DIR: Andre Singer • WRI: Lynette Singer • PRO: Sally Angel, Brett Ratner • DOP: Richard Blanshard • ED: Arik Leibovitch, Stephen Miller • MUS: Nicholas Singer • CAST: Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Bernstein
Directed by Andre Singer, one of the producers of The Act of Killing, Night Will Fall is a documentary ‘about’ a documentary. Specifically, an important documentary featuring first-hand footage from the British soldiers who initially discovered the concentration camps at the tail-end of the Second World War. Produced by Sidney Bernstein, who eventually enlisted the help of Alfred Hitchcock during a portion of its production, this documentary was to be the ultimate historical document on this aspect of the war and a reminder of its horrors. Ultimately however, it was never finished or released. Night Will Fall is an account of the original film’s production, from the emergence of camera-operating soldiers, through Bernstein’s gathering of further materials from the Soviets and finally the projects cancellation due to it becoming ‘politically inconvenient’. Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, with extensive use of the unfinished documentary itself and featuring candid, present-day interviews with some of the soldiers who first discovered the camps and the survivors, Night Will Fall is an unflinching look at both the camps themselves and some of the more questionable politics surrounding the original film’s cancellation.
The first thing that needs to be said is that the film is, at times, a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience. It is never anything but engrossing but the actual footage from the camps is unlike anything you normally see in WWII documentaries. This is the truly horrific imagery that reinforces why, even 70 years on, some of the interviewees still breakdown trying to describe it. That’s not to say all previous documentaries have shied away from using footage from the camps but they have tended to exercise restraint and only shown enough to make their point. Few documentaries have gone as far as this one, although few have had access to the kind of footage this one had. Bernstein’s unfinished project would certainly have left its mark had it been released when it was intended to be. No matter how apathetic you think you may be, or how desensitized to war-imagery you sense you’ve become, seeing literal fields of dead bodies and long, unflinching shots of decaying corpses on a cinema-sized screen will quickly remove any such feelings.
A small issue is that the shear gut-punch power of Bernstein’s work does make the weak middle stretch of Night Will Fall all the more disappointing. The opening movement which deals with how this was the first time that armies had designated cameramen-soldiers on this scale, makes for an interesting narrative and the interviews with the soldiers who found the camps is heart-wrenching and gripping viewing. Similarly, the final third of the film focuses on this issue of political inconvenience which got the original documentary shelved, which is itself fascinating viewing. (It’s also quite depressing as it reinforces that as ever, no matter how black and white a conflict may seem, and WWII is one of the only even remotely clear-cut war narratives, there can still be uncomfortable political dealings even amongst the “good guys”.)
Sadly though, the middle section is simply content to trundle along, largely rehashing material from the first portion of the film and going through the motions of the aspects of the war that we all know already. It’s a genuine shame because the information covered in the final third is the sort incendiary material that can only really be revealed this many decades after the fact. It certainly doesn’t reflect well on the British but does make for morbidly interesting viewing. Especially with the revelation that the attempts to dehumanise those in the camps would, eventually, be perpetrated by the very people rescuing them, though not to the same scale or endgame.
Given the nature of the footage, the short running time is a relief but it also draws particular attention to how short-changed the final part of this story of Bernstein’s documentary is. An additional twenty minutes or so, fully exploring the project’s shelving and the murky politics surrounding it would have elevated this film to a level similar to something like The Act of Killing. As it stands, this is still a very worthy, and in some ways quite novel, addition to the broader canon of material of the Second World War. There’s an undeniable feeling that this was, to a small extent, a missed opportunity but that doesn’t detract from this being an interesting and worthwhile film to seek out. But be warned, it’s genuinely not for the faint of heart.
Night Will Fall is released 3rd October 2014