Night Will Fall: “Bearing witness to atrocity”

Originally commissioned to provide lasting, undeniable evidence of the Nazis’ unspeakable crimes, the film was never completed. Seventy years on, however, the Imperial War Museum has restored the filmic testimony in its intended order and under its original title, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. Night Will Fall also explores the political context in which the production of this film was suspended.

Angel commented on her initial interest in the project, sparked by a meeting with the Imperial War Museum’s senior curator Dr Toby Haggith, who was, at that time, beginning to digitally remaster and piece together fragments of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey:

“When he started describing the footage and the story behind it, I knew that would be something that I’d want to take further and really explore that moment of liberation and the challenges of bearing witness to atrocity.”

Singer agreed on the importance of the project, and emphasised his desire to create an “experiential” film rather than a reportage dictated by historians and critics, whose detached narrating of events he later labelled “not just superfluous, but intrusive”.

“If there’s one major thing that I feel most strongly about, it’s that the film should respect that the story was something that had to be told by the people who experienced it, not by others. . . . We ended up with the right combination of characters who . . . had the right to interpret what was happening at that time for another audience, 70 years on.”

Singer then touched on the potential re-traumatisation of the film’s central witnesses, all of whom reacted emotionally during their recounting of the events of 1945.

“The trauma that you’re creating is something that preys on your mind as a filmmaker . . . yet I feel the justification is that everybody who participated in the film overwhelmingly insisted that this was an important story to tell . . . and that their own personal angst or trauma . . . contributed to show how important the project was.”

An audience member asked whether Singer and Angel intended to produce a film about the atrocities themselves, or about the process of filming the atrocities by Allied cameramen. Singer responded:

“It’s a genuine conundrum about the direction of the film. . . . The starting point of the film was that this was going to be very different in so far as it was going to be a film about the original film, the reconstruction of that film, the importance of that film, the extraordinary role of the cameraman.”

The filmmaker continued by revealing Night Will Fall’s evolution into a wider project:

“I personally . . . got more and more absorbed by the chaos of 1945, that political cauldron that was happening . . . before and then after the end of the war, the Palestine issue, the problems in England and Germany at that time . . . are we telling a narrow story about the film itself or are we trying to paint a broader picture?”

Another audience member commented on the intensely graphic nature of the footage included, not at all habitual in previous combat footage. Singer responded:

“Atrocity footage used out of context is pornography, it has no rational or reason to be used. But put in context and explained, it can carry the message that one needs to carry. . . . Nearly 50% of the footage we were tempted to use, we pulled out of the film because we didn’t want to overwhelm. . . . I hope that we have the balance about right.”

Angel echoed this sentiment, and commented on the radical difference in the extremity of this footage in comparison with previous combat images:

“The cameramen were very aware that they were gathering evidence . . . and part of their filming close-ups was about their anger as well, . . . about making sure that the world knew what was going on.”

Singer closed the discussion with an evaluation of the educational and cautionary elements of the project, recalling the words of Richard Crossman, the future cabinet minister who pinned the emotive script for the original documentary:

“‘Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn.’ . . . We see now in everything we’ve seen subsequent to World War II, in 10 or 15 different cases, that of course we haven’t learnt. The tragedy of the film lies in those words.”

Visit the BFI website to find out more information on Night Will Fall and upcoming screenings.