German Concentration Camps Factual Survey: shocking to watch, important to witness

Footage shot at German concentration camps at the end of the second world war is the basis for a harrowing documentary screening at MIFF. ho visto nino volare/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The experience of watching horrific imagery in both fiction film and documentary cinema sometimes pushes the act of viewing cinema to its limit. It tests the spectator’s ability to keep looking. That’s certainly the case with the Imperial War Museum’s restoration of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, a documentary that screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

Trailer for German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.

Often extreme images are intended to shock, defamiliarise and provoke a broader contemplation of violence. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s famous Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (1929) creates the most beautiful and horrible graphic match. Clouds segmenting the moon create that graphic match with a razor slicing an eye, an attack on vision, the primary sense involved in watching film. Bunuel’s film was made as a reflective analogy, a shocking impression of the violence of war.

Alain Resnais’ film Night and Fog (1955) juxtaposes colour images of concentration camps with black and white archival footage to extend the memory of the past into the present. In each case the spectator is asked to keep watching, to attend to images of extreme violence from the past in order to prevent their repetition in the present.

The film theorist Siegfried Kracauer argues that images of Nazi concentration camps “beckon the spectator to take them in and thus incorporate into his memory the real face of things too dreadful to be beheld in reality”. The German Concentration Camp Factual Survey is an example of how cinema can be used as a powerful medium to display events and histories that are extremely difficult to watch, but important to witness.

The origin of the footage

This film was ordered by The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force to be screened for German audiences after the fall of the Third Reich. Alfred Hitchcock worked on the film for a month. He was initially described as one of the directors, but is more accurately credited as a “Treatment Advisor”.

Produced by Sidney Bernstein from Britain’s Ministry of Information, it was shot by Allied Service Newsreel cameramen in 1945 in an attempt to provide a testimony of the atrocities of Concentration Camps. The film was shelved as Occupation policy moved away from retribution and towards reconstruction.

The full restoration premiered this year at the 64th Berlin Film Festival. This week’s screening at The Forum for the Masters and Restoration program of MIFF was only the sixth time that this film had been shown. Dr Toby Haggith, Senior Curator, Imperial War Museum, introduced the film.

A spoken introduction, three prologue slates containing written context and the decompression/debrief question and answer session are part of the Imperial War Museum’s stipulated agreement for any screening of this footage. The introduction and debrief proved crucial: it provided much-needed opportunities for contextualisation and decompression before and after viewing such harrowing images.

In 1952 the Imperial War Museum received a collection of five (out of the six) reels from the original silent film along with 100 reels of additional footage shot by Allied cameramen. Work on the reconstruction began in 2008.

The restoration team assembled the missing sixth reel from the additional footage in accordance with the original voice-over script and shot list for the film. Toby Haggith understands that the images received by the Imperial War Museum belonged to the original filmmakers.

It was the museum’s role to use this footage along with scanning and editing technologies to recreate the missing final reel and to restore the film according to the intentions of the first filmmakers. The restoration team made a conscious effort to avoid enhancement, to remain faithful to this historical document. This task took them more than five years.

The content of the film

This voice-over contextualises the information and guides the audience. It begins with Leni Riefenstahl’s footage of Hitler’s parade through Germany as dense crowds line up to watch him pass by. This sequence is shot from above to show the immense scale and broad expanse of the crowd. Flowers are thrown across his pathway, one image shows a young man who has climbed above the crowd, trying to find the best possible vantage point.

The film then creates an opposition between the pageantry of the parade and the depravity within the concentration camps. The voice-over describes the images that we are about to see as “heavier than the human soul can bear”.

With its optical focus, German Concentration Camp Factual Survey uses visuals to carry the weight of this film.

Maps suggested by Alfred Hitchcock introduce the locations, the often peaceful surroundings, leading towards the depravity inside the camps. Here, the focus falls directly onto images of prisoners behind barbed wire fences looking directly towards the camera, some still, seemingly contemplative, some people appearing agitated and anxious.

One prisoner being supported by others in the Dachau sequence tries to stand upright independently when he becomes aware of the camera’s focus, a protective gesture perhaps, for those who might recognise his image. A sequence of women peeping through the branches of a makeshift barrier designed to cordon off a brothel ends with a shot of a young girl smiling at the camera, revealing teeth that are still forming.

Silence

The voice-over falls away during sequences that reveal images of extreme dehumanisation. Images of the dead are depicted in silence. Terrible images of emaciated bodies, bodies being dragged, disposed of in mass graves, are incredibly difficult to watch. Footage of bodies buried in mass graves by bulldozers signifies the scale of destruction.

The silence in the cinema emphasises the role of the viewer as bearing witness to the representation of history on the screen. The film mirrors the position of the spectator with images of bystanders anguished and devastated.

In the screening that I attended, the young man next to me began to breathe loudly and inconsistently, enduring the silent violence. While I recognised the importance of seeing these images, the confronting close-ups of faces frozen with distress and the seemingly relentless long takes of bodies being dragged by their limbs forced me to avert my gaze many times. I held tight to my armrest throughout these silent, harrowing sequences.

Like Resnais’ film Night and Fog, German Concentration Camp Factual Survey also uses metonymy to represent the depth and degree of loss. Both films include images showing piles of shoes, scissors and brushes for hair, shaving and nails.

German Concentration Camp Factual Survey shows gloves that are organised and displayed in their pairs. The collection of glasses represents the one in ten people who wore them at that time. Tattooed, tanned skin is displayed on tables alongside lampshades made of flesh and displayed like souvenirs. Personal possessions, clothes, hair and skin – each representative of absence and loss.

Insight and clarity

Amid the distressing images are moments of clarity, insight and relief.

One British soldier responds to his experience directly, articulating that “I know personally what I am fighting for”. Water is provided for the prisoners of Belsen and many are shown drinking, washing their clothes and showering with hot water and soap. A Harrods sign points towards a clothes store where people try on outfits and, as the voice-over says – gossip “as women love to do”.

This is a historical document, a time piece that is committed to the production of cinema that remains faithful to the events it depicts. It is a film that is based in the principle of objective veracity pioneered by Dziga Vertov and the “kino Pravda/film truth” movement, but built on an awareness of the potential for framing, voice-over and silence to embody a traumatic history of dehumanisation.

Moments of compassion and empathy stood out. Shot with the distance of the observational newsreel camera, two moments in particular are symbolised by movement and stillness. Some women walking amid a large group towards the camps appear distressed and turn to walk away, their movement opposing the flow of people visiting.

At the beginning of the film, one British member of Parliament stands completely still with his hat positioned across his heart in deference to the victims of the violence that surrounds him. He appears fixed to the ground, shocked by the images, but realising the importance of bearing witness.

It is in both the apprehension of extreme violence alongside empathic responses on screen that – as Kracauer suggests - audiences are asked to incorporate into their memories impressions of the camps that would be too difficult to behold in reality.


The Melbourne International Film Festival 2014 runs until Sunday August 17. See all MIFF 2014 coverage on The Conversation here.

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