Whilst documentaries are often rife with noticeable bias or ulterior motives, it’s rare to come across a government funded effort that crosses the line into pure propaganda. However nothing about the unwieldy titled German Concentration Camp Survey is even faintly normal. Frankensteined together from footage shot by military-cameramen on-hand at the liberation of camps across Poland and Germany, Survey is an astonishing and punishingly hard to watch artefact that is tied together by vitriolic narration that exhorts the intended German audience to abase themselves in shame.
Needless to say this is not the average BBC documentary. Originally commissioned in 1945 by the British Ministry of Information and directed by Sidney Bernstein with Alfred Hitchcock serving as a technical advisor, Survey was put together with the express intention of creating self-loathing in the German public. The idea being that unless the Nazi government were not immediately and dramatically discredited, German civilians would rise up in a campaign of partisan violence after the war. However over the months the film was cut together, the rapidly changing circumstances of the post-war world showed no such attempt forthcoming. In addition Allied Command’s priorities towards the defeated Germany had changed from retribution to reconstruction, as fears of unchecked communist Soviet expansion led to a desire for a strong Germany rather than a people crippled by self-hatred. As a result Survey was deemed inappropriate and quietly shelved with its final reel unfinished.
The film was only finally completed in 2014, after a painstaking operation by the Imperial War Museum to assemble the final reel according to the original shooting list, after an exhaustive examination of hundreds of hours of raw footage. The IWM deliberately left the film exactly as the original script dictated, including mistakes made over the numbers of the dead, opinions that can only be described as ‘dated’ (sample dialogue: “the army provided clothes and soap, which the women were soon gossiping and preening over, as women love to do”) and the odd avoidance of the fact that the victims were predominantly Jewish. It’s that last aspect which causes the most cognitive dissonance for a modern audience. Strenuously referring to both the survivors and the dead by their country of origin, it is largely left up to the viewer to decide whether the omission is due to a contemporary lack of facts in 1945, or a more sinister reason.
The footage is notably uncompromising, with few points of comparison to any well known documentary work. Almost incessantly, the viewer is confronted with the naked skeletal dead and it doesn’t take long for the film to induce a feeling of queasy numbness, with emotional responses to it only bubbling up sometime after the 78 minute run time. This, coupled with the constant probing and furiously declamatory voice-over, makes for uncomfortable and strangely disorientating viewing. Whilst there are moments of light occasionally mixed in (the palpable joy expressed by some of the camp women being filmed taking their first hot shower in years serves as a much needed moment of humanity) in general the unrelenting footage of the dead and dying overwhelms in a tide of bleakness. In particular a protracted mostly silent sequence of captured SS guards brutally throwing deceased victims into a mass grave is almost like watching some kind of surrealist nightmare; the sheer amount of footage shot seems to be a prescient attempt at shutting down Holocaust deniers pre-emptively.
A documentary about the history of Survey, and the successful attempt to complete it, entitled Night Will Fall was released last year. It features much of the same footage which I would recommend as an alternative. It manages to deal with the material in a much more human fashion.
Survey is a fascinating historical document and the Imperial War Museum should be commended for their stellar work in restoring it, but it is a brutal movie, with a vicious angry undertone. Whilst this may or may not be justified considering the unimaginable horror of the crime it bears witness to, Survey’s vengeful attitude is uncomfortable to say the least. The film is a harrowing piece of immense power for those with the stomach for it, but without any light in the darkness, it’s hard to witness without shying away.
German Concentration Camp Factual Survey is showing at the BFI Southbank