For someone who was born more than four decades after the Holocaust, I have seen my share of horrifying, gut-wrenching, and heart-breaking footage from or about Nazi concentration camps. I’ve watched these documentaries and propaganda films in class, at the US Holocaust Museum, at Yad Vashem in Israel, at the Berlin Jewish Museum, and at several locations in Poland. I’ve worked on a film that describes the atrocities—in fact, I spent half of my life in Warsaw, where the memory of World War II lingers to this day. But I have never been as affected by any film as I was by the “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” a propaganda picture made in 1945, and shelved for 70 years.
The footage was recently restored by the Imperial War Museum in London, and had its New York premiere last week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The film’s camera confronts the face of death like nothing I’ve ever seen, showing the hollowed out cheeks of a woman ravaged by hunger and sickness, the open mouth of a man drawing his last breath, the glassy, empty eyes of emaciated corpses, sprawled across the grounds of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Like other propaganda, the film provides damning evidence of Nazi atrocities, but unlike most of its contemporaries, “Factual Survey” also offers a message that transcends its time—the resilience of the human spirit even in the midst of utter devastation.
In long, silent shots Allied soldiers force Nazi SS officers to carry the bodies of those they have starved or killed, tossing them onto trucks or into pits like matchstick dolls. On the sidelines, local German dignitaries bear witness to the scale of the tragedy, staring fixedly at their shoes. The scenes last minutes, but they feel like an eternity.
The long, panning shots are in large part courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock, already a famous Hollywood director in 1945, who worked on the film as an advisor. He wanted to ensure no one could accuse the filmmakers of manipulating the footage. Hitchcock was invited to help by the film’s producer Sidney Bernstein, a personal friend, who had been working on the orders of the British Ministry of Information.
The film focuses on the devastation the liberators found at Bergen Belsen, but also includes Dachau, Buchenwald, Majdanek, and Auschwitz. Bernstein and his editors stitched together footage taken by military cameramen from the British, American and Soviet armies as they freed the camps, one by one.
Besides the wide panning, Hitchcock’s influence can be seen in the film’s depiction of how close the camps were to population centers. He suggested including simple maps in the film, or, for instance, contrasting images of withered prisoners in a camp in the Austrian mountains with an off-duty soldier having a romantic rendez-vous nearby, in an idyllic lakeside scene.
Interestingly, while some of footage would be used in other films, the “Factual Survey” was never shown to the wartime public. Teaching the defeated Germans a lesson was not on the list of the British government’s priorities, lost in the post-war push to rebuild the German state in the looming shadow of the Cold War.
The Americans, on the other hand, were impatient at the slow pace of the film’s production, and commissioned Hollywood director Billy Wilder to make a US version to show the Germans: the 20-minute “Death Mills.”
Though it uses some of the same film reels, “Death Mills” emphasizes a message of death and destruction, whereas “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” poignantly, almost quietly, portrays the power of human resilience. Bernstein and his team seamlessly transition from close-ups of corpses to close-ups of women meticulously scrubbing their bodies under hot showers brought by the liberators. One of the most moving moments of the film is a scene showing a tiny baby born at the camp, wriggling on a hospital bed. “Factual Survey,” describes how quickly the prisoners learned how to become human again.
“It feels as if the whole human story is there,” says Raye Farr, a former director of the permanent exhibition at the US Holocaust Museum who was interviewed in “Night Will Fall,” a 2014 HBO documentary about the making of “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.” Just as much as the film is about death, it’s about life as well.
But there is something crucial missing in the account that “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” gives of the Holocaust. The voiceover enumerates all the different nationalities and religions in the camps, mentioning Jews several times, but it gives no specifics about their systematic extermination. It focuses on the universal, rather than specific tragedy.
This glaring absence is not necessarily surprising, however, given the prevailing attitudes. At the time, the fate of Europe’s Jews was still seen as an “embarrassment to the Allies,” as Richard Cohen puts it. Britain also had to deal with burgeoning Jewish demands for a state of their own in Palestine, and releasing a film emphasizing the true extent of the Nazi’s efforts might increase unwanted pressure on the British government.
This, along with other inaccuracies in the film, including a gross exaggeration of the number of people killed at Auschwitz, are some of the reasons the Imperial War Museum is hesitant to distribute the film widely.
This is understandable, but it would be a shame and a missed opportunity if the film was lost to history. More relevant today than the typical propaganda picture, “Factual Survey” puts faces to statistics of the victims, but it also gives us a glimpse into the dynamics of survival even as fewer and fewer of those who lived through the camps are around to tell their stories.
And then, there’s the film’s enduring lesson.
“People are still doing this to other people around the world, whether it’s Myanmar, Iraq, or Africa,” said David Bernstein, Sidney’s son, during a panel discussion at the film’s screening. “This is part of our humanity,” he explained. Decades later, the elder Bernstein’s message still rings true: “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall.”