In 1945, British forces liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Northern Germany. What they discovered there was beyond horrifying: over 13,000 corpses were left unburied and stacked up in large piles all over the camp. The tens of thousands of prisoners that were still alive looked as if they were on the verge of death; crippled by grief and suffering from starvation and disease. Allied forces shot footage of the camp, and similar film documentation was done by the Soviets at camps in Auschwitz and Majdanek (where even greater atrocities had occurred). Filmmaker Sidney Bernstein visited the Bergen-Belsen camp a week after its liberation, and determined that he would make a documentary on the horrors that had been discovered at the camps.
The new documentary Night Will Fall is technically about the making of Bernstein's documentary, but the footage it incorporates from the camps is so emotionally overwhelming that it nearly negates everything else the film has to say. If you've studied the holocaust, odds are you've seen images along the lines the film offers, but that doesn't make them any easier to endure: emaciated bodies being hurled into mass graves, piles of children's shoes, warehouses full of women's hair, large furnaces filled with bone fragments. However familiar they may be, these images have lost none of their shocking power. How are human beings capable of committing such atrocities?
Bernstein's film was intent on asking that same question, and on reminding viewers of just how easily a “civilized” society was persuaded to turn a blind eye to the awful things taking place in the camps. He leaned heavily on footage from the Bergen-Belsen camps, and also incorporated some of the footage the Soviet filmmakers had shot. Eventually, the esteemed Alfred Hitchcock was brought in as the project's supervising director, and added some thoughts on how to help the public accept the footage they were shown (for instance, he advised the incorporation of shots panning directly from stacks of bodies to images of respected public officials – generals, church leaders, etc. - looking at those bodies, in order to convince viewers that they were not watching elaborate special effects).
As the story of the film's construction gradually unfolds, Night Will Fall provides interviews with concentration camp survivors (including Schindler's List producer Branko Lustig) and soldiers who played a role in liberating the camps, as they offer painful memories of the things they witnessed. In archival footage, we hear multiple members of the Allied forces making the same observation over and over: “Now we know what we're fighting for.” To discover a concentration camp seems like an unbearably difficult thing... to live in one seems unimaginable.
Unfortunately, Bernstein's film wasn't completed as planned. The powers-that-be determined that his work was too complicated, and that they needed a shorter, simpler, more emotionally direct work. Director Billy Wilder was called in and whittled the whole thing down to a 22-minute short film called Death Mills, which offered a much different spin on the same footage. Bernstein, Hitchcock and co. were attempting to make a film reminding all viewers of what humanity was capable of: a dire warning issued to the entire world. Death Mills took a position of moral superiority, using the footage as an opportunity to merely shame the Germans for what they had done (one sensationalistic scene refers to the German woman who worked in the camps as, “Amazons – even deadlier than the men!”). While Germany certainly deserved its shame, the larger lessons Bernstein had hoped to offer were lost in Wilder's propaganda-style short.
Some 70 years later, Bernstein's work was completed and released as German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, and numerous excerpts of that finished product are included in Night Will Fall. Predictably enough, the latter's most powerful moments are those in which it simply gives us the opportunity to see Bernstein's work. Given the numbing power of the concentration camp footage the film incorporates, it's understandable if the rest of this thoughtful, well-crafted documentary doesn't make the same sort of impression.
Night Will Fall
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 78 minutes
Release Year: 2014