Important note: contains graphic images.
This is the third instalment on a series of miniature essays I am writing to explore documentaries related to my research in preparation for my viva. As such, I am watching a documentary a day and responding to them in some capacity.
I have exposed myself on a number of occasions to quite an array of Holocaust materials; for academic essays and research, I have seen the same horrific images far too many times – the images themselves of too many horrific things. For some, including Susan Sontag, we can be brutalised by such repeated exposure to graphic subject matter.1 The role of these images in replicating and expressing the truth or reality of this important History – and the necessity of reproducing this knowledge in some way – is a central theme of my thesis. I really should make efforts to highlight some theory
As you might have noted from my previous posts on Harmontown and Point and Shoot, I am interested in complexity in documentary, particularly relating to a performative mode of film make. Without deep analysis, my position is that objectivity is unattainable, and that truth is complex – and only close to authenticity when presented in oblique honesty, foibles and all. This is a difficult question for documentaries about History – particularly when the subject matter is so devastating.
For me, Night Will Fall comes about as close as a documentary of this nature can to treating its subject matter with a balance of reverence and complexity. On the one hand, it presents us with unseen footage from an atrocity, some of which had never been seen publicly before. On the other, it is a film that is not about the holocaust itself, but about another documentary, one that was never finished – and recounts the role of film-makers in capturing the truth in indescribable situations. There is a film within a film – and it is in moments that most reflect on this that the strength of the documentary shines through; however, there are times when the documentary forgets itself, recedes into the same monochromatic histories of its precedents, the thousands of hours of atrocity that we have, alas, seen before- contributions perhaps to a deadening of affect.
Speaking in generalities, the relationship of images to truth in cases of extreme violence, suffering and atrocity requires some analysis. We have a number of idiosyncrasies of language; these events are often “indescribable”, “words cannot describe the horror…”, “you have to see to believe”. In this film this kind of rhetoric is emphasised; Churchill speaks in this way, officers reporting home and the broadcast of a report by the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby was delayed so that it could be verified – so horrifying was the effect of his reportage, that it wasn’t to be believed. It is a curiosity that these images exist both as impossible renderings while simultaneously a necessary undertaking.2
Something of this is explored in the original intention of capturing these atrocities – there was a sense that these images had to be seen, the “truth” had to be captured; Sydney Bernstein (the original director) had asked his camera wielders on the ground to film “everything that would prove some day that this had actually happened… a lesson for mankind”; this not only included future generations but the Germans at that time to needed to be shown the horror that many claimed they had not wanted to know. As part of this, footage from the camps included local townsfolk brought in to watch the dead being buried – so that people couldn’t dispute the truth of these images, that they wouldn’t accuse the film makers of being involved in fakery, some horrific attempt at propaganda. Having the footage explored and explained by its means of construction becomes an important tool for understanding previously unseen imagery – and provide the context necessary to understand why these images were produced at all.
One sequence in particular stands out – in it, an editor on the team, John Krish, describes the awful moment of watching through footage from Dachau, a word which had at the time no meaning to them, but which contained footage from one of the most devastating atrocities of the Holocaust. Looking through the negatives he claims it was “like looking into the most appalling hell”, with grotesque footage reeking further sour when having to look at the images in negative, hours of this, without break: “To see these piles of bodies… what looked like a giant barbecue”. The film-making process is brought into focus once more: he claims that each was “just hoping [that] we weren’t going to be the ones to cut it”.
It seems impossible to imagine a documentary like this be fully realised, when issues of self-reflexive film-making seem contrived and unnecessary juxtaposed with sacrosanct material. The image above cements this idea further; incredible imagery perhaps, but the very idea of taking these kinds of shots, seems a superfluous exercise not least as there was a momentous subject matter to capture, and a job to do – with the limited resources of film also a concern. But they do give further meaning to the images we have seen countless times before, and further our understanding through this complexity. Prior to this, the closest we might come to a film like this would be Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, an experienced film-maker walking through the empty camps, using the movement of the camera on empty, abandoned huts to bring life to the meaning of what was captured. On the other end of the spectrum, works like Shoah – an extended documentary of many hours interviewing the survivors – gives no time for depiction, only the honest words of testimony.
Some of this tension is played out here, as the production of the film within a film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey is halted – now completed by archivists using notes from the original script – and along with this its ambitions to give an artful space for contemplation. Against this, the American director Billy Wilder steamrollers in, takes hold of the footage and within months produces a short film Death Mills – the tone of which is brash, unthinking and swift with its understandings and justifications.
That Bernstein’s films have now been completed is a wonder, and incredible that such an ambitious project for historians and restoration archivists; however this film is an important addition to a collection of films. Where it succeeds, it presents us with a new history of a nightmare captured on film, but when it falls back onto the shoulders of other films and here it falters, resorting to a style that endangers its rendering of an important representation as mere trope.
See also Night and Fog, Alain Resnais // Shoah Claude Lanzmann // A Film Unfinished // Blessed is the Match // Dear Uncle Adolph // Defiant Requiem: Voices of Resistance // Inside Hana’s Suitcase // Hitler’s Children // In Heaven Underground // It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl // The Lion of Judah // Nuremburg: It’s Lesson for today // Orchestra of Exiles // The Rape of Europa // Siz Million and One // Steal a Pencil For Me
- See Sontag On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others ↩
- Focusing on the “unrepresentable” nature of the holocaust, see among others Primo Levi, particularly his description of Mass-klo or Matisklo, a child he refers to with this word who could not speak and made attempts to communicate with these sounds. Without any means of identifying himself, or communicate with language, these sounds are all he could produce – and thus truly unrepresentable ↩