Watching the unforgettable HBO documentary “Night Will Fall,” you might detect something almost perverse about the abundant old footage of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. It’s all so slow-moving and resolute. The cameras linger on and graze across the lifeless bodies that were discovered, not just the heaping piles in the mass graves dug deep and wide, but the individual bodies, each one so emaciated and rubbery. Silent close-up shots hesitate on the faces, locked in grimaces of eternal torment and despair, rigor mortis set, teeth missing, skulls cracked open.
One camera tracks two women dragging a woman’s naked corpse along the dirt for many yards, one of her arms trailing like a rudder in the dust, then shows the women lobbing it into a pit, where it bounces slightly on the jumbled pile of bodies before landing cold. We also get many lethargic, purposeful surveys of remains scattered everywhere in groups and alone on the sunlit paths of Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Auschwitz, as the troops begin their long cleanup.
The footage seems to have a fetishistic quality, like the carefully made scenes of carnage in NBC’s “Hannibal,” which has featured intricate images of dead bodies growing mushrooms and decorated with angel wings made of flesh. Why are these amateur filmmakers moving their lenses so slowly, and with such intense focus, over the wasted carcasses of the Holocaust?
The first answer is that the filming of the liberation of the camps wasn’t just for posterity. It was for evidence. “Night Will Fall,” which premieres on Monday at 9 p.m., describes how British, US, and Soviet troops moved through Germany in the spring of 1945 supplied with soldiers who’d been specially trained as cameramen. These soldiers, carrying primitive cameras with thick lenses and wind-up cranks, were told to capture what they saw in detail, to contradict those who would inevitably deny the truth of the camps.
The late Sidney Bernstein, a noted British media figure and the film adviser to the Ministry of Information in World War II, explains his intentions in a 1980s interview that’s featured in “Night Will Fall.” “My instructions were to film everything which would prove one day that this had actually happened,” he says. “It would be a lesson to all mankind as well as the Germans.” He wanted detailed footage, and he told the cameramen to be sure to capture local German bigwigs in the same frame as the bodies. “I wanted to prove that they had seen it,” he says, “so there was evidence, because I guessed rightly that most people would deny that it happened.”
Bernstein succeeded in his mission to chronicle some of the evilest crime scenes in history and invalidate the deniers. The footage is an indisputable record of what happened in the camps, with views not only of the bodies but also of the ovens, the storage facilities filled with human hair, the twins who survived Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments. Only the stench can’t be seen, except in those shots of people — many of them well-dressed Germans who lived nearby, who’d claimed not to know about the camps — holding handkerchiefs up to their noses in disgust.
“Night Will Fall,” elegantly directed by Andre Singer, is the story of Bernstein’s efforts to take the footage and make a feature documentary right after the war, with the help of his friend Alfred Hitchcock, who would serve as “supervising director.” Bernstein, Hitchcock, and a team of editors and writers immediately set about giving shape to the long shots of atrocity, making sure, Bernstein says, to make it clear with maps that this genocide was taking place remarkably close by towns and cities.
But the film, called “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” fell apart when the US government withdrew its footage (so director Billy Wilder could quickly make a short called “Death Mills”) and when international politics intervened. US and British officials didn’t want to alienate Germany; the country was needed to help in the postwar reconstruction, and it was seen as a potential future ally in the Cold War against Russia. The filmmaking process was stopped.
But the liberation footage itself is the centerpiece of “Night Will Fall.” It is mesmerizing, sickening, disturbing, and essential. Another reason for the slow, deliberate crime-scene camerawork: The cameramen were stunned by what they saw. They were struggling to take it all in — including the harrowing faces of the survivors — while they were filming. There are a number of interviews with these men in “Night Will Fall,” and each of them is clearly still haunted by the specter. “It never does leave you,” says one American cameraman. Another breaks into tears as he recalls what he saw, saying, “Too painful.”
They bore witness to the horror. And, fortunately, their work will indeed continue to enable us to see what happened. A few years ago, “Night Will Fall” informs us, the Imperial War Museums in London pulled the reels and the notes made by Bernstein and Hitchcock out of storage, and completed the film. “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach,” says the narrator of the finished film, “the night will fall.”