German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (Blu-ray)
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Review of "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (Blu-ray)"
This BFI release is £25 on amazon at the moment.It feels a bit dumb to try to give a star rating for a film like this – watching it is not enjoyable, but the film works very well, was released with the best of intentions, and has historical importance. I’ve given it five stars for that reason, but whether I recommend it is a different matter. The specific criteria really don't apply - I only filled them in because I had to.
This is a difficult film to watch. It’s a British documentary that was partly made in 1945 from footage shot by Allied cameramen as they liberated concentration camps in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Poland. It consists of some of the most horrifying material I’ve seen. The film was intended to act as a record of what the Allies found, and also to shame the German people into rejecting Nazism.It wasn’t completed in 1945 – it was decided that it might alienate the German population, who were needed to help rebuild Germany. The beginnings of the Cold War meant the Brits and Americans were keen to get the Germans on their side. The film was shelved, and was only completed a couple of years ago by the British Film Institute and Imperial War Museum. Publicity for the restoration focused on the fact that Alfred Hitchcock had a fleeting involvement in the film, but producer Sidney Bernstein (later founder of Granada TV) seems to have been the main creative force behind it.
The decision was made to present the documentary as closely as possible to the filmmakers’ intentions. This means using the original script, which contains a number of factual errors (for instance, it over-estimates the numbers killed at Auschwitz and Majdanek). The film’s script was written before the facts of the Holocaust were fully known. It was only during the war crimes trials that began in late 1945 that the truth of what had happened began to emerge. The film offers a snapshot of what the Allies found as they liberated the camps, and reflects their limited understanding at that time of what had been going on.
The camps and the HolocaustPerhaps most surprisingly for a modern audience, the film hardly mentions Jews. Nazi concentration camps have become synonymous with the Holocaust, but this isn’t entirely accurate. Most of the concentration camps inside Germany itself were used to hold political prisoners and other supposedly dissident groups (homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, so-called habitual criminals). Later in the war, they also housed a great many foreign slave labourers. While many inmates were Jewish, the systematic policy of murdering Jews was carried out in extermination centres in Poland, such as Treblinka (most of which were abandoned and destroyed before the war ended). It was only in two camps in occupied Poland, Auschwitz and Majdanek, that what you might call the ‘Holocaust-proper’ intersected with the concentration camp system. So while the film mentions gas chambers and crematoria, they aren’t the focus in the way they would be if this was a modern Holocaust documentary.
Auschwitz and Majdanek were abandoned by the time the Russians reached them, save for a few hundred prisoners too sick to move. As the war came to a close, prisoners in concentration camps in danger of liberation were moved to other camps, often by train, sometimes on foot. Thousands died en route. They were then crammed into camps that were designed for far fewer people, where disease and starvation caused tens of thousands more deaths before liberation finally came. Most of what we think of as ‘Holocaust footage’ today comes from camps that were liberated by the western allies, which were overfilled with inmates from abandoned camps. These included Dachau, Buchenwald, and Belsen.
HorrorsBelsen surrendered to the British in April 1945. There were more 50,000 inmates in the camp, along with more than 10,000 corpses (Anne Frank and her sister Margot died there a few days before the British arrived). Unusually, the SS guards stuck around (at most other camps they fled, fearing retribution). The longest, grimmest section of the German Concentration Camps Factual Survey consists of footage shot at Belsen in the days following its liberation. It is probably the hardest section of the film to watch (although really, the horror never lets up, and some of the most unpleasant sequences are at the very end).
It is, as mentioned, a very difficult film to watch. You keep telling yourself, ‘well, that must be the worst of it’, but until it ends, it never is. Seeing footage from the concentration camps is always challenging, but this presents us with images that are a lot harder to bear – a lot more visceral – than the usual few clips that are shown. There are lengthy, silent sequences of SS guards throwing skeletal bodies into mass graves that are almost unendurable. This is probably the only film I’ve had to turn off halfway through, just to take a break from it.
Watching the filmIs there a purpose to presenting oneself with such horrors? The film was created for a specific reason that is no longer historically relevant. Does forcing oneself to watch this amount to more than an act of masochism born out of some sense of duty? I’ve read a lot about Nazi Germany and its crimes, the Holocaust chief among them. I’ve watched plenty of documentaries on the subject, too, and seen lots of fictional depictions (including some real bargain-basement trash). It kind of felt to me like ignoring the true horror of what happened would be shirking some kind of responsibility to the victims.
