Several hundred audience members sit in the cinema arrested by its moving images. Something old has been made new again. These moving images, digitally projected, captivate and repulse as only something in direct contact with the world can. The thrown light reacts to the screen, bouncing back at us with a force of impact rarely felt anymore inside a movie theater. The film is a restoration, but in fact the screening itself is the restoration: the restoration of the power of film, its transformative conduit between yourself and the world, the world and its history, history and those around you, today. The audience visibly trembled from the experience. This film is very, very special.
German Concentration Camps Factual Survey: The impossible nature of this title already foreshadows the production difficulties from which the film project could not be extricated until now. With its brutal title reminiscent of courtroom evidence or scientific documentation, the documentary aspires to ontological, indexical fact: revelation of Nazi horrors. Yet this film, originally begun in 1945, was created for pointedly propagandistic purposes, namely intended to (re-)educate German audiences after the end of the Second World War about the inhuman crimes perpetrated by their elected government on the rest of humankind in general and Germans themselves in particular. A five-reel rough cut was assembled in late summer 1945—famously, cryptically, and misleadingly associated with involvement by Alfred Hitchcock on the level of the project's script treatment—but ultimately abandoned. Imperial War Museums has undertaken a restoration of the film project that goes beyond the improvement of existing materials and into historical, aesthetic, and moral intervention into the project: to finish the film. That means finalizing the first five reels, following a shot list to edit together the final sixth reel, recording a text by Colin Wills and Richard Crossman that had been written but not recorded, and adding a variety of sounds, some sync recorded for the project, most not but nevertheless gathered from era-specific field recordings. The resulting film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, is not a film of 1945; it's a film of 1945 and 2015, a meeting of two eras over some of the most essential footage ever shot by moving image cameras and edited for meaning.
After a prologue of footage of a Nazi rally following Adolf Hitler's 1933 election as German Chancellor, introducing the euphoria of Nazi victory, the shapely order of the healthy, teeming, and enthusiastic German populace, and the democratic culpability implied in what resulted from Hitler's win, the film proceeds to starkly delineate a pattern of horror: normal German life side-by-side with the camps, the camps themselves, the live bodies, the dead, the places of death, and the remaining Germans. Constructed almost entirely from courageously shot footage by army cameramen—British, American, and Soviet—after the prologue the documentary plunges into horror to the hilt with a thirty-three-minute sequence of the discovery of and clean-up at Bergen-Belsen. Images once thought of as familiar, as overworn, as drained of record, of impact, and of morality through sloppy appropriation in documentaries, bad television, and other dubiously casual usage, here immediately shock anew. The length of the shots, the directness, and the unflinching editing makes for an inconceivable film: there seems no way this could possibly have been shown in this manner, at this length, to audiences in 1945. The images suggest an alternate history to any sanitized narrative of the war. Their immediacy and directness instantly make this alternate history real, its extent and enormity are immediately and widely known.
The long Belsen section is the documentary's centerpiece, a study of mass burial grounds, of frail, life-filled bodies, of spindly, horrifically articulating corpses barely covered in flesh, a sensual horror of bodies and eyes, eyes of life, of guilt, of despair, of mockery, of joy, and of total void—also of bodies revealed and buried, covered by other bodies, by dirt, and by our gazes. Two sync-sound interviews on the site, one with a soldier, one with a parson, abruptly make it all the more present and before us. From this detailed report the film proceeds to fill out the study with short survey examples: briefer glimpses at other camps, each introduced with a map illustrating how near they are to villages, towns, and cities. Each camp has its character, its misery and its violence. The final two are death camps. The film ends with German civilians forced to walk past victim after victim of some atrocity laid out in didactic exhibition, much as the film was itself intended to confront the German populace. The narrator speaks of this never happening again, yet watching it now it is happening all over again before us, and we know it has happened since, and may even be happening now.
The moral, philosophical, and aesthetic crux of twentieth-century filmic images has often been identified as the recording of (or failure to record ) the Holocaust, and German Concentration Camps Factual Survey posits, partially, this strange other history where these issues weren't scarce but unavoidable for a larger population. The resurrection of the film project by Imperial War Museums likewise calls to the forefront, in its attempt at a completed restoration, the complexities of touching (and how to touch) such sensitive material in the context of such a vital but incomplete and therefore unseen project.
The Melbourne International Film Festival in 2014 hosted one of the film’s few public screenings so far, each intentionally bookended by the Imperial War Museums' Senior Curator Toby Haggith giving an introduction and post-screening "debriefs." Cineaste sat down with Dr. Haggith at the festival to talk about the project's origins and his team's intervention.
