many have hailed it as a masterpiece. But shockingly, the British and American governments withdrew their support and consigned the unedited reels to the archives of London’s Imperial War Museum.

No reason was given for the abrupt decision to cease production. The footage was shelved for three decades; it wasn’t until 2010 that the Imperial War Museum began a four-year effort to reconstruct Bernstein’s complete vision.

The story of this elusive film is the subject of “Night Will Fall,” which airs on HBO globally on Tuesday for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (It debuts a day earlier in the United States.) Directed by Andre Singer and narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, “Night Will Fall” isn’t so much a film about the Holocaust as about the politics of documenting the Holocaust, and how the rapidly shifting postwar climate prevented the original from being completed.

It was hardly the Hollywood ending Hitchcock had hoped for.

“The fact that he rarely mentioned the film or his role in postwar years is an indication of how difficult he found this task. By the time Hitchcock joined the team, all the footage had been shot and gathered,” says Singer.

“His creative role, therefore, was to help the editors and scriptwriters turn this into a compelling indictment of the atrocities found in the camps. He spent a month in London working on the project and was reported to have been nauseated and shocked by what he saw.”

Present at the liberation

He wasn’t alone.

In the HBO documentary, Singer interviews servicemen who liberated the camps and shot the footage, still reeling from what they had witnessed. Nearly all become teary-eyed, recounting the stench as they approached the camps, the brutality of what they encountered and the shreds of human beings clinging to life.

One veteran, recalling the bones and bodies, completely chokes up, unable to finish his sentence, as Singer’s camera lingers on his face. The trauma still haunts him.

But the men never spoke of it, and neither did Bernstein, then a young soldier who felt an obligation not just to his country, but to his people.

“Until the material was declassified in 1984-85, we never knew it existed or that he’d been at Bergen-Belsen, working on this film,” says Bernstein's daughter Jane Wells, who coproduced the film along with with Brett Ratner and Sally Angel, and at the time was working at the network her father founded, Granada Television. “It was a complete surprise.”

Director Billy Wilder went through five reels of footage – a sixth was recently discovered that the Russians shot when they liberated Auschwitz. The footage produced “A Painful Reminder,” which aired on Granada in the 1980s. Only then did Bernstein open up about his experience, saying that not being able to complete his film was “the biggest regret of my life.”

But the British film pioneer, who died in 1993, was tight-lipped about his war days.

“It was a taboo subject,” says Wells, founder of Three Generations, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping survivors of trauma share their stories. “I found out subsequently that those who were present at the liberation were completely shut down about it in the years afterward. Today we would label it post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time, even the 1980s, we weren’t even thinking in those terms. Not even survivors knew the term PTSD.”

Though Wilder’s film featured a few new interviewees including Bernstein, survivors and liberating soldiers, it didn’t pry into the behind-the-scenes politics that plagued the original film. That’s what makes “Night Will Fall” a true Hitchcockian thriller.

It plays like a detective story set against a historical backdrop, delving into the psychology of the players behind the scenes and the issues that confront us today. And the list is long: what constitutes genocide, a graphic image’s power in manipulating public opinion, the guilt of those who remain silent in the face of insurmountable evidence, freedom of expression, and how governments use and conceal information to suit their agendas.

As “Night Will Fall” asserts, the original footage wasn’t totally without use. It provided vital evidence against the Nazis in postwar tribunals, helping to incriminate the SS and German government for crimes against humanity.

So why wasn’t Bernstein, who also enlisted future U.K. Labour party cabinet minister Richard Crossman to write the film’s powerful script, allowed to finish his masterpiece?

“This is a difficult but important question,” says Singer, who points to various political motives in “Night Will Fall.”

“There was only one piece of available documentation about why the film was shelved, from the British Foreign Office in August 1945. That said, showing the film was not a good idea since [following the Nuremberg trials and the start of the Cold War], showing it in Germany ... was no longer useful.

“Germany was in ruins, the Soviet Union was already a perceived enemy and the British wanted the Germans to pick themselves up and help restore normalcy to the country. Further humiliation was therefore no longer a good idea.”

