Seventy years in the making, Night Will Fall, an unsparing examination of the Allied troops who went into Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and many other camps, is set to feature on HBO.
With a bloodless, anodyne title emblematic of any number of government projects, England’s German Concentration Camps Factual Survey wouldn’t seem to be the kind of thing to cause much of a ripple in the vast expanse of Holocaust studies.
And yet, 70 years after the pioneering British film producer Sidney Bernstein was tasked with collating the many hours of footage taken by British, American and Soviet troops as they liberated 11 Nazi concentration camps and turning it into a documentary, the story of the survey — and its most searing images — is getting prime time slots on HBO as part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is Jan. 27.
Night Will Fall is an unsparing examination of the Allied troops who went into Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and many other loci of misery and death. It delves into what and whom they found there, and what happened to the people — as well as the survey itself.
Some images that will be familiar to many viewers: a survivor clutching a liberator’s hand to her face; the tatterdemalion parade of twins no longer subjected to the “experiments” of Dr. Josef Mengele; and the freed prisoners jeering the German soldiers now forced by the Allies to lay their victims to rest in pits.
But what sets Night Will Fall apart from other Holocaust documentaries is the spellbinding use of unflinching, almost leisurely sequences of horror. Director André Singer combines slow pans across frozen corpses, static minutes of bodies being dragged, hauled and tossed like jointed dolls and aerial footage showing the immense dimensions of Auschwitz. These either provide their own silent testimony or are elucidated by Helena Bonham Carter’s subdued narration.
Bonham Carter is one of the household names that became involved with the survey over the decades. Those vertiginously long takes? They were the idea of Alfred Hitchcock, whom Bernstein brought in as supervising director. Billy Wilder helped himself to the survey’s footage to produce its American counterpart, Death Mills.
Singer is well-known in the documentary world, although he has worked almost exclusively as a producer, including an acclaimed long-term collaboration with Werner Herzog and on his own The Act of Killing, the 2012 Academy Award-nominated documentary about mass executions in Indonesia.
A trained anthropologist who is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California and president of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Singer knew he was capable of such a Holocaust documentary but he was not his first — or even second — choice for this project.
The 69-year-old son of a Jewish Romanian refugee mother and a non-Jewish German journalist explained that he originally asked others to direct the documentary but they were unavailable. “This was too urgent and important to wait, so I took over myself and, in turn, it took over my life!” he said in an email interview.
He said he felt a sense of urgency to get as many of those who lived through that time — survivors, cameramen, editors — on film. By having people like Eva Kor, a victim of Mengele who survived Auschwitz with her twin sister, and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived both Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, tell their stories, Singer allows viewers to catch their breath and put faces to the barbarity. (Coincidentally, both Kor and Lasker-Wallfisch are also featured in Voices of Auschwitz, a CNN documentary that will be shown on Jan. 28.)
By toggling back and forth between the soldiers’ footage, the story of making the survey and the present-day recollections, Singer avoids having his film’s impact dulled by overloading viewers with the devastating historical record.
“I knew that a new generation needed the visual images to really understand mankind’s ability to brutalize fellow humans,” he said. “It was a matter of judgment about making sure the film material was in context and not voyeuristic. It has to be difficult to watch if it is to have any impact; it has to take viewers out of their comfort zone.”
Much of the footage has rarely — if ever — been seen. The survey was never finished for the order came down after the war that it was no longer needed. No official explanation was found for the decision, but some in the film surmise it was halted because the British felt there was no need to further antagonize the Germans, especially in light of their looming role in what would become the Cold War.
Part of the survey was shown on British television in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the country’s Imperial War Museum completed a four-year effort to reconstruct Bernstein’s complete vision, including the final reel and its all-too-relevant final words: “Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn.”
Night Will Fall
Premieres Jan. 26 at 9 p.m. on HBO
For more show times, go to HBO.com
Voices of Auschwitz
Premieres Jan. 28 at 9 p.m. on CNN
For more show times, go to CNN.com