Sophie Eastaugh meets Sally Angel, producer of Hitchcock’s Shoah documentary, Night Will Fall.
“I had peered into hell. It’s not something you quickly forget, and it’s a little hard for me to describe.”
Sergeant Benjamin Ferencz didn’t have to describe the chilling scenes that met him at Dachau, because detailed original footage of the Nazi camps’ liberation has been unearthed in a jolting new documentary, Night Will Fall.
Night Will Fall tells the story of a film within a film. In 1945, newly-trained army cameramen accompanied the Allied forces bringing Nazi prisoners the world’s most awaited rescue.
Their instructions, from Britain’s Department of Psychological Warfare, were to capture everything that would prove the unimaginable horrors that had taken place. Sidney Bernstein was appointed to produce the powerful exposé, which enlisted the directing skills of his friend Alfred Hitchcock and the exceptional writing talents of future Cabinet minister Richard Crossman.
But the painstakingly-produced film lost its moment. Delays in acquiring the footage from the Russians and Americans and a lack of resources slowed the production of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey down, allowing the political situation to move on.
With the Cold War looming, the government wanted to build bridges with the Germans and shelved this staggering piece of British cinema history.
While slices of footage were used in newsreels and played a huge role in the Nuremberg trials, the film has remained unfinished until now. Building on a scratchy and incomplete version that aired on American PBS in 1985, Dr Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum began four years ago to faithfully piece together Bernstein and Hitchcock’s forgotten masterpiece.
For the documentary’s producer Sally Angel, a chance conversation with Haggith led to the development of Night Will Fall, which tells the story of the axed 1945 film through the eyes of the film makers, soldiers and prisoners present.
“It was a real moment for me. I realised that the footage [Haggith] had seen had shaped all my knowledge of the Holocaust. It was a whole body realisation, ‘I need to make this film’,” says Sally.
Together with director André Singer and co-producer Brett Ratner, Sally has produced a film that loyally upholds the original. “We’ve tried to keep it as faithful as we could. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey is an incredible piece of cinema. Apart from the contents and its message, it’s an extraordinarily well-crafted, beautifully-written film. I hope that we’ve managed to honour their vision and courage.”
The team has achieved the huge accomplishment of bringing unseen Holocaust footage to a mainstream audience – Night Will Fall will be shown on Channel 4 in January 2015.
. “The Imperial War Museum have done the really tough bit,” says Sally. “They’ve produced a very faithful archive document, a 1945 film using 21st century technology. We’ve used 21st century knowledge to interpret and contextualise a 1945 film.”
Finally emerging 70 years later, the sickening but important footage will have an unforgettable impact on those who watch it. Sally recognises the weight of this time-lapse.
“It’s really disappointing that the film didn’t come out in 1945. For the team behind it, it must have added to the burden of what they’d seen. They were working to get this film out to show people it could never happen again. We know that’s sadly not the case. Whether it would have made a big difference, I don’t know.”
Testimonies including the renowned cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a surviving member of the Women’s Orchestra in Auschwitz, and Lt. Col. Leonard Berney, one of the first British soldiers to enter Bergen-Belsen, bring a profound understanding to this historical moment of liberation.
“Meeting people who have been brave enough to share their stories has been incredible, very moving,” says Sally, who is also a psychotherapist. “You have this kind of dance between being a filmmaker and just being with real people who have gone through terrible experiences. I hope it’s cathartic and healing for people to have been in the film and to see the film too.”
Although it has received five-star reviews, some audiences have criticised its emphasis. “There’s a generational difference,” explains Sally. “At the Curzon screening, a mother said, ‘You’re not speaking enough about the Jewish situation.’ But her daughter said, ‘It’s not about being Jewish, it’s about the fact that all people are capable of this.’”
This message was central to Bernstein’s film. “His aim was to universalise the suffering. The message was that humanity must take note – this is what happens when civilisation breaks down.”
“Film is a particular kind of evidence. There will always be Holocaust deniers, but what’s really important is that we’ve all got to learn from what we see. We have to challenge ourselves to bear witness – these things have happened and can happen again if we’re not vigilant.”
Night Will Fall is showing at selected cinemas and will be released on DVD in February 2015.