The story of the making of a documentary about a documentary.
Part 1 – How it all began.
The Imperial War Museum is the recipient of all films and radio broadcasts and propaganda material produced by the British government and its armed forces during WWII. Most of the cameramen working in the theatre of battle during the war where conscripts who had worked as camera operators in British studios like Pinewood. However, some were trained by the army.
Most propaganda of the period was intended to put a positive spin on the war – good news stories. Generally the material being filmed was from a distance and unmediated. The film units in the army were essentially a unit within a unit and there was very little link between the work of these men and the actual realities on the battlefield. They worked independently and with complete free reign to deliver on their propaganda brief from government.
The British government set up a joint Anglo and American unit to use propaganda as a psychological tool within the Ministry of Information, The Psychological Warfare Division. A film magnate of the time, Sidney Bernstein who later founded the Independent TV channel Granada television, was appointed to run the unit. Bernstein was known as a radical left-winger and anti-Fascist. He was a true cineaste and had introduced British audiences to the works of great Soviet film-makers like Vertov, Eisenstein and Pudovkin in his circuit of iconic movie theatres before the outbreak of war. For these reasons he was not trusted by the military and in fact was given no rank although his unit was a part of the British armed services.
In the spring of 1945 the first allied troops entered Hitler’s concentration camps. The mayhem and carnage the army found was filmed and reported on and found its way into newsreels and the radio. With this news the British government realised they had to make a film with the US through the Ministry of Information and the Psychological Unit that they could screen in Germany once the war was over. The film went by the thrilling title ‘German Concentration Camps – A Factual Survey’.
Richard Crossman, who after the war was passed over for a ministerial position in the new Labour Government due to his opposition to the government’s position towards Palestine, was Assistant Chief of the Psychological Warfare Division, employed as a writer. With the liberation of the camps, Crossman was asked to write about them and in April 1945 he was seconded by Bernstein to write the script for the film.
Within a week of the camps being liberated, Bernstein visited Belsen and instructed the cameramen still there to film additional material that he felt he needed for his film. A month later the war ends and political and editorial divisions begin to appear between the British and the American propaganda bosses. The US army then decided to make its own 30-minute film about the camps and their liberation called Death Mills to be directed in German by Billie Wilder.
Bernstein was experiencing considerable production problems with the material he had and was also suffering great emotional stress spending so much time with such harrowing footage. By June he realised he needed help – after all, he wasn’t a film director. The political hierarchy was cooling in its interest in the film as propaganda too. Something had to change.
Bernstein was friends with Alfred Hitchcock who was making a success as a director in Hollywood. Hitchcock had made a couple of short documentaries for Bernstein during the invasion of France and intended for a French audience. He had also directed a number of propaganda feature films during the war including Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Lifeboat (1944) so seemed a good choice. In any event he and Bernstein were already collaborating on establishing a production company in Hollywood, Transatlantic Pictures, which they subsequently did.
There is a clip from an interview with Hitchcock in Night Will Fall in which he explained that he wanted to do something for the war effort, and directing the film for the Ministry of Information, specifically intended for a German audience was it. Hitchcock based himself at Claridges hotel in London for a month towards the end of May and reviewed the material that was being assembled by Bernstein’s assistant, Nol Bandov, a man who received little or no credit for his extraordinary work. Two highly skilled editors were also working on the hours of footage being shot to Bernstein’s instructions as well as the original, unmediated material that the military cameramen had filmed when they first arrived in the camps.
In July 1945, with the film in a much unfinished state there was a general election in Britain and the new Prime Minister, Clement Atlee had no interest in the project. He passed responsibility to his Minister for Health Nye Bevan who showed an equal lack of enthusiasm. The original psychological propaganda reasons for making the film seemed less relevant in the immediate post-war focus on reconstruction. Bernstein received a letter from Bevan’s ministry to stop production.
In September Bernstein and Hitchcock left London for Hollywood and all the footage was handed to the Imperial War Museum. The American’s completed their film, Death Mills and German’s were forced to watch this rather jingoistic film – no food stamps unless you sat all the way through it – which included a lot of footage that was already in Bernstein’s film. German Concentration Camps – A Factual Survey, was considered by the IWM to be one of the greatest documentaries ever made, although it remained unseen for over forty years. Looking at the film now there is no doubting the power of its imagery. But André Singer, director of Night Will Fall suggests that it is the triumph of content over style.
Next time… 70 years later the footage finds a new life, but not in the way the WW11 propagandists and IWM intended
Also published on Medium.