Night Will Fall Review
You have to be thirteen to visit the museum at Auschwitz (near the Polish town of Oświęcim), or at least you did when I visited it and the neighbouring Birkenau (Brzezinka) in 1991. The BBFC have given André Singer's documentary Night Will Fall a 15 certificate. That is, to my mind, quite right: you do have to be an age to understand what you see in this film, which is undeniably harrowing, containing as it does footage of real Holocaust victims, both survivors and corpses. But I write this shortly after the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and those who were there who are still alive are now quite elderly and in a couple of decades or so, the Holocaust will have passed beyond the reach of living memory, just as World War I has done for those who served in it. But it should never be forgotten, and films like this are one way it which this will still be remembered.
There were reports of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps – different functions for different places, but Auschwitz/Birkenau combined both – as early as 1944, but for many people, in Britain at least, the first revelations as to what had gone on, and the scale of the massacres of Jews, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, political dissidents and others, came with Richard Dimbleby's BBC radio report as an eyewitness of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, part of which is heard in this documentary. The broadcast was delayed until it could be checked that Dimbleby was not exaggerating the extent of what he saw, but when it became clear that he wasn't, the broadcast went ahead.
There were film cameramen present at an early stage, partly to provide evidence in future war crimes trials, and to "educate" the defeated German nation of the atrocities that had been carried out by their countrymen and women. Sidney Bernstein was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to make such a documentary, which would be called German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. This was to be made up from footage shot by British, American and Soviet cameramen, plus new material to be shot at the fourteen locations covered. The footage was then brought back to England. Bernstein hired two writers, first Colin Wills, then Richard Crossman (later a Labour MP and Cabinet Minister, now best known for his diaries, published after his death in 1974), to write a commentary which would inform the structure of the final film. Bernstein then called upon a friend of his, with whom he had worked in the British film industry before the war, but who had become a leading film director in the USA: Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock had spent the war years in America, but had felt an urge to do something for the war effort in his native country. There was no question of military service, as he was in his own words (which we hear in audio, from his extended interview by François Truffaut) by then overage, not to mention overweight. But he was happy to come to London to advise on Bernstein's film, which is Hitchcock's only known documentary work. The footage was edited by Stewart McAllister (then one of the best in the business, known for his work with Humphrey Jennings) and Peter Tanner. The first five of the projected six reels were edited into a rough cut. However, by now the film had become politically inconvenient, as international relations changed, the first winds of the Cold War were beginning to blow and the now-divided Germany, the Western part, was becoming a likely ally against the Soviet Bloc of Russia and Eastern Europe. It was also felt that a film which might increase sympathy for Jews and for Zionism and the demand for a Jewish homeland in what was then Palestine, was not something that the British government wanted to have available. So the film was shelved and left uncompleted. In 1952, the five edited reels, the rushes, the script and a shot list was deposited in the Imperial War Museum.
Night Will Fall, ably narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, tells this story, with a combination of archive footage, archive audio (Dimbleby and Hitchcock, as mentioned above), and newly-shot interviews with camp survivors and witnesses. Bernstein died in 1993, but he is featured in an archive interview, and David Dimbleby is present to talk about his father. John Krish, later a filmmaker himself, talks about how he, then working as an editor, first saw material shot at Dachau., a word he didn't then know – was it an abbreviation or something? The footage was watched for four hours without a break, made even more horrendous by being viewed in negative. Some of the memories are clearly still very painful, nearly seventy years later, with some interviewees reduced to tears as we watch.
However, the story of Bernstein's film did not end there, and the story told in Night Will Fall takes us up to date. The rough cut held by the Imperial War Museum did have some showings, such as at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984 and on American television on PBS. But by 2005, the IWM's master copy was in need of restoration and the plan was to complete the film that had been left unfinished then for sixty years. This was done using the shotlist and script to finish the editing from the existing rushes. Extracts from the completed film make up a large part of Night Will Fall: Jasper Britton speaks the commentary. One thing that the film shows, unusually for documentaries on this subject, is something of the recovery progress. Once the survivors had been liberated, were receiving medical attention and being fed, they – the women especially – had demanded proper clothes.