The act of watching a film – any film, even Marley and Me – is a kind of dialogue between you and the film, but in this case I was much more aware of that than usual. Perhaps it was a way of getting through the thing, the constant examination of my own reactions and of my motives for watching. This is perhaps the least passive viewing experience I’ve ever had, as I was forced to constantly consider my own reactions to what I was seeing. If I have any misgiving about it, it’s that perhaps by being so in-your-face horrible, the film becomes too much about the viewer’s reaction to it, and less about the actual victims. But that’s probably over-thinking it.I didn’t learn anything new from it, except perhaps about my own capacity for watching black and white atrocity footage. As mentioned, some of the facts included in the film have since been proved wrong. It is, however, very well made. The footage itself is often shaky, but the way it’s edited together is very smart (it frequently provides harsh contrast between the beauty of the German countryside and the horrors found only a few meters away). The script maintains a faintly sardonic distance. The newly-recorded narration is performed by Jasper Britton, a stage actor who I’ve seen at the RSC a number of times (including playing the title character in the Jew of Malta).
It’s not entirely bleak. We are, after all, watching the fall of Nazism and the liberation of the survivors of the camps. Among the charred, starved and mutilated corpses, we see Allied medical personnel treating the inmates, we see survivors weeping with gratitude at having survived, and we see women taking their first shower for months (a slightly odd, mildly voyeuristic sequence). It’s hard to feel much optimism when you get to the end of it, though. Weeks after seeing it, there are images that will not leave my head. If a film can be said to leave psychic scars, it’s this one.This earns its 18 certificate – which is rare for a documentary – because of the horror of its imagery. The extras suggest the Imperial War Museum wanted the 18 certificate as younger viewers might need too much explaining about the film’s historical context. At a time when Holocaust denial is on the rise, it might be slightly risky to release a documentary with factual errors about the numbers killed at Auschwitz. There’s plenty of context in the extras explaining the ‘mistakes’, but context is one thing political extremists can be relied on to ignore. Still, you can’t not release something just because people who wouldn’t believe it anyway might make malign use of it.
The visual quality of the film varies quite a lot from shot to shot. The footage we see was mostly filmed by army cameramen, and the age and poor quality of some of the film mean that it’s certainly not pristine (the footage from Auschwitz is probably the worst in terms of quality – maybe the Soviets had worse film stock than the Western Allies). Frankly, this is the kind of film where you’re grateful for any the lack of clarity or detail. There’s also a DVD version included, although I didn’t watch that.
ExtrasAs you might expect for a film like this, there’s an impressive collection of extras.
The film is best watched with the intro and outro on the disk (the outro especially, which offers ‘to help viewers gather their thoughts and emotions’, is very good – you really need to decompress after watching something like this, and watching experts talk about what you’ve just seen is a very good way of doing that). There is also a longer filmed Q&A session that followed a screening, where a panel of about eight experts takes questions from the audience. That’s also very good.There’s also a collection of snippets of film of prisoners and guards, giving their names and (in the prisoners’ cases) relating some of their experience of the camps. These were filmed at the time of liberation as possible evidence for trials. There are short interviews with members of the audience at a screening of the film, most of whom, unsurprisingly, are a little traumatised by the experience. A chunky booklet gives yet more context.
If there’s one disappointment, it’s that the feature-length documentary Night Will Fall is left out – this discusses almost every aspect of the making of the film and its abandonment. It was released on DVD by the BFI a couple of years ago, and felt at the time like it really ought to have been an extra in this release.I think the film has immense value, especially at a time when far right parties are on the rise across Europe and elsewhere. It’s a good reminder of the logical endpoint of fascism. (It’s also a good reminder of what fascism actually is – anyone who has ever compared, say, Tories, or feminists, to the Nazis really ought to be made to watch this to be shown how wrong they are). It’s also very well made, and the extras give it all the context and background it needs.
But I don’t know if I can recommend watching it. It’s a tough viewing experience, which left me with a feeling of bleak despair that won’t quite lift. It’s entirely admirable, and I’m glad that it exists and has been released, but I can’t see myself ever wanting to see it again.
Product Information : German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (Blu-ray)
Manufacturer's product description
Sub Genre: Historical
Sub Sub Genre: World War
DVD Region: Blu-ray
Classification: 18 years and over
Production Year: 2014
Listed on Ciao since: 30/04/2017