Cineaste: Let’s begin with the provenance of the original film. How was this film project initiated in 1945?
Toby Haggith: Sidney Bernstein was the Head of the Liberated Territories Section in the Ministry of Information (MOI) where his main job initially had been to get British propaganda films into American cinemas to assist with the campaign to persuade America to join the Allies. For quite a long time, the Allies were thinking ahead about how to use film when they liberated parts of Europe, and it was thought that a great way to normalize the civilian situation when you move into a town was to get the cinemas open as quick as possible and get films on the screen. So Bernstein was appointed as head of films for liberated territories. Some would be special newsreels and some re-education propaganda films that would be specially made, but he was mainly choosing appropriate entertainment films that would be subtitled or put in foreign languages.
Bernstein deeply believed in film as a force for good, a force for education. He was interested in Soviet cinema, sophisticated cinema. And he felt that films were needed for de-Nazification purposes. So they began creating what we would call a compilation film, a documentary that would be used as propaganda in Germany once it had been liberated. However, there was a faction within the British government not convinced of the need for this sort of film. Their feeling was that rather than documentary propaganda films, what was really needed was entertainment. But in April 1945 the Americans reached the concentration camps in Germany and that footage came to London. All the footage being shot by the U.S. Signal Corps and the Army Pictorial Service (APS), which had its production lab in London, came to London and then was redistributed around Europe—and then it went to America.
The first selection of this footage was shown to the MOI at a special screening on April 10th, and the heads of the newsreel companies were not convinced it could be used. Firstly, it was not part of the British newsreel tradition to include scenes of atrocities. The other concern was that it was so outrageous that they were not convinced people would believe it, they would think it had been faked. Then the [Bergen-]Belsen footage arrives and then people say, “Now this is totally convincing, we need to use this.” It’s instantly realized that this footage is the most powerful propaganda weapon the Allies have at their disposal as part of a de-Nazification tool.
Bernstein goes to Belsen himself and arranges for Movietone News to bring a sound crew to record some of the sound sequences you saw [in the final film] over the 23rd and 24th of April. This is part of the need to authenticate this material, because it’s so unprecedented, it’s such an abomination visually that it’s thought that you’ve got to find a way to authenticate it so that Germans will be convinced it’s not faked. Using sound witness statements is what that’s all about. They do these two reels of sync-sound sequences. Then Bernstein writes a proposal for the film. The functions are, first of all, to undermine any lingering support for the Nazi Party—to prevent guerilla warfare, what we’d today call an insurgency—and secondly to make sure that all Germans are aware of their collective responsibility. It’s agreed this film has to go ahead; Eisenhower signs off on it, and it is to be the Allied film to show to German civilians and German POWs wherever they are found.
The preproduction phase takes much longer than expected for a number of reasons. First of all, there’s so much footage. There’s seventy-five thousand feet of film, about thirteen hours of footage. The footage is raw, there’s little known about it other than the cameramen’s dope sheets, the intelligence to make sense of the footage is slow to come through, partly because intelligence on the atrocities and criminality of the Nazi regime is all going to Wiesbaden to be prepared for the war crimes trial. The APS is proving tardy in delivering the American material. And, logistically, at the end of the war, Britain’s in a right mess: one of the problems is that they don’t even have a spare Moviola, which sounds ridiculous. They have a couple of editors but not assistant editors, so they’re really struggling.
For me, I also think there’s a conceptual problem, and it’s this: Bernstein and the team want to make a factual carefully thought through, detailed feature-length documentary report. Allied commanders on the ground, the people actually running the occupation, want a film quickly that they can use for de-Nazification. They want ten to twenty minutes. The men in the Foreign Office who are in charge of German POWs want a film in a month, and are not willing to wait for the MOI to make this carefully considered thing. Now, everyone at the top knows that what they really need is a serious, carefully documented factual report. And, indeed, the Americans, when they discussed the project with Bernstein, kept saying, “What we’ll also need are corroborating interviews with German High Command, and film material other than the atrocity material,” and film this and film that. So everyone knows this is an immensely important project, it is the most important film project of the war, I feel. Otherwise, why for your director would you choose Sidney Gilliat, Eric Ambler, Billy Wilder, and Alfred Hitchcock—why would you approach people of that caliber unless you thought it was the most important project? So you’re making a film that is the most important film, with the most difficult material; people don’t fully understand what it’s all about yet, and you’ve got to do it quickly and yet it’s got to be sophisticated. For me, that’s a nightmare scenario.
Cineaste: Is there a precedent for a feature-length documentary of this type?