Of course there have been films on the Holocaust before, and no doubt there will be more. Two of them, Shoah (which does not use archive footage in its nine and a half hours) and Night and Fog (reviewed here by Kevin Gilvear and here by me) both appeared in the top ten in Sight & Sound's 2014 poll of the greatest documentaries of all time. See also The Holocaust Collection a box set reviewed by me for this site ten years ago this year. It's possible to feel you are immune to Holocaust footage after a while: I'm not proud of the fact that I thought I was, until Night and Fog told me otherwise. Maybe one day we will see a release of the reconstructed Gemran Concentration Camps Factual Survey itself. But Night Will Fall tells a fascinating story of its making, unmaking and reconstruction. You may have seen Night Will Fall in one of its theatrical showings in 2014, or on Channel 4 on 24 January 2015, which was shown – commendably, and to my mind correctly – without commercial breaks. And now it is on DVD.
Night Will Fall is released on DVD by the BFI on a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only.
The film is shown in its intended ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. That is the ratio that the interview footage – shot in high definition on the Red Camera, as the stills gallery reveals – and the archive material (shot in 4:3) is cropped, but sensitively so, into that ratio as well. The HD-sourced material is sharp and clear as you would expect. Extracts from the reconstructed Bernstein film are windowboxed. The material from the reconstructed Bernstein film is in black and white and was shot in 35mm, and is in very good shape, given its digital restoration. There is also other archive material, mostly black and white, but some shot by American cameramen in 16mm colour, which is in varying states of repair as you might expect.
There are three soundtrack options, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround (2.0) and an audio-descriptive track also in Dolby Surround. This is clear and well-balanced. The surrounds are used for Nicholas Singer's music score and some of the sound in the archive footage has been remixed to make use of the rear speakers and subwoofer, such as an explosion just after the opening credits. There are two sets of subtitles available, both optional: English ones translating the words of interviewees speaking in Russian or Hebrew, and English subtitles for the hard of hearing. Unfortunately none of the extras have subtitles available.
An extensive list of extras begins with the trailer for Night Will Fall (1:55). Two documentaries which were made at the time were Death Mills (21:00) and Oświęcim (20:53). The former was American-made, by Hanuš Berger and another big-name Hollywood director, Billy Wilder and begins and ends with captions stating that it is not to be shown to the general public without permission of the War Department. The latter was Soviet-made, though the version on this DVD has an English commentary. Both about the third of the length of Bernstein's film, both make use of footage shot by cameramen on site, but take a different approach. As Toby Haggith says in his booklet essay, Death Mills is overtly accusatory, assaultive of the audience: far more quickly edited and with a far longer script relative to the film's length. Oświęcim covers the liberation of Auschwitz and footage from it was used in Bernstein's film. Next up is a short piece of newsreel, "Belsen Death Camp Leaders Meet Justice" (1:15). All of these films are presented in their original ratio of 1.33:1 with Dolby Digital 1.0 sound. They show some inevitable signs of wear, and Oświęcim is generally soft, presumably due to being originated in 16mm.
Night Will Fall was shown at the BFI Southbank on 16 August 2014, and was followed by a Q & A, of which part is shown here (12:30). Ian Christie moderates, and on hand are the director and producer, André Singer and Sally Angel, the IWM curator Toby Haggith and historian David Cesarani. It's useful, and insightful as to the making of the film, though ends rather abruptly. On past experience of BFI Q & As (though I wasn't at this one) there would have very likely questions from the audience.
The remaining items include four interviews shot for the film but not included in it. Three of them feature historians on location at different camps: Jeremy Hicks at Auschwitz (23:58), Rainer Schulze at Bergen-Belsen (28:03) and David Cesarani at Buchenwald (24:37). Each talk about the history and liberation of the particular camp, and the work of the cameramen who shot there, and also discuss the making of Bernstein's film and the political difficulties resulting in its being unfinished. The fourth interview is with Caroline Moorehead, journalist and family friend of and biographer of Sidney Bernstein (12:39). She talks about Bernstein's involvement in the film and how the fact that it was never completed and shown during his lifetime was one regret in a long and various life and career: he founded Granada Television, was awarded a life peerage (Baron Bernstein) and lived to be ninety-four.
The final item on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (12:00), covering pre-production meetings and the location shoots at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
The BFI's booklet runs to thirty-two pages. It begins with "Night Will Fall: necessary viewing", an essay from Sight & Sound editor Nick James, basically a personal reaction to Night Will Fall as the title suggests. André Singer and Sally Angel are on hand to talk about their involvement in two pieces called "Assembling Night Will Fall", subtitled respectively "The director's perspective" and "the producer's perspective" respectively. Toby Haggith goes into detail about the film's making and completion and restoration in "The Importance of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey" and Patrick Russell contributes a short piece on the original film's principal editor, "Stewart McAllister, Factual Survey and types of documentary". The booklet ends with credits for Night Will Fall, credits and notes for the extras, transfer notes and DVD credits,.