German Concentration Camps Factual Survey Review

We have been here before, specifically Night Will Fall, of which I reviewed the BFI's DVD release for this site in 2015. For further details, see my review linked to above, but to summarise: Shortly after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in Bergen-Belsen, Oświęcim (Auschwitz) and elsewhere, there were cameramen from the UK, the USA and the Soviet Union on the scene to document what they saw. One reason was to provide evidence in pending war crimes trials; another was to enable the German people of the atrocities carried out in their name. Sidney Bernstein was commissioned to make a documentary comprising this footage and new material shot at fourteen camp locations, to be entitled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. One of the advisors on the treatment of this documentary was Bernstein's friend Alfred Hitchcock, his only known documentary work. Night Will Fall tells the story of the film. Five of its intended six reels were assembled into a rough cut, but due to the changing political climate, the film became inconvenient and was shelved, with the rough cut, the script (narration written by Colin Wills and Richard Crossman), the shot list and the rushes deposited in the Imperial War Museum. Bernstein, who went on to a long and distinguished career in film and television, said that the non-completion of this film was his greatest regret. Some of the footage appeared in other documentaries. From 1984, the five-reel rough cut was shown, with a Trevor Howard narration, under the title Memory of the Camps. By 2005 the material was in need of restoration, so the decision was made to complete German Concentration Camps Factual Survey as far as possible as Bernstein and his editors would have intended it. Some twelve minutes of the film was included in Night Will Fall, and the full film had showings at the BFI Southbank (of which more below) and the Imperial War Museum. And now it is available on disc.

A brief word before I continue. Most films containing Holocaust footage, Night Will Fall included, carry 15 certificates. German Concentration Camps has been passed 18 by the BBFC. It's questionable if the film could have been passed at all, if it had been released as originally intended, back in 1947, as the only available certificate other than the clearly inappropriate U or A (now PG) then was the H, reserved for horror films. (Though that didn't stop a 1945 short, United Nations War Crimes Film, being passed H.) As late as 1960, the BBFC shamefully cut Night and Fog for the adults-only X certificate (then sixteen and over) it had introduced in 1951. This film's 18 is as much for the quantity of footage as well as for its graphic nature, but it serves as a warning that much of it will be very hard to watch, and harder still to shake off.

The film begins with footage from Triumph of the Will, representing Hitler's triumph as his nation's popular forward. Now, immediately after the war, we see the town of Bergen-Belsen, all rolling hills and children playing on lawns...mere minutes away from the camp where approximately 70,000 died and where, when it was liberated, surviving prisoners had been left to starve in conditions of unbelievable squalor. Emaciated corpses lie in heaps, all having to be buried in pits. What the film shows, which not every film on the subject does, is something of the recovery process, as prisoners are disinfected and deloused as typhus was rife, and are given soap and water. We seem them showering and, their hope reunited, looking for clean clothes, the women especially, as the commentary points out. Much of the footage is silent apart from the narration, but there are some interviews with prisoners and witnesses with synchronised sound.

Hitchcock's contribution to the film is often overstated, but one transition seems to have been his suggestion: a black spot overcoming a sign at one of the Bergen mass grave pulling out to a map of Germany. The Belsen spot is joined by many others, giving the locations of other such camps. The film then visits several of them, one by one, the other German sites shot by American and French crews, the Polish ones of Auschwitz and Majdanek by Soviet ones.

Some scenes are clearly recreated, such as one of prisoners from the Auschwitz Women's Camp in their uniforms showing the conditions they had had to live in. The restorers have not tried to update the film, so some factual errors remain. One of these is due to the fact that our current understanding of the numbers killed in Auschwitz has changed since the film was made: not 4 million as the commentary states, but nearer to 1.1 million. What is also clear, especially as we can now watch the film in Blu-ray resolution, is that the cameramen have taken care to frame their shots, with no shaky handheld work. When this approach is applied to shots of corpse after corpse after corpse, many of whom clearly died in agony, it runs the risk of aestheticising these people's appalling deaths, but fortunately it stays on this side of that line.

History is there for us to learn lessons from, and I'm writing this at a time when that is more important than ever. We are now over seventy years away from the events depicted in this film, and those who were there at the time who are still alive are elderly. It won't be long before these events slip out of living memory. But the Holocaust should not be forgotten, lest it happens again. I'll finish with the final words of the commentary, from which the documentary about this film's making gained its title, “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But by God's grace, we who live, will learn.”