Haggith: Yes, 1945’s The True Glory, another Allied co-production, directed by Carol Reed and Garson Kanin, an English director and an American director. It took forever to make and the fact that it was made—ever—was absolutely a miracle. There are a number of other Allied co-productions which were mired by problems. Although the American and British film industries under their official auspices are working together with one aim in mind, underneath it they are deeply suspicious of each other. Both see this as an opportunity to capture future markets, and don’t trust each other—quite rightly. There’s also the creative competition, two sets of filmmakers biting at each other. Bernstein really wants this to be a British film, although he wants American cooperation; and the Americans want to make it themselves. Understandably, they did; and they wanted Billy Wilder for the job. So, the 9th of July they finally pull out, and say “We cannot help you, we’re too busy,” that they’re going to make this really short, little unimportant film, just for newsreels, and “You go off and make the longer film yourself.” They’re also frustrated that the Brits are taking too long, and they don’t think the Brits are capable of making the film that they want. But instantly as they pull away they produce this treatment for an hour and a half long film with new shooting, etc. So they also want to make something really ambitious.
The other question is, “How is the film being made?”—and this is where the Hitchcock question comes in. The reason I don’t believe he can be described as “director” is that Hitchcock comes over in July and because of the delays in preproduction the MOI team is hardly at the stage to show him anything other than rushes or perhaps roughly assembled material. The plan is: you’ve got all the material, now make some sense of it. You collate it into groupings. So, all the Buchenwald stuff is grouped together, the Belsen material together, etc. Then you would show that to a director in order to do a rough cut. Hitchcock gets to London and that’s not even been done yet. He spends, apparently, a day or two days looking at rushes in Pinewood [Studios]. He gets involved in helping with the first treatment. He works with Colin Wills, who’s this Australian writer—a journalist, a really good writer—to produce the first treatment. Unfortunately, by the time Hitchcock has to go back [to Hollywood] they haven’t got to a stage where he can look at or oversee a rough cut. They don’t start making a rough cut until the middle of August; it’s finished on the 29th of September, that’s the final preview of the five reels. Now, to my mind, you can’t call someone the “director” if they haven’t overseen the rough cut.
Cineaste: When you say he’s “working on the treatment,” what does that mean exactly? Is their documentation of his input? Was he working on the narrative structure?
Haggith: Exactly. So what he does is, from what I gather—because none of it is signed, you’re not entirely sure what Hitchcock has done and what Colin Wills has done—my sense is that he suggests the order for the camps [shown in the film], the different topics, he makes some important suggestions, some editing suggestions, mainly around “avoid any trickery,” so lots of long pans from nonatrocity scenes to atrocity scenes to avoid anything that could make one assume faking was going on. The other thing we believe he suggested was the maps. I think the maps are really crucial as a graphic element, to demonstrate to German civilians that they couldn’t pretend they were ignorant of the atrocities because they were always really close to them. And he also said they should take the form of a child’s atlas—very simple. And I think there are other devices. Do you remember the dissolve from the dot of Belsen? I think that’s very Hitchcockian. He also provided some of those motifs. He suggests the order of the topics, that Belsen comes first, then Dachau, Buchenwald, followed by Majdanek and Auschwitz, and finally the other camps. And then the last reel would be—a bit like it is now—a recapitulation of the themes of the film. The closing scene would be of the Big Three: Truman, Stalin, and Churchill, making a condemnation of the atrocities.
Cineaste: An originally shot scene?
Haggith: Yes, a newly filmed statement. Also, you would have a return to the German propaganda material that you have at the beginning. Now, as you know from the film, the ending is very different. What [editor] Peter Tanner does, what he talks about, after Hitchcock goes back, the Belsen stuff is edited first and then Tanner is working on the rest of the sections. He writes to Bernstein and says, “I’ve been working closely with Hitchcock’s suggestions and the material that I have”—which is presumably all the assembled groupings—“and it simply just does not work, so I think we should move Auschwitz and Majdanek to the end and do these other things.” So for me, really, that’s a directorial decision. It’s an editor’s film. I don’t want to say Hitchcock isn’t significant, because he is, but he’s one of many. For me, I think yet again “auteurism” kind of dogs the way people discuss the film today. Cinema is a collective enterprise anyway, and documentary particularly so. One of the things we felt was really important was to identify the role of the cameramen who worked without direction. They came to an amazing cinematic treatment of material that was unprecedented. Whether they were Soviet, American, or British, they came up with a remarkably similar treatment, and they are the people we need to commend.
