Hitchcock and the Holocaust

This is from an article in the i newspaper, by Geoffrey Macnab.


Alfred Hitchcock was known as the king of horror films, but when he saw the footage of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he is said to have stayed away from Pinewood studios for a week.

When the British army liberated the camp, it was filmed by the army film unit, and in 1945 Hitchcock was to make a film based on their footage and that of the Soviets. Apparently the British and Americans were keen to release these images to get the German people to accept responsibility for the atrocities in the immediate aftermath of the war. But the film took longer than expected  to make, and as time passed, the desire to punish the Germans waned as Post-war reconstruction got underway.

Five of the six reels of the film were made were deposited in the Imperial War Museum archives, where they were discovered in the 1980s by a researcher, and an incomplete version shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984 and the following year broadcast on PBS in America titled Memory of the Camps. It is thought that the narration was written by future Labour MP Richard Crossman with Australian journalist Colin Wills, and narrated by Trevor Howard, star of Orson Wells’ film, The Third Man. His narration is similar to that of Carol Reed over the opening of that film. Both films deal with the devastation of the war.

At last, the Imperial War Museum has pieced together this early work with the missing reel, and digitally restored the film. There is also a documentary about it, called Night Will Fall. Both will be shown on British tv in early 2015, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the ‘liberation’ of Europe, but will be shown before that in cinemas and festivals.

The decision to revive this footage and release it to the public is bound to be controversial, and I don’t know how much  I want to see it, though I am interested in this history. The problem is that once you have seen it, you cannot unsee it. If it causes a person to be extremely distressed, is it worth it? But the only way to know how you would react is to see it.

This reminds me of the great Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man, in which he is listening to the recording left by Timothy Treadwell. It is the sound of Timothy and his girlfriend being eaten by a wild Grizzly bear. There is a part of me that would like to hear it, to compare it to the sounds we are used to in horror films. But the decision was made to destroy the recording, as it was felt that nobody should hear such horror. So, in the balance of curiosity versus distress, the latter won.

As with the film of the concentration camps, there is also an element of voyeurism, or “sightseers” at a “chamber of horrors”  which summons up images of tourists at London’s Bedlam asylum in the 18th century, and the various traveling freakshows that have long since fallen out of favour, at least in the real world, and this should make us feel uncomfortable.

German-born filmmaker Billy Wilder directed a 1945 film about the German atrocities, did not want such images to be shown in later years, questioning the value of ‘re-educating’ the Germans. Wilder’s friend and fellow filmmaker Volker Schlondorff  cited him: “They couldn’t cope with it.   He [Wilder] told me people just left the screening or closed their eyes. They didn’t want to see it. They found out it was almost unbearable to see those documents and almost indecent for the victims or the people related to the victims”

These are not just images of dead people – they were naked, dumped into mass graves. The dead should be shown some dignity, not treated as waste, as things to be disposed of. The documentary shows Germans being forced to bury the dead, to deal not just with their own personal traumas, but to struggle with the crimes that were done in their name.

Toby Haggith, senior curator at the Imperial War Museum, claims the film is “much more candid” than other documentaries on the camps, but also that it is “brilliant” and “sophisticated”. The editors Stewart McAlister and Peter Tanner worked with Hitchcock to fashion “an immensely powerful and moving film from the hours and hours of grim material at their disposal. The documentary isn’t all about death. We also see imagery of reconstruction and reconciliation. The film-makers show the painstaking way that typhus was eradicated from the camps.”

The cameramen worked without direction, but they were clearly experienced both as technicians and artists. Haggith claims “it is both an alienating film in terms of its subject matter but also one that has a deep humanity and empathy about it. Rather than coming away feeling totally depressed and beaten, there are elements of hope.”

It is not clear what Hitchcock’s role as “treatment advisor” involved, but he must have been profoundly affected by his involvement. And the modern version should not be seen as a Hitchcock film per se, which would lead to the subject matter being cheapened.

Also, it is hard to assess the level of distress caused then and now to viewers. When people are surrounded by violence, as during and after the war, they can become numbed to it, especially of the victims have been repeatedly described as sub-humans, so maybe viewers at the time were less upsettable than we are now. Today we are exposed to loads of images of death and violence, both in the press and in films, so maybe we are immune to being shocked. The fact that these images are now 70 years old means that they are part of history, the people who died there would now be dead anyway, so the shock value may be diluted. The decades of hunting down Nazi criminals meant that there was always a sense that someone could be walking around with a horrific secret from their past, but that sense of connection is now gone. The original editors and Hitchcock had not known about the horrors of the death camps, so they were very disturbed by the films.

But as a historian, I feel there is a difference, and the reason I read so little fiction is that  if you know something really happened, it feels more vivid, more real. Haggith describes the test screenings of the new film for historians and colleagues: “When you’re sitting in a darkened cinema and you’re focusing on a screen, your attention is very focused, unlike watching it on television… the digital restoration has made this material seem very fresh. One of the common remarks was that it was both terrible and brilliant at the same time.”  It is a testament to the filmmakers that they were able to record such horrors with such empathy and skill. Haggith says “We can’t stop the film being incredibly upsetting and disturbing but we can help people understand why it is being presented in that way.”

This film is no doubt an incredible achievement, and part of me is  looking forward to seeing it. We need to be reminded of how evil can be done by apparently ordinary people, but also how horrific events can turn people into monsters. Because we are the same as them. Our hearts and minds are built the same. What they did to people they believed were not human is unacceptable. But it makes us question what we would have done in those circumstances. And that is the most uncomfortable question of all.

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