Why Hitchcock’s Film on the Holocaust Was Never Shown

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Alfred Hitchcock types a script on a portable typewriter his apartment in the Wilshire Palms. Hitchcock wanted his film on the Holocaust to be as believable and irrefutable as possible—to ensure that the massacre of 11 million people would never be forgotten. Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty/HBO

Two women drag an emaciated female corpse along the ground, its head bouncing on the dirt. When they reach a large pit, they stop, give the naked body a quick tug backward to pick up momentum, then hurl it into the hole. The corpse, which looks like a skeleton covered in a thin film of skin, flops onto a mound of decomposing bodies.

The scene, shot at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of World War II, might never have been seen by the public had a decommissioned film, boasting Alfred Hitchcock as a supervising director and British film pioneer Sidney Bernstein as producer, not been resurrected. Authorized in the spring of 1945 by the Allied forces, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey captured the monstrous realities found during the liberation of Nazi death camps, including Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz.

Yet by August of that year, the film was shelved by British authorities. Everything—reels of footage, the script, the cameramen’s notes—was boxed up and buried in the archives of the Imperial War Museums (IWM) in London. A new HBO documentary, Night Will Fall (January 26), directed by André Singer and narrated by Helena Bonham Carter and Jasper Britton, tells the story of how, 70 years later, this lost film came back to life.

In the spring of 1945, British, American and Soviet troops were headed toward Berlin in the final days of the war. Along with them were soldiers who’d been trained as cameramen—young, brawny men with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and large, boxy cameras hoisted up on their shoulders, who arrived at concentration camps during their liberation to record the harrowing aftermath of the atrocities there.

It took a while for details about the concentration camps to get out. On April 19, 1945, BBC Radio aired a controversial report by Richard Dimbleby about his experience at Bergen-Belsen, in northern Germany. Initially, the BBC refused to air the report; the broadcaster simply couldn’t believe Dimbleby hadn’t embellished the details. “I found myself in the world of a nightmare,” he said. “Dead bodies, some of them in decay, lay strewn about the road and along the rutted tracks. On each side of the road were brown wooden huts. There were faces at the windows. The bony, emaciated faces of starving women too weak to come outside, propping themselves against the glass to see the daylight before they died. And they were dying, every hour and every minute.”

The report was so stunning that, a couple of days later, Bernstein, then a leading film producer and head of film for Britain’s psychological war department, made his way to the camp. What he found there inspired his next endeavor: a full-length documentary that would portray the Nazis’ horrific crimes so vividly it would be impossible to deny they ever took place.

‘The Most Appalling Hell Possible’

After the American and British governments approved his film, Bernstein handpicked a powerhouse team, including editor Stewart McAllistar, writers Richard Crossman and Colin Willis, and a famous movie director, Alfred Hitchcock. They had just three months to complete the documentary from reels and reels of footage captured by those British, American and Russian cameramen.

Night Will Fall shows many of these scenes, and they are rife with unspeakable details: Dead bodies are strewn across plots of land, some in heaps and others lined up like a carpet of human carcasses. When the camera zooms in, we see limbs, as thin as bones, tangled together like pretzels. Skulls cracked open by puncture wounds. Gaunt, hollow eyes and gaping mouths frozen in silent screams. Shoulders, thighs and legs marked by burns, cuts and filth.

We see soldiers slinging the dead over their shoulders as they hurl them into dump trucks. We watch the twins who survived Dr. Josef Mengele’s grotesque human experiments at Auschwitz walk through a narrow corridor of barbed wire. And we look into the eyes of the dead and dying at Dachau, which John Krish, an editor on the film, said “was like looking into the most appalling hell possible.” All the while, German locals stood on the sidelines, bearing witness to a genocide they claimed they didn’t know about.

The images will make you want to look away, but don’t. As Raye Farr, a director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 2003, says in the documentary, “The films shot at Bergen-Belsen by the British cameramen reveal every level of humanity to a much greater extent than any other of the film evidence.”

Helping us make sense of this heart- and gut-wrenching footage are interviews with concentration camp survivors, the soldiers who saved them and the cameramen who were there to record the slaughter.

“You couldn’t tell if they were dead or alive,” Benjamin Ferencz, a sergeant with the U.S. Third Army, recalls in the documentary. “You’d step over a body and it would suddenly wave at you, raise a hand. Total chaos. Dysentery, typhoid, all kinds of diseases in the camp. Putrid. The smell of the camps, the crematorium was still going, the dead bodies piled up like cordwood in front of the crematorium. It’s hard to imagine for a normal human mind. I had peered into hell and that’s—” Ferencz, who later served as chief prosecutor during the Nuremberg Trials, tries to stop himself from crying. “It’s not something you quickly forget.”

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey is Hitchcock’s only known documentary feature. Though his tenure on the film lasted just one month, he made lasting contributions, helping to outline the story and emphasizing the importance of showing just how close the concentration camps were to picturesque villages where German civilians lived during the war. He wanted the film to be as believable and irrefutable as possible to ensure that the massacre of 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, would never be forgotten.

In the summer of 1945, plans for German Concentration Camps Factual Survey began to unravel. The American government grew impatient with Bernstein’s slow, meticulous process and pulled its footage, hiring its own director, Billy Wilder, to create a shorter film. Wilder’s Death Mills premiered in Wurzberg following an operetta with Lillian Harvey. Of the 500-odd people in the audience at the beginning of the screening, less than 100 were in their seats at the end.

Bernstein’s work had also become a political headache for American and British officials. The consensus was that the film was no longer necessary. “Policy at the moment in Germany is entirely in the direction of encouraging, stimulating and interesting the Germans out of their apathy, and there are people around the Commander-in-Chief who will say ‘No atrocity film,’” read a memo Bernstein received on August 4, 1945, from the British Foreign Office. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was shelved in September 1945, though its footage was key evidence in the trials of Nazi war criminals.

Four years ago, the IWM began restoring and completing Bernstein and Hitchcock’s film, as they had originally envisioned it, including the sixth reel, which was unfinished when the project was shut down. Night Will Fall ends with a scene from the now-completed documentary. A large group of civilians (it’s unclear who) walk through one of the camps, passing by decaying bodies on both sides of the road. As the camera zooms in on the grotesque faces of the dead, the narrator speaks: “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But by God’s grace, we who live will learn.”

With grace and masterful storytelling, Night Will Fall reveals the carnage the Allied troops found in the concentration camps and reminds us of just how powerful bearing witness can be. The film is a poignant, potent addition to the canon of Holocaust history. As Bernstein said in an interview in 1984, “My instructions were to film everything which would prove one day that this had actually happened. It’d be a lesson to all mankind as well. As to the Germans, for whom the film that we were putting together was designed…it would be the evidence we could show them…. I wanted to prove that they had seen it, so there was evidence, because I guessed rightly, and most people would deny that it happened.”