Cineaste: The interest in Hitchcock’s involvement, I think, is less about how a great filmmaker interacts with this extraordinary documentary footage, than about how somebody whose tools for creating illusion encounter a reality, and not just any reality but one that is so visceral. The Hitchcock connection is the thing that most brings to light the complications involved in the creation and reception of this film.
Haggith: I agree. I think also we’ve got to say that it’s the most difficult documentary project of the war—can you think of a more difficult subject? And even for us now it’s difficult to make a film about the camps. Then, it was really difficult. Yes, there were people who knew about the atrocities, about the extermination of the Jews, but they didn’t have the details we have now. The Belsen trials hadn’t started and the Nuremberg trials hadn’t started. They didn’t have the opportunity to refer to interviews with key figures like Rudolf Höss, commandant at Auschwitz, etc. So why would you bring in, why would you consider a feature film director? Because, presumably, a feature filmmaker would bring something else: They’d bring a different conceptualization. It was a brilliant idea. And Hitchcock is an important figure, but let’s not overstate his role.
Cineaste: Why is the Belsen footage placed at the beginning of the film? I’m surprised the film’s structure wasn’t to travel you through the smaller segments of footage making up the other camps before you come to the climax of Belsen.
Haggith: Someone said to me—and I think this is true—that the film is kind of two films: there’s the Belsen section and the other things. They do work well together, but they could easily be separate. First of all, the Belsen footage is British material; they’ve got so much at their disposal. The War Office gave them every single reel of Belsen material, so they have a whole range of stuff with which to do something really sophisticated. The American stuff is provided by the APS, so they’re making the decisions what to send. The Brits are asking for stuff but they aren’t necessarily getting it.
Cineaste: The impression, then, is that Belsen is a case study and the other camps are examples. It’s a curious structure to put that at the front of the film rather than the back.
Haggith: That’s right. The other thing is that it’s about creating a sense of tension. What they wanted to do with the audience is: to hit them with the Belsen stuff, and then the idea was you’d show them more and more camps, but in much shorter periods to give the impression... so the idea was that the viewer would have the sense that they were watching more than they actually had. You’d have lots of little episodes of different atrocities in camps—and there’s actually only fourteen sites all together—but then people would think they had seen many more. They were very much conceiving it, when Colin Wills and Peter Tanner were talking about it, in terms of what the effect was on the viewer. They were thinking about that tension. And then you have the last reel, which would be this sort of recapitulation. The film is so sophisticated; in many ways it’s far ahead of its time in understanding the camps. It has the Vernichtungslager—the extermination camps—at the end, and that’s a decision because of the knowledge that they had gained. I think Auschwitz and Majdanek are quite rightly seen as the worst, so they are given the end. It’s a climax that builds up to Auschwitz.
Cineaste: As a contemporary audience watching this, the effect of putting the Belsen footage at the beginning is exponentially more powerful, because if we had started with 30 minutes of a montage of small segments of different camps—
Haggith: Which is Death Mills . Death Mills is essentially a montage. I counted the number of cuts and there are 368 cuts in Death Mills—it’s bewildering. You are assaulted. You are also assaulted in German Concentration Camps, but by the lack of cuts. The number of cuts in the Belsen section alone is way less, 278, and in total there are only 631 shots in German Concentration Camps Factual Survey for a film that runs for 70 minutes.
Cineaste: I was constantly thinking, “Oh they must end this shot, they’re going to end this shot.”
Haggith: But they let it go on. The editors allow the film to breathe, and as a result it is that much more disturbing. After a while, with Death Mills—it’s only twenty minutes long—you just turn off. You are also assaulted by the number of words. Death Mills has 1600 words for twenty-one minutes. The text in German Concentration Camps is 3753 words. It’s noticeably more sparse, but just as effective.
Cineaste: I think its feature length, though a superficial indicator, is nevertheless emblematic of how the film lingers. The sense of time is incredible.
Haggith: I really feel the film is an alliance between editors and camera, editors who understood the work of cameramen and allowed their work to breathe. It’s so powerful. Death Mills is more like a modern piece of cinema because we’re so used to these tightly cut films where we cut cut cut, and for me we need to move on. We need to move back to an appreciation of the lingering images.
Cineaste: You were saying in your introduction to the film’s screening that every bit of footage in this film exists where it should be. If it is saying it is footage from this camp, it is footage from this camp. If it’s saying it’s from this date, it’s from this date. Did you feel this same urge for being methodical, this respect for documentary factualism.
