Nor did the soldiers - until the sight of the naked corpses
piled high unfolded before their eyes.
Scenes of the living and the dead in the notorious camp,
captured on tape by ordinary soldiers and newsreel cameramen at
its liberation, are as relevant now as they were nearly 70 years
ago, according to the director of a new documentary.
“The cameramen weren't really there thinking about creating
documentary film-making, they were there in a state of trauma
and shock just filming what they saw,” director Andre Singer
told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Sidney Bernstein, a British producer and later founder of
Granada Television, was commissioned at the time to assemble the
footage into a film that would be a record of the atrocities.
It was to serve both as evidence to show the Germans the extent
of the industrialized slaughter, and as timeless testimony to
ensure that such crimes against humanity could never be
More than six million people died during the Holocaust, the
genocidal killing of Jews, gypsies and others during the Nazis'
rule over Germany and much of Europe.
Ultimately, the footage from Bergen-Belsen was consigned to the
archives and the film project was shelved because of changes in
the international situation after communist rule was imposed on
In the documentary Night Will Fall, Singer tells for the first
time the history of the planned film using archive footage and
A black and white frame shows human hair carefully sorted in
dusted burlap sacks. Piles of spectacles with cracked lenses and
mountains of clothes succeed it.
The remaining prisoners at Bergen-Belsen navigate a course
between the corpses strewn around the camp, lying in different
states of putrefaction.
A typhus epidemic killed nearly 14,000 of the 60,000
prisoners alive when the camp was liberated.
Scenes of battle were filmed from a distance during World War
Two, so the close-ups captured by the soldiers at Bergen-Belsen
were seen as different, even unique.
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Visually explicit images such as those shown in the film become
relevant in the broader context of how we document atrocities,
Although using atrocity footage in film-making poses a different
level of dilemma, it is the only way to have a new public understand
what genocide means and why this was the worst genocide in history,
“If you don't (use) atrocity footage it becomes more of an
intellectual exercise. You don't shock people enough to take
notice,” he said.
In April 1994, the world witnessed the death of 800,000 men, women
and children in the Rwandan genocide. The United Nations estimated
that the three months of genocidal killing was accompanied by the
rape of 150,000 to 250,000 women.
“There will always be places and circumstances where mankind will
lose any kind of moral compass and will cause more genocide, more
trouble, more deaths," Singer said.
"I think the hope is that at least by seeing documentaries like
this, by putting them across, every generation will pause before
moving onto something else.”
Singer also emphasized the need to put atrocity images into context
and humanize a story, moving away from “just piles of corpses”.
The backbone of Night Will Fall is built on witness testimony that
adds depth to the credibility of the archive footage.
"To me by far the most important feature in the film is the
characters telling their stories. The documentary should be more
than just a history lesson. It should be very much a story about the
horror of genocide and mechanisms that we could put in place in the
future to stop them,” he said.
Night Will Fall opens in cinemas across Britain on Sept. 19.
(Editing by Tim Pearce; Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable
arm of Thomson Reuters, covers underreported humanitarian, human
rights, corruption and climate change issues. Visit www.trust.org)
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