There’s no time when you’re tired. A comedy would do better than these scenes shot at the end of the Second World War. But a harrowing hour of moviegoing sustains a vital understanding.
You may have heard of this film through its association with Alfred Hitchcock, who described the footage as darker than any scene in his pictures. The title German Concentration Camps Factual Survey lets you know you’re in for disturbing viewing. But the heading doesn’t indicate how the movie’s portrait of Nazi camps is both more terrible and humane than any Hitchcock fable.
The film represents an allied collaboration as opposed to the terrible fascist coordination that created the camps. Hitchcock is the most famous name associated with the work, although his contribution lasted only one month (July 1945). Producer Sidney Bernstein oversaw the project. The heroes of the movie remain the cameramen-soldiers of the UK, USA and USSR, who captured what they encountered on liberating the camps; the UK editors who reviewed scenes that are tough to see once, and who with the film’s writers gave the raw material of atrocities the poignancy of discovery.
A considerate and concerted restoration returns their discoveries to us. The Imperial War Museum in the UK previously created a 1984 version of the film shown then at the Berlinale and on PBS’s Frontline TV series. (Watch it here.) The earlier version lacked the last reel and had a voice-over by actor Trevor Howard, then in his seventies. With Dragon DI laboratories, the Museum has used the original footage and shot list to recreate the last reel and re-recorded the voice-over with actor Jasper Britton. Britton’s vigorous reading matches the new clarity of the images to sharpen the film’s revelations of the camps.
The discoveries begin with flowering orchards in Bergen-Belsen. But behind the scenes of spring, advancing allied soldiers “feel a smell.” They pass from children laughing and women waving behind barbed wire to a man walking on skeletal legs, prisoners listless with hunger and the first body. The orchards are forgotten, as the soldiers face “nothing but filth and death.”
The first discovery in German Concentration Camps Factual Survey shows the two qualities that make the film more than distant horrors of history. The documentary transcends its time of production through its present relevance and sense of immediacy.
The film’s contemporary relevance may surprise since its presentation of the camps remains tied to the end of the war. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey emphasizes German guilt, including the German industries that supplied and profited from the camps’ killings. The timely approach led to the project’s abandonment by the end of 1945, with the reorientation of alliances in the Cold War.
As the film dwells on German guilt, it almost entirely ignores Jews as the victims of the camps. Film archivist Chris Horak points out in his blog how “anti-Semitism in the British government during World War Two…[meant that] the specifically Jewish character of the Shoah has been obscured to the point of invisibility”.
Yet the film’s historical limitations give contemporary relevance to its revelations. The movie’s discoveries transcend German guilt to apply to members of any nation who acquiesce to crimes committed near them and in their name. The film’s silence about the Jews as the target of Nazi policy now overcomes the tendency to limit the camps to a Jewish phenomenon. As historian David S. Wyman writes in his book The Abandonment of the Jews: “The Holocaust was certainly a Jewish tragedy. But it was not only a Jewish tragedy. It was also a Christian tragedy, a tragedy for Western civilization, and a tragedy for all humankind.” If for paradoxical reasons, the film realises this generous understanding of the suffering in the camps.
Just as importantly, the sense of immediacy in German Concentration Camps Factual Survey prevents viewers from becoming numb. Intercutting scenes brings a scale of feeling to what the soldiers found. The film balances attempts to dignify the dead with the labours of restoring the living. As well fed S.S. men and women throw emaciated corpses into a pit, female prisoners take showers outside, with pleasure at the feeling of soap and hot water. German nurses help to scrub typhus patients with DDT. The rescuers feed and dress children and give them dolls. “Where are their parents—here?” asks the voice-over, over a shot of bodies dragged away. Signs of recovery make the sight of each taken life more shocking and meaningful.
The repeated use of the word “Here” indicates how the film captures the moment monstrosity was exposed. The film maintains the soldiers’ point of view from Belsen to Dachau, Buchenwald, the resort of Ebensee, Auschwitz and Majdanek. The narration sometimes echoes the images, but also adds information on the dead: “This was a woman,” “This was a Polish engineer.” For extended periods, the voice-over remains silent and the restorers refrained from adding a score. A female German guard sits on a pile of corpses, and a group of children pull up their sleeves to show their tattoos. The barely alive, dying and dead lie side by side in barracks. These images will stay with new viewers as with their first witnesses in film.
Knowing the importance of their work, the filmmakers took care to verify the reality that they recorded. Unbroken panning shots and tracking shots from vehicles show crowds of the imprisoned and the different shapes of death. A British soldier and a vicar testify on the spot to their feelings on seeing the camps. The awkwardness of the live recordings befits the unnerving views of the pits behind them. Maps, whose design Hitchcock suggested, show the proximity of the camps to major towns, belying German claims of ignorance. These devices show film’s power to uncover crimes beyond the camps. The reverberations of the soldiers’ discoveries shake the security of future killing industries.
For it is not just that the film exposes evils whose incredibility tends to make them inaccessible. The film illustrates the effort needed to sustain civilization. In Prague, Czech Republic, the Jewish Museum houses a unique collection of photographs called The Auschwitz Album. The nearly 200 photos document the arrival of transports at the camp. The series shows the descent from cattle cars of weary, dirty and demeaned but still recognisable people. Sorted, they’re stripped of their personalities with their possessions and led to die with lies. You see how unsuspecting the people were about their fate, how casually selected for work or death. How soon an individual became a prisoner or corpse, indistinguishable from one another.
The final, restored scene of German Concentration Camp Factual Survey counters this dehumanizing system of the camps. The film cuts back and forth between bodies, by which German civilians reluctantly file, and portraits of healthy, vividly particular people in a photograph album. The documentary restores to the dead a posthumous humanity. The film makes us look at the faces around us, and realise with what ease people can reduce one another to the ends of existence and the care needed to stay above barbarity.
I finish writing this article in a café, taking relief from images of the camps in glimpses of fellow patrons as they drink and chat. The film shows the fragility of daily rituals and makes them dearer. Watching German Concentration Camps Factual Survey is as unsettling an experience as you would expect. Yet the film arouses feelings of decency, on which to act as avidly as the forces that forged the camps. Keep a comedy handy and head to this documentary. For it elicits compassion out of despair and a sense of vigilance from the precariousness of what we enjoy. The understanding from a harrowing hour of film going makes history whole.