Haggith: People say, “Why do you think it should be shown now?” One of the reasons is that it’s an object lesson in documentary making. It’s a reminder for all of us of what the documentary enterprise was. It was about telling the truth, it was about using the real world. This is a kind of distilled form of documentary. There’s an amazing archival sequence in the IWM archive that shows the other approach: there was a camp at Cosenza near Naples which was one of the first camps liberated in Italy by the British. Because the Italian administration was relatively benign, the people in the camp were relatively well and healthy. So the cameraman twice re-enacted the moment of liberation, the people happily walked out of the camp for the cameras. This couldn’t have happened at Belsen. Things don’t happen in front of the camera for you. You cannot direct the scene.
Cineaste: Let’s talk about your team’s work finishing the construction of this film. In a way, it’s the most problematic aspect of the restoration. Perhaps the most necessary but also it’s clear that no decision could be made that would be perfect in a thing like this. What was the state of the film when you found it?
Haggith: We’ve got a five-reel cutting copy. It’s got five or six sequences of sync sound that was shot. Some of them are in the correct position, some are not. Some we realized were kind of just a guide. We’ve got a commentary sheet, and we’ve got a shot sheet, which is a list of all the scenes that would be in the film, in their order. “Close-up of body” or “Long shot shot of Belsen camp.” We have that for the entire film. So it’s five reels of what’s presumed to be a six reel film. One of the reasons it wasn’t finished in time—apart from the fact it got shelved or postponed and then it just got forgotten about—was the production team had the print of the two Soviet films—the Majdanek and Auschwitz ones—but they don’t have a fine grain to print from—what was called a lavender at the time. So they’re waiting for that, Tanner is waiting for that to come from the Russians. All the Russian material is in the sixth reel. It didn’t come in time. The shot sheet is dated, the script isn’t, so it wasn’t clear they were to go together. But I worked out they were to go together. We had all the cues for all the scenes except for the Belsen section; there sometimes it didn’t work and the cueing points weren’t clear. So we did have to make some decisions for where we thought...and there are cues for a couple of lines, which I’m still not entirely sure about. We did move a few lines, because it was a cutting copy, and we felt we occasionally had to make decisions about the film which we felt, when they had seen the cutting copy, they would have said, “You know, that doesn’t quite work.”
To your question of where we made decisions, there is, if you remember, the twins sequence in the Auschwitz material. We had about four different versions of that. George Smith, Restoration Editor and I would keep saying, “This thing doesn’t work.” We followed the instructions of the shot sheet and it just didn’t feel right, the continuity didn’t work. So we changed the order of shots, so there’s a slight change or re-arrangement. Any of those slight editorial decisions we made which drift or moved away from what was explicit in the directions, there’s only a handful and they’re only in the sixth reel.
Do you remember the final montage of the shots of the heads with bullet holes in them? And the amazing montage back to the albums of family photos? George and I had one of the many bizarre afternoons that we had in the cutting room deciding which of the exploded heads to use. Because the shot list states “head, another head, head with brain beside”—which we found quite easily, but there were a couple of creative decisions about which head it should be.
Another thing that happened: in reel six there were supposed to be two maps. One is the location of Majdanek, and the other is a map or plan of Auschwitz. Now, the Majdanek one took a long time to do but we basically created that from scratch using Polish maps of the Majdanek region. It was a long process. Once we created it digitally we gave it to the BFI; they shot it on film; we got the 35mm film and put it back in the film. Because when we tried the digital image there it looked static, so we did the right thing and shot that back on film. That was the sort of fetishism that we got involved in, which I think was totally right.
The Auschwitz map was much more complicated. In the end, I abandoned it because I couldn’t convince myself that I really knew what information they had about Auschwitz. The temptation to populate that map with all our current information about Auschwitz was just too strong, and I thought that was wrong. So we pulled that out. As a historian, that was a really difficult situation but in the end historical ethics overruled the vanity of the scholar, my desire to prove I could produce it… There’s another context here. We covered the film with watermarks as to establish its provenance. We used all the cameramen’s names. Establishing every piece of footage, where it was shot, who shot it. I didn’t want to include anything that would give any denier—of which there are still loads around—the opportunity to say, “Oh, the Imperial War Museum faked the map. How much else did they fake?” It was a historical project, it was a filmic project, but it was also a philosophical one. If this film was originally conceived, in its final stages of production as a bulwark against denial, how could we do anything that would undermine that aim? The other thing is the soundtrack—the major hurdle.
Cineaste: The tone of the narration is fairly modern; I can imagine there was quite a lot of discussion over how this text should sound.
