German Concentration Camps Factual Survey: Berlin Review

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

Chilling footage of Nazi death camps is unearthed in this documentary from 1945.

Alfred Hitchcock worked on this documentary that's almost entirely composed of footage shot by cameramen of the Allied Forces in the spring of 1945.

BERLIN -- An extremely graphic and hard-to-watch documentary feature about the Nazi concentration camps, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, was shot by cameramen from the Allied Forces in 1945, who tried to document what they found on the ground. The film’s subsequent production process was supervised by Alfred Hitchcock, probably between making Spellbound and Notorious, but the project was shelved indefinitely in September 1945 and has now finally been completed by the U.K.’s Imperial War Museum.

The first five reels of the film had been presented at the Berlinale in 1984 and subsequently shown on a Boston affiliate of PBS as Memory of the Camps, though they contained almost no synchronous sound and the entire sixth reel was missing. This reel has now been reconstructed using the original shot list, with sound added where available throughout the film and all material newly scanned from the original negatives. The original narration has also been preserved -- including its factual inaccuracies and obvious historical and political biases -- and it has been newly recorded by actor Jasper Britton.

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As such, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey is a time capsule as much as a direct historical document, showing not only what the Allied Forces found when they first arrived at the Nazi concentration camps but also how the British government of the time thought it was appropriate to communicate about the Nazi atrocities. The film was intended as an education tool of sorts for the German people immediately after the war and addresses them directly several times. However, this ultimately became the source of the film’s own undoing as post-war policy quickly shifted from retribution to reconstruction and the confrontational tone of the film no longer served the government’s objectives.

The world premiere of the now-complete version, in Berlinale’s Forum section, should be followed by numerous festival and special event screenings elsewhere. The Berlin festival additionally showed a work-in-progress version of Night Will Fall, from director Andre Singer, an executive producer on The Act of Killing, and produced by Brett Ratner, which chronicles the making of Factual Survey.

The Hitchcock documentary project, in which the British master got involved after the original footage had been shot by cameramen of the armies of the U.K., U.S. and the Soviet Union in the spring of 1945, opens with a quick recap of Hitler’s ascent to power, with the voice-over implying that the German people were in a way responsible for his ascent since they voted for him and the German opposition parties were too disorganized. It goes as far as suggesting that, in Nazi Germany, “one liked being told” what to think and what to do, and the footage of Hitler at enormous rallies with uniformly ecstatic crowds visually conveys a similar message.  

The first half of the film is almost exclusively concerned with the camp at Bergen-Belsen, which is rather cinematically introduced from a point of view close to the advancing allied soldiers, who first encounter the beautiful farmland and plentiful cattle of the surrounding countryside before a terrible stench and then the visual horrors came into view, with the kids at the camp’s entrance, smiling at their British liberators despite not having eaten for six days, slowly giving way to piles of rotting corpses inside the camp.

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The "well-fed and well-dressed," as the narration underlines, members of the S.S. that ran the camp and a large group of female volunteers that also worked there were immediately put to work by the Allied Forces and forced to dig mass graves and then fill them with the thousands of people who died at Bergen-Belsen of malnourishment, torture or typhus.

The sight of countless lifeless bodies being carelessly dumped in the deep pits that served as mass graves is almost impossible to watch, and though the film explicitly makes a point of not looking away, there are brief moments of reprieve, such as a sequence in which the skeletal survivors are provided with soap and warm water and “an orgy of washing ensued.” The way this footage is integrated makes it feel like a metaphorical form of cleansing as well.

The narrator notes that “There are people here the Nazis said delighted in being dirty,” over images of people carefully washing and dressing themselves, one of several lines that betrays how carefully the British government tried to tip-toe around straight-out identifying who were interred or died in the camp (whether this is because there was not yet enough detailed information available in 1945 or because of other reasons remains for history scholars to decide). "We don’t know if they’re Catholics, Lutherans or Jews,” the voice-over says a bit later, “only that they died in Belsen in agony."

There’s an extraordinary speech, delivered in German by a British officer and directed at those who worked at the camp, that directly blames them for the Nazi atrocities, an idea that’s also repeatedly echoed in the second half of the film. "No Germans can say they didn’t know about it," the voice-over bluntly states and there are shots of long lines of local Germans who were brought in for organized visits right after the liberation of the camps to see the horror for themselves -- in large part, one senses, to confront them with what they’d conveniently been ignoring had been happening right under their noses. Wide establishing shots help anchor what’s shown in specific geographic locales, so as to avoid being accused of having perhaps staged things elsewhere (Holocaust denial or at least the possibility of it was already something that the filmmakers seemed aware of).

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Sidney Bernstein was the film’s producer at Britain’s Ministry of Information, and he brought Hitchcock on board and described him as the director of the film, though the Imperial War Museum prefers the term "treatment advisor" since he only came on board after the footage had already been shot. The greatest talking point will no doubt be the extremely graphic nature and seemingly endless quantities of corpses and death on display, including shots of an abandoned train on a railroad that contained the snow-covered and frozen bodies of some 3,000 people, or the gigantic black mass of still smoldering corpses that had first been suffocated by smoke and then set alight inside a hangar just hours before the Allied Forces arrived.

That said, the film’s second half, which looks at footage from a long series of other concentration camps in the former Nazi Reich feels necessarily more diluted than the much fuller picture of Bergen-Belsen that preceded it, though Hitchcock, the editors and the cameramen manage to bring together non-graphic footage that’s sometimes just as chilling, including, in the last reel, an extremely effective montage sequence of mountains of different kinds of brushes, now all without owners, as well as shoes, glasses and bales of human hair, all sorted with the extreme kind of attention to detail that made the Nazi machine possible in the first place.

The documentary also frequently highlights how German businesses seemed proud of their work, decorating the camp ovens or chimneys with their company name, for example, and thus further underlining how hard it is to separate what happened in the camps from the surrounding outside world. Clearly, this was a message the British government didn’t believe would suit its changed policy needs when it finally shelved the project, and Factual Survey will indeed be best served by as much contextual material as possible.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)

Production company: Imperial War Museum
Director: Alfred Hitchcock (original director), Dr Toby Haggith (restoration director)
Screenwriters: Colin Wills, ?Richard Crossman (original commentary and treatment)
Producers: Sidney Bernstein (original producer), David Walsh (restoration producer)
Editors: Stewart McAllister, Peter Tanner, Marcel Cohen (original editors), George Smith (restoration editor)
No rating, 72 minutes.