From barbed wire to Haifa harbor

A further complication was the British and American unwillingness to accommodate refugees seeking asylum in the United States and pre-state Israel. Was anti-Semitism then partly to blame for thwarting the film’s completion?

“Although I have no documentary evidence, it seems beyond coincidence that three weeks after the installation of a new virulently anti-Zionist foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, his ministry should send a memo to the film team to stop production,” says Singer, the son of a Jewish Romanian refugee mother and a non-Jewish German journalist father.

“The difficulties the British were already having with the people still in the camps looking for a new home are well recorded, and anything that encouraged more migration to Palestine was something the government wanted to avoid.”

The theory certainly holds, though it seems incredible that the British army, whose men were too traumatized to speak of what they had witnessed, would turn such a cold shoulder so soon after the liberation.

Indeed, the image of hundreds of refugees swarming a fishing boat trying to dock in Haifa is a stark contrast to the gaunt faces behind barbed wire or survivors laying supine staring blankly.

One of those faces belongs to Branko Lustig, a child at Bergen-Belsen too weak to get up when the British arrived. He thought he heard trumpets and figured they were from angels heralding his arrival in heaven. Actually, they were bagpipes from the liberating Scottish soldiers, he recalls, smiling, in the film. Lustig, a Croatian film producer, was one of Steven Spielberg’s producers on “Schindler’s List.”

But Singer also found elusive figures from Hitchcock and Bernstein’s original film, among them newly liberated twins marching by the Auschwitz block where they had been the subjects of Josef Mengele’s notorious experiments.

At the front of the line – and in shocking clarity – are sisters Eva Kor and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, little wisps of girls who miraculously survived. In interviews now, they recall their liberation in exalted terms.

“The contrast between the soldiers and the survivors is arresting,” says Angel. “The liberators were traumatized, seeing hell, whereas the survivors were seeing heaven. It was the absolute reverse for each side.”

Another striking contrast is the footage of soldiers filming locals living within walking distance of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, oblivious to the horrors. In Bernstein’s original film, the camera pans the German countryside as a narrator speaks – with full irony – of the spa-like surroundings where German soldiers could recover from the front. In typical Hitchcock style, women in Bavarian garb smile for the camera, the very image of German vim and vigor.

Then Singer cuts to shots of the locals being forced to visit the camps after the Germans were defeated. You see them confidently striding up to the camp before they are made to walk through, burying their faces in their collars, wincing with horror, even fainting. The Allies also forced German locals to assist the cleanup and burial process – and documented that, too.

The birth of DP camps

The point, of course, was to provide any potential Holocaust denier with the irrefutable truth and to make sure every German felt complicit. The camera showing the Allies filming the Germans witnessing the piles of corpses dispels any notion that they weren’t aware of what happened.

To further prove that point, Singer used atrocity footage.

“The balance of how much and how to use it in the film was the hardest thing to wrestle with. I did not want to use it gratuitously just to shock, but I realized that, however painful, it is in the end impossible to make people really grasp the enormity and horror of that era without seeing the results of Nazi barbarity,” Singer says.

“Alongside witnesses who either saw, filmed or were victims of these events gives – at least to me – an immediacy and intimacy that I find rare in historical description. This was an attempt to make this story feel part of our living history and not just a distasteful event in the distant past.”

Singer then shows something fairly unique in Holocaust documentaries – how quickly the troops turned concentration camps into displaced-persons camps where survivors convalesced and tried to rebuild their lives, married and had children.

You see women survivors – nurtured back to health within weeks of liberation – sifting through bins of clothes and shoes brought in by war-relief efforts as the narrator speaks of the power of female vanity. Yes, that aspect is sexist and outdated, but the universal message is the triumph and resilience of the human spirit and how quickly life can be restored.

In any case, the film wraps on a more cautionary note – the camera pauses on shots of corpses that German civilians walk past. The narrator says: “Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, then night will fall.”

Its relevance today seems eerie.

“The coincidence with France and anti-Semitism really followed from a desire to give the last survivors and witnesses of the events a chance – possibly their last – to tell new generations about their experiences,” says Singer. “I wanted my generation and my sons’ generation to feel this was part of them and not dusty history. The events in Europe only make it more important we absorb it and learn from it.”