Posts Tagged ‘‘harrowing’’

Night Will Fall: ‘superb if harrowing’

January 25th, 2015

So many images assail us daily, we can overlook the profound importance of some. I still remember the first footage I saw of Nazi concentration camps on the TV history series The World at War back in the Seventies. Engraved on memory, images that informed later history lessons at school, a trip to Dachau in adulthood, meeting concentration camp survivors in Israel.

The importance of making such images, and getting them out to the world, was the subject of Night Will Fall (Channel 4), a superb if harrowing documentary that told the story of the military film units that recorded the hidden nightmare of camps like Belsen, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and many others as they were being discovered by advancing British, American and Russian troops in the later stages of the Second World War.

On one level this was a film about a film: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, put together in 1945 by the head of Britain’s wartime film department, Sidney Bernstein (with help from director Alfred Hitchcock among others), even as the footage was emerging, in order that the world might never forget – or have the opportunity to deny – what had happened in the camps.

Commissioned as Britain’s official film about the Nazi atrocities, it was shelved for being too “politically sensitive” and only reassembled for the first time in 70 years by a team at the Imperial War Museum last year. Clips shown here featured not only some of the most disturbing footage ever recorded, but also images of German civilians forced to acknowledge what had been done in their name and, uniquely, the Allies’ efforts to help survivors recover. In some cases, it is the only remaining evidence we have of what occurred. Shots of warehouses full of human hair, toys, suitcases and teeth bore blank witness to the industrialisation of evil. “If one in 10 men wear glasses, how many lives does this heap represent?” asked the narrator over a mountain of tangled wire-framed spectacles.

No doubt Bernstein’s film was “a forgotten masterpiece of British documentary cinema”. But art is not the point here, and much of the footage was used in the shorter American release, Death Mills (1945), directed by Billy Wilder. The wider story of the film as told in Night Will Fall is just as important: the memories, still raw after seven decades, of men who actually shot the film and helped clear the camps; the trauma of witnessing some of humanity’s worst crimes. Testimony, too, from camp survivors and how the rest of the world slowly woke up to what had been done.

As just one of a number of superb films in the ongoing Holocaust memorial season, and commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Night Will Fall stands alongside the likes of Laurence Rees’s extraordinarily moving Touched by Auschwitz and The Eichmann Show, as a vital reminder of the continuing importance of testimony and remembrance.


World War Two

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Swimming in Auschwitz, PBS America, review: ‘harrowing’

July 9th, 2014

The antithesis of any notion of care was explored in Swimming in Auschwitz (PBS America) in which six women, all teenagers at the time, spoke of their experiences there. I am glad to say it was more harrowing than the suspiciously jaunty title suggested. (It referred to a hot summer day when one of the women in the camp on the way to her labour jumped into a deserted outdoor pool used by the Nazi guards, without being caught.) I don’t mean that Jon Kean’s film belonged to the horror-voyeuristic genre of concentration camp documentaries. It is simply that there should be no understating the black evil behind the picture built up by the mosaic of the six women’s testimonies. After watching it, my night was broken by a nightmare. It is a film anyone who can should see, but no one should be forced to.

I won’t heap up details – the three-day journey during which children died in a cattle truck with no food, water or lavatories, the lice, the shaven heads, the nakedness, the starvation, the cruelty, the experimentation, the constant fear. With what could these young women resist? Something human was all they could seek, some “purpose”. “To live for my mother,” one said. “That I will tell after,” said another.

Dehumanisation was a word used several times: they had been left numb and friendless. It is hard to be good in a hellish place. “I’m not saying we were angels,” one of the women, Erika Jakoby, said, “but I wouldn’t steal anybody’s food.” This plain statement actually reflects a degree of goodness that I couldn’t imagine emulating.

When another of the survivors spoke briefly of a man who secretly gave her three raw potatoes, I shed tears. Those are the kind of tears that some feel-good film could invite. But other tears welled up too, I found: tears of anguish at the things done there. They were definitely feel-bad. Perhaps it is human to feel very bad about our fellow humans too, sometimes.


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