by Allan Fish
(UK 2014 75m) DVD2
I peered into hell
p Sally Angel, Brett Ratner, Stephen Frears d Andre Singer w Lynette Singer ph Arik Leibovich, Stephen Miller m Nicholas Singer narrated by Helena Bonham Carter
On showing Andre Singer’ potent documentary on Channel 4 the broadcaster made the decision to show the film without interruption from commercials. It was a deference to the subject and there had been a precedent; the Holocaust episode of The World at War was also shown without breaks. Breaks in 1974 would have just been one break of four minutes with less offensive adverts. In 2015, we we’d cut from the emotional heartbreak of a survivor’s interview to cut to an old Scottish man with bad sight shearing his sheepdog to demonstrate he should have gone to Specsavers. In the seventy years since the events depicted the survivors still cannot forget. In the forty years since The World at War, the world millions fought and died for has sold its soul to crass commercialism.
Holocaust documentaries are nothing new, of course. Indeed, it could be argued whether we need more survivor interviews after the mammoth achievements of Claude Lanzmann and Marcel Ophuls. Lanzmann’s masterpiece, however, never showed any footage from the camps; a conscious decision, it had already ben ingrained in the public consciousness. There were two essential differences here in Singer’s film; firstly that it’s directly about getting these horrific images into the collective consciousness and the decisions that were made for and against. Secondly, the footage we see here is different. We have had snippets of it before, but only as part of a whole orchestrated to modern rhythms, so they are always accompanied by music (Arvo Pärt, Mozart’s Requiem, take your pick). But the footage was taken on 35mm silent film stock and it’s the silence that is deafening, not just increasing the solemnity but the focus; music leaves the viewer a place to hide when you close your eyes, showing just the images gives you no such cover.
Singer’s film is more than merely looking at some fresh footage, it’s a tale of cinematic archaeology, of the Imperial War Museum’s reconstruction of a documentary classic that was assembled, editing nearly completed, scripted and close to being shown when it was shelved. It was to be entitled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey and was produced by Sidney Bernstein initially at the request of the Allied high command, incorporating footage shot by British, American and Soviet film units. It was intended to be shown to the defeated German people. The Americans wanted a ‘J’Accuse’ attack intended to give the German populace no hiding place. Bernstein and Alfred Hitchcock, who worked as supervising director for two months in the summer of 1945, wanted more, a warning to the world; a ‘warnung an die welt.’ The film was thus taken out of their hands and a shorter polemical piece, Death Mills, shown instead, supervised by Billy Wilder. It now seems trite when the subject should avoid such accusations at all cost.
The original documentary, or as close as could be approximated to its original intentions, is to be shown in 2015 as part of the 70th anniversary commemorations of the relief of Belsen camp. It could well transpire to be a masterpiece uncovered, but as that would then result in a separate entry, we’ll stick to the impact of the other elements which centre on the interviews. Those with camp survivors cannot help but move one, but they have a feel of familiarity that now goes with the territory. It’s rather those with the soldiers and cameramen who came to these camps and realised they’d entered hell that hits home even more. One British soldier cannot go on at one point– “too painful” he can only mutter. Another American veteran manages to hold back the tears but cannot speak. And then there’s John Krish, himself an eminent documentarist in future decades, who recalls the morning he and the rest of the team of editors were brought fresh cans of footage marked Dachau and for four hours had to watch it all in negative, which only intensified the ghoulishness of the imagery (shots of bodies piled together looking like some horrific lunar surface) and left them all hoping they weren’t the ones who were going to have to cut it. Here is a film worthy of its subject(s).