“If you had become too involved, I think you would have probably gone mad…”

I just finished watching a new HBO documentary entitled “Night Will Fall.”

Since I read a write-up of it in The Guardian, I’ve been wanting to see this film – not because I needed a grim reminder about the horrors of the Holocaust, but because I needed a glimpse into the minds and memories of the liberators. I wanted to see what they saw. I wanted to understand and experience their reality as closely as possible when they marched through the idyllic German countryside into what one former Soldier described “the world of a nightmare.”

“Night Will Fall,” directed by André Singer (and making its television premiere on HBO on Monday), tells the story of “Factual Survey,” incorporating archival and current interviews with people involved in its making. It also fills out the story of how the British, American and Soviet cameramen documented the unbelievable scenes that the liberating troops found, and includes touching sequences in which soldiers and camp inmates who appear in the old footage describe their horrific experiences seven decades ago.

And most harrowingly, it incorporates about 12 minutes of the restored “Factual Survey.” Belying its bland, clinical title, the original film, in these excerpts, is a measured but unflinching account, with brutally explicit footage of naked, emaciated corpses lying in stacks, littering fields and being thrown and shoveled into mass graves. Nearly as hard to bear are the scenes (backed by a pointed narration, newly recorded by the actor Jasper Britton) of warehoused eyeglasses, teeth and bales of human hair.

So I sat down and watched this film that explored the horrors of what people did to one another with clinical detachment in the footage of the original “Factual Survey,” juxtaposed with the tears, the raw emotion – even 70 years later – from the Soldiers who documented the horror.

I saw the conquered SS troops being forced to clean up the aftermath of their mass murder. They dragged these emaciated, naked bodies to pits where they were to be buried – by the arms, by the legs, or merely carried like sacks of bone. The Allied troops figured since the SS was responsible for the horror, these ostensibly human men and women should be forced to deal with it.

But they weren’t human. They looked to have felt nothing as they tossed the skeletal remains of the lives they destroyed into pits like so much garbage. They were born and bred to be heartless automatons, who viewed their victims as little more than breathing sacks of meat.

When I was a freshman in college, I had the privilege and honor to sit down with one of the world’s greatest authors – Ray Bradbury. Our discussion centered around being human. I asked him, “What is it you believe makes each one of us human?” His reply remains with me to this day. He told me that being human means not murdering – NOT not killing, mind you, but not murdering. There is a difference. He told me he considered his dog human, because his best friend was kind and would never murder a human being.

These people were not human.

But the Soldiers who filmed these horrors during the spring of 1945 were.

I was reminded of the true role of military journalists and combat cameramen. They tell the military’s story. This is something even the military forgets when they’re painted as spin meisters and told they’re not real troops. They are there, and they are troops, and they see what the troops see…

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…and they document it for posterity. Everything. The horror. The absolute repugnance. The abomination that was the German death camps.

And the apathy of the German villagers, who lived near those camps, who profited economically from the slave labor, who should have known what kind of horrors were being perpetuated upon their fellow men in Bergen Belsen, in Dachau, in Auschwitz…

They should have known, but they didn’t want to and didn’t care to. Because to them, these cattle… these Jews… didn’t mean anything. They weren’t human beings. They were barely worth a second thought. Their festering carcasses littered fields, were stacked in mass graves, and the stench of death permeated the air of the German countryside.

And yet, these Germans going about their lives didn’t care.

They were brought into Dachau and other camps after the prisoners were liberated. They were filmed walking lightheartedly into what one former Soldier described as “the most appalling hell possible,” as if they were taking a stroll through a museum, but some got physically sick when they were shown shrunken heads of people who were murdered there, real physical evidence of the horrors and torment that took place inside those gates.

The British, Russian and American Soldiers, still raw in their memories, recalled the starved, wasted, diseased prisoners who greeted them upon their entry. An elderly British cameraman wept openly during his interview, apologizing for his bout of emotion. Russian liberators expressed their horror at what they saw. I was struck – based on what I know of Russian culture and Russian military mindset – by how affected they were by the bags of human ashes, sacks of human hair, teeth, eyeglasses, and other remnants of the thousands upon thousands of human beings who were murdered in those camps. Russian troops are tough. They’re not unfeeling, but they’re certainly hardened and toughened in their attitudes. What they saw – and what we saw through their combat camera lens – broke even their steely shells.

Worse yet, the movie revealed, the Russians discovered these horrors during the summer of 1944, and passed the intelligence to other allies. But the British chose not to trust the Russian intel, since the Russians were infamous for falsifying their reporting.

I didn’t cry during this movie. I sat tense and grim, looking at what people are capable of – what they did to one another – appalled that this film was never released by the Brits because of political considerations…

…because they, among other reasons, recognized that the German people would be critical allies in the nascent Cold War, and didn’t want to demoralize them with yet more guilt – for not knowing, for not caring, for supporting the Nazi monsters. They wanted allies, not dejected, guilt-ridden zombies to help them battle the new Russian threat.

Some of the footage did see the light of day. It was used as evidence in the Nuremberg trials. The original haunting, restored documentary aired in two theaters in the United States.

I hope to be able to see the original – not because I need a reminder about the horrors humans heap upon one another, but as a reason to keep fighting to ensure it never happens again.

5 responses

  1. Going to a mostly Jewish high school in NYC, I remember learning about the Nazis and the Holocaust and thinking that this was awful, but thankfully was ancient history like slavery and bubonic plague and was something we had overcome as humans and would never see in our lifetimes. I thought the motto “Never Again” was overkill and no longer relevant to our polite society. How wrong I was. Now we’ve had 9/11 and can hardly read the news without learning of some ISIS or Boko Haram or al Queda atrocity involving innocents killed for their religion. It seems that Evil never goes away; It just waits patiently to reappear under different banners.

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    1. Exactly. And you can either fight it, or succumb to it. I needed this reminder to keep fighting.

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  2. I shall not now detail my relatively brief pass through Germany back in the early 1970’s, but after I got back home to start my junior year of college I got into a conversation with “Mike,” a friend of my parents who had fought with the Dutch underground. I discussed my feelings upon seeing Germans my age — and upon seeing Germans my parents’ age — and upon seeing Germans my grandparents’ age.

    “Mike” said to me “I also cringe when I see German people. But don’t ignore other groups — they have just as much potential as the Germans to do the next one!”

    “Mike” sure had that one correct!

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  3. My father was a professor of Germanic literature. He completed most of his PhD before WWII, served in the Pacific and finished his doctorate after the war. For his research, we lived in Munich for a time. I met many Germans, some of them survivors of the Holocaust. Last bit of background, we’re Jewish.

    Before the rise of Hitler, Germany was as civilized a country as any in the world. They had artists, poets, engineers, doctors, philosophers, law courts, musicians, theologians and everything else you’d expect to find in a civilized country.

    If the Holocaust could happen in a country as civilized as Germany, it can happen in any country in the world, including the United States.

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    1. Wait – WHAT? IT can’t happen here… Just ask the Prozis who want to disarm us.

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