Alfred Hitchcock's unseen Holocaust documentary to be screened

It's a little known fact that the great director made a film about the Nazi death camps – but, horrified by the footage he saw, the documentary was never shown. Now it is to be released. Geoffrey Macnab reports

The British Army Film Unit cameramen who shot the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 used to joke about the reaction of Alfred Hitchcock to the horrific footage they filmed. When Hitchcock first saw the footage, the legendary British director was reportedly so traumatised that he stayed away from Pinewood Studios for a week. Hitchcock may have been the king of horror movies but he was utterly appalled by "the real thing".

In 1945, Hitchcock had been enlisted by his friend and patron Sidney Bernstein to help with a documentary on German wartime atrocities, based on the footage of the camps shot by British and Soviet film units. In the event, that documentary was never seen.

"It was suppressed because of the changing political situation, particularly for the British," suggests Dr Toby Haggith, Senior Curator at the Department of Research, Imperial War Museum. "Once they discovered the camps, the Americans and British were keen to release a film very quickly that would show the camps and get the German people to accept their responsibility for the atrocities that were there."

The film took far longer to make than had originally been envisaged. By late 1945, the need for it began to wane. The Allied military government decided that rubbing the Germans' noses in their own guilt wouldn't help with postwar reconstruction.

Five of the film's six reels were eventually deposited in the Imperial War Museum and the project was quietly forgotten.

In the 1980s, the footage was discovered in a rusty can in the museum by an American researcher. It was eventually shown in an incomplete version at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984 and then broadcast on American PBS in 1985 under the title Memory of the Camps but in poor quality and without the missing sixth reel. The original narration, thought to have been written by future Labour Cabinet Minister Richard Crossman in collaboration with Australian journalist Colin Wills, was read by actor Trevor Howard.

Now, finally, the film is set to be seen in a version that Hitchcock, Bernstein and the other collaborators intended. The Imperial War Museum has painstakingly restored it using digital technology and has pieced together the extra material from the missing sixth reel. A new documentary, Night Will Fall, is also being made with André Singer, executive producer of The Actof Killing, as director and Stephen Frears as directorial advisor. Both the original film about the camps and the new documentary will be shown on British TV in early 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the "liberation" of Europe. Before that, next year, they are due to be shown together at festivals and in cinemas.

The decision to revive the film is bound to provoke anguished debate. It includes truly shocking footage of the camps (Belsen-Bergen in particular.) The film's own commentary, which has been re-recorded with a new actor, has a phrase about "sightseers" at a "chamber of horrors".

Billy Wilder, who directed Death Mills (1945), an American film about the German atrocities, was forthright about why he did not want atrocity footage to be seen in later years. Wilder questioned whether it had worked in "re-educating" the German civilian population about what their leaders had been doing in their name.

Belsen concentration camp in 1945, while under British control after liberation (Getty) Belsen concentration camp in 1945, while under British control after liberation (Getty)
"They [the Germans] couldn't cope with it. He [Wilder] told me people just left the screening or closed their eyes. They didn't want to see," Wilder's friend Volker Schlöndorff recalled in a 2011 interview. "They found out it was almost unbearable to see these documents and almost indecent for the victims or the people related to the victims."

In Memory of the Camps, there is imagery of heaps of naked bodies being piled up in mass graves. The footage seems as surreal as anything you might see in a Hieronymus Bosch painting but then you remember that these corpses haven't been conjured up by some artist's twisted imagination. These are real victims whose relatives are alive today.

In the documentary, we see the Germans themselves confronted with the enormity of the crimes committed in their name and forced to help bury the dead themselves.

As Toby Haggith acknowledges, the film is "much more candid" than any of the other documentaries about the camps. Haggith also describes it as "brilliant" and "sophisticated". The editors Stewart McAllister (famous for his work with Humphrey Jennings) and Peter Tanner, working under advice from Hitchcock, fashioned 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. There is footage of camp inmates having their first showers and cleaning their clothes. The film-makers show the painstaking way that typhus was eradicated from the camps.

Haggith speak of the "brilliance" of the original cameramen at the camps, who were working without direction but still had an uncanny knack for homing in on the most poignant and telling images.

"It's both an alienating film in terms of its subject matter but also one that has a deep humanity and empathy about it," Haggith suggests. "Rather than coming away feeling totally depressed and beaten, there are elements of hope."

The Trevor Howard voiceover narration in Memory of the Camps is strangely reminiscent of the one that director Carol Reed himself read over the opening of The Third Man (in which Howard co-starred.) It has the same sardonic understatement as it describes the devastation wreaked by the war. In the new version, the words will remain (but have now been recorded by a contemporary actor.)

Memory of the Camps was a title given to the documentary years after it was made. It will now be renamed. Haggith won't reveal the new title.

For Hitchcock fans, the Holocaust film is a cause for both excitement and wariness. On the one hand, it seems obvious that his work on the documentary must have had a profound influence on him. He may have been a "treatment advisor" on the project rather than its actual director but his exposure to imagery as extreme as this must have coloured his approach to depicting horror and violence on screen.

The wariness comes from the sense that it is both distasteful and absurdly reductive to see a Nazi atrocity documentary as a " Hitchcock movie". We will never know exactly how much he contributed to the film, even if it seems certain that his ideas about how it should be structured were taken on board.

"Our experience with it has been similar to the experience of the cameramen really, in that the technical work has to some degree protected us from the meaning of the film," Haggith suggests of the experience of spending many months poring over such gruesome and disturbing imagery. He adds that "the fact that we have been habituated to these images over the last 70 years" has meant that the restorers have been able to treat the film as "historical source material".

The restoration is now almost complete. How will contemporary audiences react to a film which, when it was first being put together, traumatised Hitchcock himself and so deeply upset its original editors, who weren't aware of what had actually gone on in the camps?

"Judging by the two test screenings we have had for colleagues, experts and film historians, what struck me was that they found it extremely disturbing," Haggith says. "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 [the film] was both terrible and brilliant at the same time."

That, Haggith, believes is testament to the craftsmanship of the film-makers, who took some of "the most atrocious and disturbing footage that had yet been recorded in cinema at that stage" and turned into a film that was lucid, moving and instructive as well as appalling. The job now for those showing the film is to provide context and explanation. As Haggith puts it: "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."

The restored version of the concentration camp film, retrospectively titled 'Memory of the Camps', will be released later this year




Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'