Haggith: The directions that we had about the commentary itself were that it should be factual, it should hold back on emotion. I felt that in those terms, the tone of the commentary should be read as neutral as possible, with very little emotion. Also, the language was so pungent. You didn’t need to overstate it. We thought that the voice-over they had earmarked was for an actor called Leo Genn. Genn was a barrister, educated at Cambridge University, and also a fine actor. He had a beautiful voice; he had voiced the narration for Desert Victory  and a number of other official films. He’s got what we describe as a “received pronunciation,” an extremely educated voice, so I thought that was the sort we needed. Jasper Britton was our choice, a classically trained actor with a lot of voice-over experience. But he has a modern voice. My worry was about the tenses of the film, I thought if Jasper applied a slight modulation it might confuse people about the age of the commentary. Secondly, I didn’t want any chance of caricature, leading to ridicule or ribaldry. In Britain, as you can imagine, the British officer accent is regularly used for humor. I didn’t want any of that. Jasper has such a good voice; emotionally he pitched it right for me, generally very neutral. I wanted Jasper to have his own voice; I didn’t want to fool the audience. I want to be clear what we’ve done.
Cineaste: What other aural elements did you create?
Haggith: We decided we had to have sound—partly because, as you know, with digital projection, if you have no soundtrack, it seems really weird. So we had to put a base line on. We put a film sound as a base track, just the sound of film running through a projector, very slightly. That was our base layer, because we had to give it something. Then we added some wild sound of just air; and sometimes we applied a little bit of wind, artificial elements we had to impose. But we had to, because it’s a DCP, we had to reproduce something. On top of that, we had those two reels of sync sound, so in addition to the interviews, which you see, we used a bit of that for wild sound for some of the scenes. So some of the burial sequences we had wild sound from some of the other burial sequences, and we used those original recordings. I thought that was legitimate. Otherwise, all the sounds that you hear were recorded by the Army Film [and Photographic] Unit in 1944–1945 on the battlefields of Europe on an optical soundtrack. These are authentic recordings. They are in the Imperial War Museums’ collection, so wherever possible we would find the correct sound for the correct vehicle. For example, there’s a scene of a tracking shot into Dachau taken from a jeep. We’ve got [mimics man on an archival recording] “Recording File 4750, ‘Idling Jeep.’” We’ve got the Morris Quad, which comes into Belsen, that’s the sound of a Morris Quad. We’ve got the sound of the thing that burns the huts, that’s called a Wasp.
Cineaste: I thought that was one of the most important images in the film, a point- of-view shot of the camera as a flamethrower, torching the camps.
Haggith: I also thought that was very religious, in a way—a moment of sacrificial fire. It’s a motif in the film that is very important. We used the sound of a Wasp, a Bren gun carrier with flamethrower. All the flames: that was a fire filmed, recorded. Sound of water, that was water recorded. The sound of the women’s shower was actually Burmese rain, recorded by the Army Film Unit in Burma, but you know it sounds like a shower. German POWs, that’s German POWs marching.
Then the question is: what do you do for the scenes of the burials? What do you do for the scenes of women in distress or anguish? We watched a lot of newsreels and documentaries from the time. I was amazed that given the material and the techniques that were available at the time, how sophisticated and multilayered the soundtracks were. You’d get a soundtrack on a newsreel and there were four or five elements going on at once. Sounds of a vehicle, sounds of weaponry, sounds of men shouting, all overlaid. So you were really given license, in a way.
But there was an ethical decision there. The newsreels covering the camps that came out on the 30th of April, for example the story of Belsen that got on a British newsreel, all the newsreels adopted the same approach: when you actually get into the camp there is no sound at all. Normally a newsreel is saturated with music, effects, and commentary. All you had was commentary or no sound. So they made an ethical decision there, clearly. So we chose to do the same thing. My feeling was it would be bad taste to add foley [artificial sound effects]. The newsreels gave us a guide, especially in that they removed sounds.
The scenes of the mass burials, all we did was a slight bit of wild sound, maybe a little bit taken from the recordings made on the 23rd and 24th, the voices, and other than that, I felt there should be no voice at all. In the scenes with women shouting, if they were in a group, that’s fine. One or two women shouting—what can you add to that? Also, there were fourteen or fifteen different languages in Belsen: what’s she saying? And it doesn’t matter anyway; we know what she’s saying. We realized that silence is a powerful dramatic device. Its power hadn’t quite occurred to me. It was an ethical decision. Just what was appropriate? No foley; I mean, people said, “Couldn’t you have added the sound of the bodies falling”—my God! If it was collective, if they were in the collective, if the prisoners, inmates, were being active, then we could give them a voice. So, when the truck is coming into the camp, they’re cheering, they’re active. If they’re being passive in their anguish, if they’re individually speaking, we can’t voice them. That was the policy we adopted.