The Disc

The BFI's all-regions release of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey is dual-format. A checkdisc of the Blu-ray and a print-out of the accompanying book was provided for review.

You have the option of playing the film on its own (running 71:26) or with the purpose-made intro and outro which accompanied theatrical screenings (89:49). The intro was a given, while the outro could be replaced by a Q&A session if required. The intro (4:32) gives a brief summary of the film and its background. The outro (13:52) features brief interviews with experts and members of the public, and is intended to allow viewers to decompress from the experience of viewing the film and to assimilate it.

German Concentration Camps was shot on 35mm black and white film in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and that's the ratio of the presentation on this disc. Due to the film's digital restoration, the images are clear, with blacks, whites and greys suitably balanced and natural filmlike grain. Other than faint lines down the side of the frame in places, there's almost no damage to be seen. The Russian-shot sequences towards the end of the film are darker and somewhat murkier, reflecting the fact that the film stock used was inferior to that available to the cameramen who shot the earlier parts of the film.

There are two soundtrack options, both in LPCM 2.0 mono. One is the original archival track, with narration and some synch-sound sections. The second is the restored track, with the above and some inserted sound effects. Both are clear, and Jasper Britton's commentary comes across as well as it should. The subtitle options include an English track translating the German and Polish spoken in the film, an English hard-of-hearing track, subtitle tracks in nine other languages, and the option to watch the film with no subtitles at all.

The commentary (over the 71-minute feature, not the intro or outro) features the director of the restoration, Dr Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum, and the BFI's senior curator Patrick Russell. Inevitably much of this is duplicated elsewhere in the package, but this still supplements the film admirably, with Haggith pointing out the care the cameramen clearly took in their framing of the images, evidently aware that they were making a historical record of more longer-lasting value than simply recording evidence for future war crimes trials.

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey had a screening at the BFI Southbank in London on 16 April 2015, the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Belsen. Included on this disc are a selection of Vox Pops (5:44), reactions from the audience immediately after seeing the film. Also present is a recording of a Q&A session (41:25) held after the showing. The questions from the audience are represented by text. The panellists were Toby Haggith, his colleagues from the IWM George Smith and Rachel Donnelly, historians and authors Professor Rainer Schulze and Peter Lantos (the latter having been an inmate of Belsen as a young child) and Dr Jeremy Hicks, and Sidney Bernstein's children Jane Wells and David Bernstein.

Next up are archival interviews, shot with synchronous sound with a view to being included in the final film, though in the event they were not. They were kept by the Imperial War Museum, and are topped and tailed with captions providing information about the interviewees, which included camp guards and officials as well as inmates. As the captions mention, some of the Nazis interviewed did not have long to live, as they were about to face war crimes trials and be sentenced to death by hanging. Some of the interviews are quite brief, others longer. There is a Play All option (70:58).

First up, freed prisoner Louis (aka Ludwig) Weill, is interviewed at Fort Breendonk in Belgium, somewhat haltingly (3:09). There follow interviews shot at Bergen-Belsen (17:25), with four freed prisoners and five members of the SS. The last of them, Herta Bothe, later sentenced to ten years' imprisonment, is the only interviewee still alive, turning ninety-six this year. Next are interviews conducted at Dachau (37:54) with six freed prisoners, beginning with a lengthy one with Albanian Dr Ali Zeno Kuçi, speaking English. Finally, there is an interview with Dr Petr Zenkl (12:29), mayor of Prague and later Deputy Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia, and an inmate of Dachau and Buchenwald. He speaks in English and addresses the camera from behind a desk.

The BFI's booklet runs to seventy-eight pages, and a very thorough information resource it is. A foreword by James Taylor of the IWM is followed by an essay, “We the Screamers” by Nick Fraser, giving an overview of the production of the film. This is expanded upon at length by Toby Haggith in two lengthy and detailed articles, one on the making of the film and another (cowritten with David Walsh) on the history of the film after 1946, from the film's abandonment, the showings of Memory of the Camps and up to date with the restoration present here on the disc. Professor Rainer Schulze takes a more general view of the Holocaust in “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey and the victims of the Nazi persecution” while Jeremy Hicks examines the Soviet-shot footage, the first representation to the world of the Nazi atrocities. Next are pages with answers to frequently-asked questions about the film, then factual material giving the numbers who perished at each camp and the numbers in full of different groups of victims. There follow notes on the extras, biographies of the crews who made the film and of contributors to the disc and the booklet, film credits, transfer notes and resources for further reading.

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