It was a relief to cry.
The day upon which German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, spoke out against anti-semitism* and when a BBC Breakfast report cited a Europe-wide increase in such Jewish-focused attacks*, early upon this day, I attended a preview screening of filmic documentation of the single most harrowing example of anti-semitic hatred. The Holocaust.
When invited to be present, I immediately registered that this would be life-changing. To bear witness to a visual feat, 70 years in the fulfilment, charting the recording, effects and aftermath of torturous barbarism inflicted, human-against-human, could not be anything other.
As I settled back into the cocooned ease of my comfy chair, at Hampstead’s Everyman Theatre, the powerful words of documentary-producer, Sally Angel, echoed around my mind…
“Try not to look away, but bear witness to the courage it took to make the film.”
I silently awaited ‘Night Will Fall’, a digitally-remastered culmination of a creative effort, spanning continents and generations, involving some of the most celebrated names within the film industry and giving names to those courageous, newly-trained soldiers, sent to capture footage.
Immediately, the opening image of camera number 372574, seemed a subliminal mirror to the tatooed numbers which Jewish people, themselves, would not only be forced to display, but also, become. Shocking visual recollections ensued. From Bergen-Belsen, to Dachau and Buchenwald, the emaciated bodies of babies, children, women, men, in their thousands, bounced like rubber, as they were thrown into tennis-court sized pits. Lifeless, barely recognisable as having ever been human, these mid-distant stills of twisted, physical pile-ups, were followed by close-ups of starving inmates, on-the-cusp of death, existing amongst the stench of rising steam from the decomposing remains of those whom had been their loved-ones. Yet, such was the purpose and necessity of the late Granada Television founder, Sidney Bernstein, then of the Ministry of Infomation, that the ground-breaking usage of the technique, within the context of war, was employed to, literally, pull focus upon this devastating evidence of inhumane cruelty.
A joint film-unit formed, between the U.S.A and the U.K., that would further facilitate this ardent objective to reveal the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, as would the assistance of Supervisory Director, Alfred Hitchcock. His participation would add momentum to the implementation of technical methods such as ‘panning’ and ‘tracking’ in one-shot takes, in order to ensure the utmost authenticity of the resultant images. The use of contrast was particularly telling, from German SS officers ‘on leave’, in the idyllic environs of the countryside, to the half-dead prisoners-of-war, staring directly into camera, eyes glazed-over with hopelessness, with the very same countryside as an unreachable backdrop. From municipal ‘visitors’ and ‘upbeat’ local residents, to one woman being carried out, so distressing was the horror she had witnessed. Demonstrating the stark juxtaposition of an ‘out-of-sight-out-of-mind’ attitude, with the abject reality of such a mindset, highlighted “peering into a hell that you could not easily forget.”**
Further, tearstained, eye-witness accounts, recounted the ‘confiscation’ of twin boys and girls, who were subjected to such ‘medical experiments’ as being injected with incurable diseases. Deemed mere numbers, and with 600 Jewish deaths demanded daily, their survival was immaterial. The dark truth of the sheer scale of victims unravels evermore forcibly, through the mountains of personal belongings which were amassed, items which, due to the fallacy that they were moving to a better life, constituted the best of possessions. Finely, hand-made gloves and attire, shoes, glasses, brushes and favoured toys, told a tale of expected optimism…History records that the opposite was to be discovered, with the most brutal twist, being that of having bought their own tickets to an unfathomable fate.
“Freedom was chocolate and hugs!”…
Expressed by a survivor, the newfound exuberance, is ushered into the documentary, as Allied troops move in to liberate prisoners from the concentration camps. So palpable is it, that I begin to breathe more easily, now aware of how tense I have become. The theme of catharsis continues to run parallel to the rehabilitation process. Of particular note, is the significance of womenswear being directly correlated with the growing self-esteem of the former female captives, with clothing becoming “a necessary tonic” to faciliate healing. Being, once more, able to choose anything, let alone an outfit, underscored the poignancy of the basic right to freedom of self-expression, the re-personalisation of the decision-making process and the absolute joy of re-engaging with life.
After a 70-year journey, under the leadership of Toby Haggith, (Film and Video Archivist at The Imperial War Museum and the documentary’s Restoration Director), rushes encapsulating the touching clarity of such nuanced moments, within the arc of the turmoil of war, are not the only elements to have been redefined. A historical record of The Holocaust has been re-presented, which goes beyond a cinematographic process, delving deeper into the human bravery required to capture and reveal such heartbreaking visuals. This pivotal footage is profoundly moving and delicately balanced between immeasurable sorrow and the upsurge of liberation and it is the final quote which still echoes…
“Unless the world learns the lessons which these pictures teach, night will fall…But by God’s Grace, you will live and learn.”**
Let us all hope that somehow, we do.
*: BBC BREAKFAST 14/09/2014 ~ **: “NIGHT WILL FALL”: CERT: 15 (DIRECTED BY: ANDRÉ SINGER)
Many thanks to Alex and Julia from the BFI, for organising tickets and hosting, to the Team at Everyman Theatre, Hampstead, for their fine service and hospitality.
Special thanks to Sally Angel, Toby Haggith and all involved, past and present, in bringing this life-changing documentary to light.
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