Cineaste: Was there ever a discussion about the possibility, in the restoration, of being as hands off as possible? Take what you have and put it there: this is it.
Haggith: We constantly had these dilemmas, what should we do, should we do nothing? George, David Walsh (Restoration Producer) and I also felt that if this film is going to be a piece of cinema that is shown in cinemas, for a general audience to realize the aims of the original filmmakers it has to be completed and we have to add a soundtrack. We have to make it accessible to a modern audience, but within the parameters of the technical range that had been available. It’s a compromise between the two. We’ve also produced what we call an “archival version.” The archival track is: the sync sound sequences, the commentary, a bass line—a wild soundtrack—and nothing else. So we’ve also got that, so if people really feel that putting an effects track on, etc. were all things we shouldn’t have done, okay we also have a version that’s an archival version. I felt that was something we could do as a kind of ethical insurance. But there was a tussle about that all the time. We could have just produced that version, but what use would that be? If you’re going to try to complete a film, if you’re going to try to realize the aims of the original filmmakers, you’ve got to do that. So, yeah, people are going to criticize us for things that we’ve done, but we had to do it. It was a compromise.
Cineaste: It’s obviously the most critical overall decision of the project as a restoration. it’s an intervention into historical materials to make it present again. What was it like for you as a historian, as an archivist—let’s also say, perhaps, as a filmmaker—and as a human being, turning this material over again and again?
Haggith: I had already done a lot of work on the Belsen material, writing on the cameramen’s work, which helped me when I came to this. I was not unfamiliar with this material. I have done a lot of work on atrocity material. A lot of it was a technical exercise. We’d be going through footage, grading it, we’re deciding which bits should we work on, “Can we remove that bit of flicker or that scratch, or leave it in,” so that’s all technical material, you’re looking at the image as a piece of illustration. The cameramen often talked about how they were protected from the horrors by the technical work they were doing, and I felt that in a way our work was kind of like that.
The difference between the cameramen, and us of course, is that we have the frame. What they had was everything outside the frame. Which is why they found very quickly the scenes so overwhelming, and why I call it one of the crises of modernism—and there have been many—that they went into the camps confidently believing that the cameras would be the tool to indexically record the scenes, scenes that would publicize the camps but could also be used as a critical tool as evidence. But they quickly realized that the camera failed because it couldn’t record the smells, it couldn’t record the sounds, and also there’s everything going on outside the frame—and we’re protected from that.
I’ve been habituated to this stuff for decades. But, sometimes, for some reason, the material would just pull you up short. Because it’s documentary material every time you see it, you see something new. For example, there’s a scene in the Belsen section where these bewildered people are walking around—what I hadn’t noticed until yesterday was there is a woman vomiting; I had never seen that before. Now, this happens all the time. When that happens, you’re brought into the reality. Because of its documentary nature you’re always seeing new things on the screen. The other thing I noticed was that every time the material went through a new stage of development, its reality would be brought home to you. Bear in mind that rather than just adding the sixth reel to the working copy, what we did was remake the whole film from scratch. We went back to the source reels, scanned them, then restored them, and then built the film up from scratch. We built the whole film anew. That meant, in the case of Belsen, we were going back to camera originals. We’ve got the originals: we’ve got the nitrate negatives, the bits of the film that were shot in the camera! When you saw that, it looks like it’s been shot very recently. That was really shocking. Then we add the soundtrack. Then we add the commentary. And at each of those stages you’re reacquainted with the material.
The other thing is the reflection of the audience. Two particular screenings; one was with some colleagues about a month ago who I wanted to help with the film; I did my usual thing, a bit of an intro, talked about how it would be useful to think about this, that, and the other, sat down...and they were in bits. Some were in tears. Nothing was said at the end. I went home that night and I was feeling really miserable: because I was in that room and they reflected back at me. And then yesterday, the audience...the cinema wasn’t full, but for some reason you just feed off them sometimes, you feed off that atmosphere. This was the first time I thought they were going to get up and walk out en masse, because they just couldn’t take it. We got through Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald, and I was thinking—“I don’t think I can take this, I don’t think I can sit through the rest of this film.” I found it really, really difficult, because the audience was making me feel so very tense. There was a bloke behind me going, “Jesus Christ, fuck, shit,” and in a way, that was helping him out, he was verbalizing his tension, but everyone else felt just on the edge of their seats. That really made that day really difficult. Working with that material, periodically it just grabs you. And so it should. I’m relieved that we’ve got enough left for it to affect us.
