Night Will Fall manages to directly connect the nature of the truth in documentary with the horrors witnessed in 1945. Director André Singer (Producer of The Act of Killing and Into the Abyss) connects them in a manner that sharply forces history into focus. The collective efforts to murder a group of people by a brainwashed militia, consciously accepted by the citizens in surrounding villages that could smell the death, is too difficult to comprehend. Yet this definitive moment in history was captured on camera, and tasked to Sidney Bernstein and his team, to ensure that it was not lost and proved how despicable humanity can be.
Night Will Fall documents the attempt at capturing, editing and releasing the footage filmed when concentration camps were liberated (the unreleased film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, has been painstakingly restored by the Imperial War Museum to be released later this year). But this is a moment that changed the world. Camera-clad soldiers marched, within lines of German soldiers, towards Bergen-Belsen, unaware of what they would see. Alfred Hitchcock was involved as a supervising director, recommending the location of the camps – and their surrounding towns – are shown in the film, to highlight how close others were to the death camps. He suggested that wide, slow pans were to be used to add an air of authenticity. There was no room for anyone to imply the footage was doctored in any way. Colour film was used in some instances, footage that brings the reality closer to home. But at a time whereby millions of victims were refused entry to the surrounding countries, the rolls of film and editing that had been put in place to bring this news to the fore, was shelved. The worry was that a public outcry would mean Britain and America would be forced to take these refugees into their own country – something that, after World War II, they simply couldn’t afford to do.
These camps were in action for years, with the loss of life in the millions. Eisenhower, shown visiting the camps, surely never believed he would ever see such horror. Billy Wilder’s use of the footage, in Death Mills (as Night Will Fall documents) focuses the attention on the crimes committed by the Nazi’s. But this documentary is about the truth and the consequence of inaction. The opening moments of Night Will Fall show the bodies in piles within camps. SS Guards were ordered to move the bodies to mass graves. Their faces are real. Despite the sunken eyes and gaunt cheeks, the faces are real. The bodies are rubbery and heavy. The footage gives you a sense of the weight of the corpses, and the guards who drag them over the rubble clearly show no remorse as they appear to move them like animal carcasses. But these are lives, hundreds and thousands, of innocent lives. I have never seen such explicit and shocking film from the concentration camps. Night Will Fall coincides with the release of the originally-intended film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, but it is a masterpiece unto itself. Rather than explaining and recalling the events, Night Will Fall highlights the importance of film. Akin to diaries of photographers and journalists in war zones, Night Will Fall is unflinching in its intention to hold onto the mistakes we made, so that we learn from it. And in a time whereby YouTube captures every political decision (and indecision) and news crews attempt to capture every side of conflicts in Iraq and Israel, surely Night Will Fall reminds us that we need to make a change before it’s too late. Otherwise, like the cameramen in Bergen-Belsen, who knows what we will find in the aftermath.
Originally written for Flickering Myth in September 2014