tue 16/07/2019

DVD: Night Will Fall | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Night Will Fall

DVD: Night Will Fall

André Singer's powerful Holocaust documentary arrives on DVD with a wealth of extras

A young German woman reacts when confronted with the horrors of a concentration camp

The quotation from which this film’s title is taken runs thus: “Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall.” It’s drawn from the voiceover of a documentary called German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey that was made by Sidney Bernstein as World War II drew to a close. It was a gathering of massed concentration camp footage and detailed explanations that he hoped would be shown worldwide but, especially, to the German people, so that they might consider their complicity. André Singer, previously best known as a producer, notably of The Act of Killing and Into the Abysss, makes his directorial debut with a documentary, narrated by Helena Bonham-Carter, that tells the story of the film's making and why it was never released.

The Holocaust is a defining historical event in our understanding of what humanity is capable of. Recalling it in detail is vital, as is finding new and compelling angles to explore. Singer’s film does both, initially telling the stories, via archive footage and interviews, of the experiences of soldiers and camera crews who first reached the major Nazi concentration camps.

“It’s hard to imagine for a normal human being,” explains one Sergeant Benjamin Ferencz of arriving at Buchenwald, “I had peered into hell. That’s…” And then he breaks down, an old man weeping at these appalling memories, before continuing. “It’s not something you quickly forget. It’s a little hard for me to describe.” The last is an understatement, of course, but the footage does it for him and it is revolting, a direct and grotesque physical reflection of Nazi ideology. The sheer quantity of starved corpses, the way their pale, slack flesh is manhandled, flopping into mass graves, is difficult for the mind to process.

Singer’s film does the job of clear, precise remembrance impeccably. Some lines by Bernstein documentary scriptwriter Richard Crossman, alongside imagery of the carefully packaged sacks of human hair, especially emphasise the unequivocal industrial scale capitalism also at work: “In the last three months official records show that 10,615 people were disposed of here [Dachau]. Their clothes were turned over to the Deutsche Textil und Bekleidungswerke GmBH, a private corporation whose stockholders were SS officials which reclaimed and repaired the garments (with the use of unpaid prison labour) and then sold them to the camp clothing depot for the use of new prisoners.” There are no words for this kind of wrong.

Despite Alfred Hitchcock’s editorial involvement, German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey was never released due to changes in the political climate with regard to the Soviet Bloc and events in Palestine. The film’s latter third deals with this but there is as much worthwhile material on the DVD’s extras. Especially interesting is an interview with human rights journalist Caroline Moorhead, a biographer of Bernstein, as well as Death Mills, the hectoring 22-minute film Billy Wilder put together in 1946 with the gathered footage.

The extras also include the film’s original trailer, a Russian propaganda film about Auschwitz, a short 1945 newsreel about Belsen’s staff on trial, a panel discussion about the film, and interviews with experts such as Jeremy Hicks, Rainer Schulze and David Cesarani at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald, respectively. There is also a stills gallery and the DVD comes with an extensive booklet containing essays by Nick James, André Singer, Sally Angel, Toby Haggith and Patrick Russell – the first and last of these are particularly readable. In short, the BFI has create a package worthy of the DVD’s historical weight.

Overleaf: Night Will Fall trailer

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