Cineaste: The way you are screening this film is very precise. You are carefully picking your venues, you’re doing personal introductions and then, as you phrased it at my screening, “debriefing.” How do you see these screenings and this film’s importance in the world right now?
Haggith: It’s really tricky. The contextualization being provided is to remind people that it is a timepiece, and to help them understand that these scenes, these transgressive scenes around the representation of the body, these taboos that are broken… I think some of them are so inherent to us that we aren’t even aware of them. Taboos around the dead, about naked corpses being buried in that manner, en masse—that’s a taboo. People washing, people defecating, people vomiting, bodily functions...just looking at the camera, actually, without an apparent awareness: that to me can seem very transgressive. So these taboos over representations of the human body—and not just in small segments, but unremittingly, unrepentant. They assault you. We find we are habituated to these images; clearly we’re not—which is good.
We had these really good test screenings with colleagues, experts, and historians, and one of the things that they came up with was that they wondered if the victims of the Holocaust or the Germans were yet again being doubly assaulted by the film, which is a very fair point. Another response was that people felt—very sensitive, reflective people—that what they found really uncomfortable was that they were quickly becoming habituated to these images, and hated that sense that they were becoming used to it, worrying about who stands for these people, as they are anonymous masses. Should we be watching them at all? These are all problems.
The other thing, I think, is that it has an important message for mankind. In the end, I think the film is a prayer. We helped complete a prayer. The prayer is: mankind will learn from this inhumanity. Not just the Germans, because that very last paragraph of commentary actually says, “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But by God’s grace we who live will learn.” Now this takes the blame beyond the Germans to a much wider realm. Of course, for us the tone of the commentary, the mood, is irony. The ultimate irony, for us, is that of course this wasn’t the last genocide: there was Rwanda, Cambodia, the Sudan, it goes on and on. So this lesson has not been learned.
A final point on why this should be released: there is a conspiracy around why it was so-called “suppressed.” It wasn’t suppressed: it wasn’t completed, for very clear political reasons, various reasons. If we didn’t release it, in its current form, there would be a danger of this decision—or this inaction—seeming to be a continued part of this suppression.
Cineaste: Why was it not completed?
Haggith: The crucial thing is, I think, that it missed its moment. By August, 1945, already the Brits have the worst part of Germany, the parts that have been blown to pieces, they’re really worried about what’s called the “war of the winter,” hundreds of thousands of people are homeless, many people are dying every day, there’s disease. They’ve got to bring Germany up from the abyss, and they needed the Germans to help them. Because of the frustration of waiting for the long film, a shorter two-reel version, a crude newsreel, has already been doing the rounds. The feeling is, the time for retribution is over, it’s time to make Germans our allies. The Foreign Office now assumes responsibility for the film and says, “We don’t feel this film is right, no atrocity film.” Commander Donald McLachlan (Political Intelligence, German and Austrian Division) writes to Bernstein, “I agree, that the current two-reeler doing the rounds is ill-thought out, and we need a proper atrocity film—but not now. I propose we postpone for nine months time, and when the winter’s over, then we’ll make one.” So, it was a postponement, it was not suppressed. So for all these reasons—they haven’t got the Russian material, the MOI is about to be wound up, Bernstein is shortly to go off to America to start working with Hitchcock—the film just doesn’t get finished, it gets shelved, and it missed its moment. The next projects that the MOI are involved with about Germany are about careers, opportunities for young Germans, etc.; they’ve moved way beyond this moment.
Cineaste: Do you see this film as a missing keystone in the representing how cinema can address certain realities before the camera?
Haggith: I think that if this film had been shown then there would have been a reappraisal of that. This film doesn’t explain the Shoah properly, does it? But it does go a lot further than the other films released at the time. The bigger question though is the crisis in modernism. I do believe that this film fails not because of its articulation of the Holocaust as a narrative, or as a historical phenomenon. But rather that the cinema fails, it will always fail, because it can’t encompass these things. If the cameramen who were there, were saying, “You have to be here, physically,” that the camera cannot smell the things, it cannot hear the things, it cannot go into the houses because they don’t have the lights. These are not just technical questions. The fact that they simply can’t get what’s outside the frame: it’s failed. It goes very far, but it can’t go far enough.
I don’t think the filmmakers failed to articulate it; I think film cannot articulate it. The photographic image has failed to encompass what was there. Now that’s not a glib, small statement. That’s a very significant statement of the failure of photography and film to encompass the horrors. I think that’s another reason why we should see this film, to understand that this is just an approximation.