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Memory of the Camps

Original title: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey

No director / 58m

Narrator: Trevor Howard

Compiled from footage shot by combat and newsreel cameramen, Memory of the Camps was meant to be shown to German prisoners of war as a caustic reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Thanks to problems connected with post-war shortages and international cooperation, the movie’s assembly foundered and with two other, completed, documentaries released in the meantime – along with a change in policy that led to the authorities feeling such a project was now inappropriate – it’s only screening was in rough cut form in September 1945 (and without a working title).

Plans to revisit the movie in 1946 failed to happen and in 1952 the footage was “inherited” by London’s Imperial War Museum. It wasn’t until the early Eighties that anyone looked at the various reels and realised the importance of the material. As a result the five reel rough cut was shown at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival – with the added title Memory of the Camps – and then in 1985 on the PBS Network in the US with Howard’s narration added. (In 2015 an expanded, restored version with additional modern day footage titled Night Will Fall was shown as part of the Holocaust remembrance events surrounding 27 January, the date when Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians.)

The movie is a straightforward, no-holds-barred piece of cinema verité, unflinching in its depiction of the depravity carried out at fourteen locations (ten camps and four sites of atrocity) and beginning with Belsen-Bergen. The film that was shot then and the images that were recorded are heartbreaking, with hundreds of sick and emaciated internees struggling to comprehend the change in their fortunes or too far gone to understand it at all. Inevitably, there are the bodies, thousands of them everywhere, unattended, cadavers made of skin and bone, their faces like stretched parchment. The sheer scope and number of the deceased is difficult to comprehend, each pile of bodies looking like the worst example you’ll see… until the next one.

The Allies – mostly the British – are shown providing much-needed aid and comfort, but the bodies are the greater problem, their decomposition providing a fertile breeding ground for typhus and delaying the dispersal of the internees from the camps. In an ironic (and possibly contemptuous) turn of events, the Allies made the camp guards do most of the disposal work, getting them to handle the corpses and fill the mass graves with them. Shot so dispassionately at the time, this particular footage is harrowing to watch, as decomposing body after decomposing body is carried, or in some cases dragged along, to the pits that will be their final resting places.

Memory of the Camps - scene

The movie stays at Bergen-Belsen for some time, relaying the extent of the horror perpetrated there and the wretched conditions the inmates endured. It shows us the gas ovens, the infrastructure that made it all happen, and the survivors venting their anger on the guards and lackeys who had so recently tormented them. By the time the movie leaves Belsen-Bergen the viewer is so shell-shocked there’s a danger that footage from the rest of the camps – including Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Majdanek – won’t be as distressing, but nothing could be further from the truth. Each camp throws up its own unique horrors, and each visit adds to the mounting, inescapable conclusion that the Nazis’ Final Solution should never be downplayed or allowed to fade from memory.

Overseen by producer Sidney Bernstein, Memory of the Camps was meant to be the movie to be shown to German POW’s after the war. It was a prestige production, with Bernstein calling on the likes of Alfred Hitchcock to assist on the project – Hitchcock gave advice on how the footage should be assembled – as well as future British cabinet minister Richard Crossman to work on the commentary. Despite the setbacks it suffered, and even in its rough cut form, the movie is still incredibly powerful even today, and carries a horrible weight that reinforces the importance of its content. There are dozens of close ups of the faces of the unknown dead, each one a sad reminder of the millions of people who not only lost their lives but who will never be remembered.

Howard’s narration is a masterpiece of studied melancholy, his normally rich tones subdued by the details he has to recite. There are moments where he pauses for a second or two, not so much for deliberate effect (the movie doesn’t need any help in that department) but more out of a recognition that what he’s saying is almost beyond belief. The movie also includes long stretches where Howard remains silent and the images speak for themselves. When these silent passages occur, leaving the viewer alone with the horrors on screen and their own thoughts, it’s almost a relief when Howard resumes his narrative.

Good as Howard’s voice over is however, it’s still the visuals that carry the most weight, acting like random gut punches and leaving the viewer overwhelmed by their barbarity and callousness. With more recent acts of genocide having appeared on our TV screens it’s disturbing that the shameful acts carried out by the Nazis can still have such an effect on people over seventy years on. But in a strange way, that’s a good thing…

Rating: 9/10 – even in its incomplete form, Memory of the Camps is a gruelling, crushing reminder of how callously and deliberately the Nazis exterminated an astonishing eighteen million people; traumatic to watch, but if it wasn’t then its message would be lost completely, and that would be as unacceptable as the camps themselves.

For all the nameless victims who should never be forgotten.