This week’s news about the forthcoming restoration and release of what washeadlined “Alfred Hitchcock’s unseen Holocaust documentary” is mitigated by the fine print in Geoffrey Macnab’s report, in the Independent. The film, “Memory of the Camps,” made jointly by the British and American governments, in 1945, and intended in large measure to confront German citizens with their government’s crimes, was left unfinished at the time (on the grounds that it would be counterproductive to the goal of German postwar reconstruction). The first five reels of the edited work print were found in archives, in 1984. Commentary was recorded, and the resulting film was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, in 1984, and broadcast on PBS, in 1985. Hitchcock’s role in the production was minor but significant; as discussed on the PBS Web site, Hitchcock got involved midway through the project and advised the producers on the editing of the latter part of the film.
The first five reels, as shown in the eighties, run about fifty-five minutes. The movie begins with a brisk collage of archival footage, presenting a sardonic view of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, German expansionism, the start of war, and the defeat of Germany. Then, the content of the movie switches to documentary footage filmed by the British and American armies, and the subject switches as well: British troops arriving in the apparently placid town of Bergen are bewildered by an oppressive odor. Their effort to trace it leads them to discover the concentration camp known as Bergen-Belsen. There, the soldiers are greeted by the healthiest inmates; within, they discover the ill, the weak, the dying, and, then, the dead.
Approximately a half hour of the movie concerns Bergen-Belsen, and the filmmakers—led by the director, Sidney Bernstein—present a surprisingly wide perspective on what the British found there, and what they did when they took charge. The bodies of inmates, who died of disease and starvation, were strewn about the camp and filled the barracks, and the British forces compelled the S.S. officers who ran the camp to bury them in mass graves—and ordered local notables to watch the burials take place. Meanwhile, infrastructure became a priority: the provision of food, water, clothing, and medical care, and preventive measures against the spread of typhus, which was epidemic.
The images of emaciated corpses dragged through the dust, carried on the back, swung and tossed into pits atop other contorted and emaciated corpses, have been pressed into memory by shock and horror—not necessarily these specific images, but possibly others of the many, many hours of documentary images filmed when, after the war, the Allies liberated the camps. What’s preserved in the editing of the film is the astonishment of Allied soldiers upon discovering the camps. Their discovery was also the world’s discovery, and the film conveys the sense of a world out of joint, a total catastrophe that defies comprehension and seems like a sort of ubiquitous madness, even as its careful industrial organization becomes all the clearer.
Yet it may be the very familiarity of such images—no one of which has particular ascension over another—that shifts the emphasis, in “Memory of the Camps,” to two sequences. One presents the response of British medical authorities to the louse infestation that was responsible for the spread of typhus: burning the empty barracks. The flames that consume the wooden structures and rage in the night have a metaphorical power—suggesting both the incineration of millions of corpses, and a sort of divine vengeance against the perpetrators—that raises the images outside the realm of journalism and into a terrifying realm of art. The other, showing the mass graves covered over with earth and marked by placards, evokes, in the barrenness and vastness of the graves, the totality of the Nazi crimes that, somehow, seem to surpass their particular enumeration. In this sequence, “Memory of the Camps” comes closest to fulfilling its title—it becomes a film about memory, akin to Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog,” in which the images of the victims in the camps already belong to the archive, and the facts of the Holocaust need to be rescued from oblivion.
The fourth and fifth reels—the ones that Hitchcock helped to shape—feature images from other concentration camps, including Dachau and Buchenwald. One of Hitchcock’s prime concerns was to emphasize the proximity of the camps to German towns in order to assert that ordinary Germans, as Bernstein said, “must have known about it.” Also, the PBS site reports that “another known contribution was Hitchcock’s including the wide establishing shots which support the documentary feel of the film and showed that the events seen could not have been staged.” These sequences emphasize the efforts by German officials to pursue the work of extermination even beyond their defeat and, at the same time, to efface the traces of their crimes by leaving no survivors.
The missing sixth reel features images of Auschwitz filmed by Soviet camera operators, and it’s this reel that has been reconstructed for the forthcoming release of “Memory of the Camps.” (The original commentary, spoken, in the 1984 version, by Trevor Howard, is also being re-recorded.) I haven’t seen that missing reel, and can’t speak to its merits. But, at the remove of nearly seventy years—in an age of image profusion and instantly visible atrocities—the first five reels of the so-called Hitchcock film are of historical significance, both in the struggle to confront the discovery of the Nazi atrocities, and, of course, in the politics of the postwar era.
Here’s how Macnab opens his article about the film in the Independent:
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’s response gets to the heart of the matter. The work at hand may have been necessary, but it was also impossible. That’s why “Memory of the Camps” is a document for historical study but, as a film, much less important than the works of Claude Lanzmann, who has realized, aesthetically, the experience of the death camps through the bearing of witness—and, in the process, has sought to define what might even constitute an image of the murder of European Jews at the hands of the Nazis. His latest film, “The Last of the Unjust,” opens here, on February 7th. It’s much bigger news.
Above: Alfred Hitchcock, circa 1963. Photograph by Gene Lester/Getty