German Concentration Camps Factual Survey – “An impact on a par with Shoah and Night and Fog…”

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Last year, Night Will Fall was released. Directed by André Singer, it documented the making of the film German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. While Night Will Fall looks back at the collection, editing and history of the footage, this is the film itself, as it was intended to be seen. Produced by Sidney Bernstein, GCCFS was intended to be screened in Germany after World War II to ensure the atrocities committed, in their name, was never forgotten. Though the vast majority of the film was completed (five out of six reels edited, narration scripted, etc) it was decided that, as the nation was being rebuilt, the last thing they needed was another reminder of the consequences of fascism. The Imperial War Museum, since 2008, has tried to reconstruct the film and only now is it released as it was intended. Slight inaccuracies remain, to ensure it is true to Bernstein’s intentions, but they have added an informative prologue and epilogue to clarify these details.

It’s a short film, but has an impact on a par with Shoah and Night and Fog. As expanded upon in Night Will Fall, the footage captured here are the valiant efforts of soldiers and cameramen sent after the concentration camps were liberated. The sight they saw would change the world. They knew this and they shot sequences and scenes that actively sought to reveal the accuracy and deep truth behind World War II. Fascism was not merely domination and power – or the naïve sense of a fair society for all. It was a society of exclusion and hatred. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey opens with footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will as Hitler addresses an enormous crowd of Nazi supporters. Many like to put Nazi’s and the Holocaust into a box. They’re simply “evil” and “not of this world”. This opening immediately reminds you that, though not supportive of death camps, Hitler did have support from people who simply thought he’d make their country a better place. The cheers and Nazi salutes are easy to dismiss as a different time; a darker period in history. But it’s not long ago, whereby only a few generations before our own, relatives could have been at this rally. Frankly, Time Magazine infamously supported him because readers must have believed him to be ‘Man of the Year’. It is clear that Sidney Bernstein, not only wants to capture the truth of the holocaust, but he wants to clarify what led to it. What innocent actions were ignored or unknowingly supported to move in this direction. Prejudice leads to discrimination. Be wary of those prejudices poisoning your perspective.

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With this in mind, from the rally, we cut to a German village. Narrator Jasper Britton (originally Trevor Howard, but alas, he didn’t complete his narration) explains how this beautiful, quaint countryside holds more than cattle and carriages. He tells us that you can’t ignore “the smell”. This was the smell of burning-corpses from Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. The footage from this point on is beyond description. Bodies are rubbery and are dragged across stony ground to mass graves. We see, amongst the thousands of people on screen, every stage of malnutrition. The skinny body that staggers into the light; the skinny body that lies on the ground – amongst thousands of others. After an extended stay in Bergen-Belsen, this key historical footage then moves to a different camp, Dachau. Then Buchenwald. Then Auschwitz. By the time we reach Majdanek, it is still the same horrific scene. Soldiers and Priests face the camera as evidence; a testament to what has happened.

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Much of this footage has been used elsewhere, such as the epic World at War documentaries. But this is not skimming the surface; a catch-all doc’ on concentration camps. This is the explicit – simply unbelievable – moment these death camps were found. Footage is from Soviet, British and American armies. The repetition of the same type of scenes is purposeful, and the inhuman lack-of-sadness as SS Guards are directed to dispose of bodies hints at their deeper demons. The final scenes return to crowds. Large crowds, akin to the Nazi support in Congress Hall at the start, queue endlessly down a rural road. Maybe some of those in this final crowd were in Nuremberg in 1934 – local townsfolk who could smell the death. This time they see bodies; rows and rows of men, women and children. This is the cost of fascism and the cost of ignorance. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey is an outstanding achievement.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on April 16th, 2015, coinciding with the 70th Anniversary of Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

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