nineveh_uk (nineveh_uk) wrote,

Film: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey

Yesterday I went to a screening of the German Concentration Camps Factual Survey film recently restored by the Imperial War Museum.

For obvious reasons I'll continue under a cut. There are no images.

As the website puts it, "Ordered in April 1945 by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, the film is an official documentary about German atrocities and the concentration camps compiled with footage shot by combat and newsreel cameramen accompanying troops as they liberated occupied Europe. It was to be the film screened in Germany after the fall of the Third Reich - shown to German prisoners of war wherever they were held."

The latter never happened as it got shelved as events on the ground and in politics overtook it, and the last reel was never completed, but the footage, script, and instructions were all there, so the editing could be completing and the original script recorded. There is a short introduction and follow-up shown as part of the screening, contextualising some of the material* (e.g. there are what are now known to be factual errors in the script due to inaccurate information available to the makers, and there are editorial choices, such as the lack of focus on it as a Jewish holocaust, but the presentation of victims as fellow-citizens of various nationalities). The first c.40 minutes focuses on Bergen-Belsen, with the rest looking at other camps around Germany and occupied countries.

It is unremittingly grim viewing**. The introduction warns of images of atrocities, but simply cannot convey 75 minutes of frame after frame showing the corpses of people who have been variously starved, gassed, bludgeoned, died of disease, burned alive or dead, shot, electrocuted, hanging on wire, rotting, wizened, in pits by the hundred or thousand, being thrown bare-handed into graves by SS officers at bayonet point, scattered over the ground with the living walking among them. It is relentless in its close-up depiction of horror. A dead and eyeless face fills the screen. Again and again the camera slowly traverses a pile of bodies, the decomposition visible. There is no voiceover as it stares into a crematorium oven half-full of bones. Naked men, looking like skeletons wrapped in skin, support one another as they stagger from a liberated camp 'hospital'. A shot lingers on bludgeoned skull and half the brain lying beside it on the grass, as civilians from the neighbourhood are marched past to see. Less obviously grim, but as shocking a spectacle in a different way, are the people in the camps who still look relatively healthy, who cannot have been there so long, illustrating a state machine that was still actively sending people to the camps right to the end - also testified in the abandoned train wagons containing 3000 prisoners, 3 of them still alive. Or the companies with their names and logos on ironwork and crematoria. Mostly the soundtrack is narrative, but there are a few scenes of people talking to camera, a young British soldier, and a vicar with a posh accent and speech impediment that in any other circumstance would be beyond parody, but not against the background of a mass grave. It is unforgettably appalling material.

It is not a must-see film: it is simply too horrific to be accessible to a wide audience. Moreover seventy-five years on, it does need some contextualisation. As a purely eductional tool, the documentary about it is probably more appropriate for broader viewing. But I am glad to have seen it, if not the images in it. It's a significant historical document, and I recommend it to people who feel that it is something they could see.

Details of screenings in the UK are on the IWM website. An incomplete version (1 hour) from 1984 is available online via PBS (no synch sound).

*There is a recent documentary film about the making of it, Night Will Fall, shown on Channel 4, that I now intend to get hold of.

**There are actually two moments in the film that provoke laughter in the audience, one of a toddler pointing at the camera in a very recognisable way, the other a line about how women all like clothes shopping.

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Tags: film, history, real life
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