The documentary "Night Will Fall," receiving an Oscar-qualifying run in advance of its HBO premiere in January, is a masterfully constructed, eye-opening and, at times, eyes-averting look at an obscure chapter of Holocaust history. It's also one of the most harrowing cinematic journeys on the topic viewers may ever see.
Directed by André Singer and written by wife Lynette Singer, "Night" tells the remarkable story of the making of a documentary about the liberation of the Nazi death camps. The project, titled "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey," was commissioned in April 1945 by Allied forces and shot by American, British and Russian camera teams under the auspices of pioneering British producer Sidney Bernstein, longtime friend of Alfred Hitchcock. Bernstein eventually brought in the Master of Suspense briefly to serve as the movie's supervising director. It would remain Hitch's only known documentary work.
"Factual Survey," which included horrific footage of atrocities in such concentration camps as Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz, ran afoul of British authorities. They didn't want to inflame the Germans, whose practical and political cooperation the Brits felt they needed during the postwar reconstruction era. Thus, in August 1945, "Factual Survey" was effectively shelved, its images used as evidence against Nazi war criminals during the trials at Nuremberg and elsewhere.
But America had different political concerns than the Brits, so the U.S. government commissioned director Billy Wilder — an Austrian refugee from the Nazis — to cut "Factual Survey" into a shorter, blunter, more accusatory film. Wilder's take was shown in 1946 to German audiences in several of the country's Allied zones under the title "Death Mills."
For the Americans, the goal of illustrating what actually happened in the concentration camps — and perhaps what our soldiers fought and died for — overtook political correctness and the potentially inflammatory nature of exposing such nightmarish imagery to the masses.
It took nearly 70 years, but "Factual Survey" was restored and completed by Britain's Imperial War Museum using original shot sheets, script pages and rushes to reconstruct the picture's unfinished final section in the way Bernstein and Hitchcock are believed to have intended.
"Night Will Fall," which is deftly narrated by Helena Bonham Carter and Jasper Britton, contains poignant conversations with several of the "Factual Survey" cameramen, editors and other observers, along with archival bits with Bernstein, Wilder and Hitchcock.
Perhaps most astonishing are the interviews with elderly Holocaust survivors, whose contemporary images are transposed with archival shots of their younger, emaciated selves taken at the death camps circa 1945.
As one of the ex-military cameramen seen here tearfully says of his experience shooting in those camps, "I had peered into hell."
And does "Night" ever show and tell us about that hell. Director Singer includes an abundance of ghastly clips from "Factual Survey" that irrevocably hammer home the still unthinkable treatment of so many innocent human beings. The shocking depiction of untold numbers of corpses being handled like so much unwanted baggage is beyond gruesome.
Discussion of how prisoners' personal belongings were recycled en masse, grueling shots of the camps' crematoriums and other chamber-of-horrors sights may not be completely new to viewers. But these glimpses do feel as if they have been rarely seen in such a compressed, uncompromising way.
"Night Will Fall" proves a riveting, devastating, heartbreaking and deeply important film, one that you will likely never forget.
'Night Will Fall'
No MPAA rating; in English, German, Hebrew and Russian with subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena