'Night Will Fall': Film Review

Night Will Fall Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Spring Films

Night Will Fall Still - H 2014

Newly restored footage finally becomes finished film

The story behind the rebirth of a long-lost Holocaust documentary once touched by the hand of Alfred Hitchcock

A mere 70 years in gestation, German Concentration Camp Factual Survey was a powerful Holocaust documentary that spent decades in limbo for politically dubious reasons. Filmed at the end of World War II, it was only recently completed in a painstaking full-length restoration by London's Imperial War Museum. The project has long been part of movie folklore, partly because directing legends Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder were both briefly involved in shaping it.

This British-American-Israel documentary adds extra star power, with Brett Ratner and Stephen Frears serving as producers. The director is André Singer, whose own production credits include multiple Werner Herzog projects plus last year's prize-winning Oscar contender The Act of Killing. Following its U.S. launch in Telluride last month, Night Will Fall opens theatrically in the U.K. next week. The combination of grimly compelling subject matter and fabled Hollywood names should add up to healthy audience interest.

In the spring of 1945, with victory in sight, Allied forces encountered the full horror of the Nazi experiment as they swept through Germany. The liberation of slave labor and extermination camps including Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald were recorded by traumatized military film crews from Britain, the U.S. and Soviet Russia. The grim images they collected of emaciated corpses and mass graves would soon shock the world. The victims were mostly Jewish, of course, but also political and religious dissidents, Poles, Slavs, Roma and homosexuals.

Under the command of British film-maker Sidney Bernstein, the footage was shipped back to London as raw material for a powerful post-war propaganda film designed to discredit the inhuman Nazi regime forever, especially among ordinary Germans claiming ignorance of mass murder on their doorstep. Bernstein assembled a heavyweight team including writer and future government minister Richard Crossman. Hitchcock also took a break from his Hollywood career to offer suggestions on style and treatment.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Wilder edited some of the footage into a 22-minute newsreel-style short for U.S. audiences, Death Mills. But by the fall of 1945, as the political weather changed, Bernstein's work-in-progress film was quietly shelved by the U.K. government. With Germany in ruins, a more pragmatic mood of reconciliation and reconstruction began to take priority over punishment. Though clips from Bernstein's incomplete documentary were permitted to be shown during the Nuremberg trials of prominent Nazis, it remained unfinished for almost 70 years.

Night Will Fall fills in the back story of the film's evolution, from its grisly battlefield origins to its technically exacting restoration process. Singer and his team blend archive footage and contemporary interviews with elderly military veterans, members of the original film crews, historians and Holocaust survivors, including Branko Lustig, double Oscar-winning producer of Schindler's List. Wilder appears briefly in library clips. Hitchcock, true to form, makes a fleeting cameo. Fittingly, since his involvement with the project was minimal.

As an historical and educational document, Night Will Fall is unquestionably a worthwhile exercise. But if it is possible to judge such grave material purely as cinema, it must be said that Singer's film plays like a conventional TV documentary, with little of the bold stylistic flair seen in his recent collaborations such as Into The Abyss or The Act of Killing. More investigation into the backstage machinations that forced the shelving of the original documentary would also have been welcome, an intriguing piece of early Cold War realpolitik that is dispensed with far too lightly here.

Inevitably harrowing and sickening in places, but with tender and uplifting moments, Night Will Fall is a somber treatment of a serious topic which earns its place in the broad pantheon of Holocaust-themed cinema. It is just a shame that Singer's worthy memorial feels a little too small for its world-shaking theme and world-famous cast list. The full restoration of its more important sister film, now retitled Memory of the Camps, will be released next month.

Production companies: RatPac Entertainment, Spring Films, Angel TV
Starring: Sidney Bernstein, Branko Lustig, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder
Director: André Singer
Writer: Lynette Singer
Producers: Brett Ratner, Sally Angel
Executive producers: Stephen Frears, James Packer, Richard Melman
Cinematography: Richard Blanshard
Editors: Arik Leibovitch, Stephen Miller
Music: Nicholas Singer
Sales company: Cinephil, www.cinephil.co.il

Rated 15 (U.K.), 75 minutes