Berlin History

Review: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, at the Berlin Film Festival

Mass Grave, KZ Bergen-Belsen, Imperial War Museum, Photograph Number BU 4260. (Public Domain)
Mass Grave, KZ Bergen-Belsen, Imperial War Museum, Photograph Number BU 4260. (Public Domain)

At this year’s Berlinale (Berlin Film Festival), on Sunday, the Imperial War Museum in London premiered their restoration of the 1945 Allied propaganda film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. This is an impressive and important piece of filmmaking, restored with intelligence and care by the museum. It will surely be regarded as one of the most important Holocaust documentaries. As a historian of the period, I do wish, however, to address some problems which surround the film.

There’s been plenty of buzz at the Berlinale about this being ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s lost film’.  The Independent called it Hitchcock’s ‘unseen Holocaust documentary’. It was promoted in the The Berlinale Journal (the main program book of the festival) with these first lines: ‘In 1945, Alfred Hitchcock compiled a film… a project he never actually completed’. Similar wording is on the British Council’s website, whose claims are in almost the same language––indicating that the Berlinale is not alone responsible.

This is disappointingly deceptive. At the Q&A, the restorers did not claim to know which parts, if any, of the film were specifically worked on by Hitchcock. They pointed only to formal qualities which appear ‘Hitchcockian’. While Hitchcock was involved, we do not know the extent, and until further evidence is provided he cannot be called a ‘supervisory director’. The main agent behind the film was Sidney Bernstein. The arena of Holocaust film is not one into which speculative statements, in the interest of celebrity hype, should be introduced.

Now, you might say this film has an unimaginative title. Its sobriety comes from the fact it was just the working title of a film that was shelved by British information officials in late September 1945. Already, by that time, the Western Allies no longer wished to impress on the German people the magnitude of the crimes of the Holocaust, instead wanting to rehabilitate them as docile allies in the emerging Cold War. By this time, the film was almost complete (5 of 6 reels). A partial version was first shown at the Berlinale, in the Forum section, in 1984. New technologies have since allowed the museum to return to the original negatives, to restore a full rendering.

It is difficult to argue that the museum has done anything but assemble according to the very specific instructions left to them by the film’s original directors and editors. The museum has in its archive the original narration cued to specific edited material. True to their job as archivists, wanting to preserve an important piece of historical documentation, they did not correct factual errors and omissions in the film.

These omissions create problems if one wishes to think of the film as Holocaust education instead of as simply a historical document from 1945.

The film does educate in that it contains extremely important footage, and acts as proof of the tremendous brutality that the Allies found when arriving in the camps. We sense the uncomfortable coexistence of the bare life of the camp with nearby towns and villages. It shows too the frightening organisational quality of the Nazi death apparatus, the vast number of dead, and the horrific nature of their deaths. The museum’s representative, in his elegant introduction at the premiere, invited the audience to leave at any time during the film if they felt uncomfortable. And, indeed, the film contains some of the most graphic and troubling images from the Holocaust you are likely to see anywhere.

I will not go on at length here about those images, as I can hardly do them justice. The majority of footage, as this was a British production, comes from those camps liberated by the British in April 1945, in particular KZ-Bergen-Belsen. The restorers at the Q&A pointed out that this film stands out from other films from the period in that it takes its time with the material. There are in fact very few cuts––you will see sustained shots, for example, of  captured SS officers being forced to dispose of thousands of bodies. You will also see how those interned in the camps gradually regain their health, have their first hot shower, wash their clothes for the first time, slowly regain their dignity. Digitalisation has removed a veil of archival dust from the images, making them more immediate.

It is not that the film does not educate, but rather that it does so too incompletely by today’s standards. As Holocaust education, the main limitation is the way it shies from the Holocaust’s causes. The film does not address the racial logic of the Nazi State and it never states that the majority of the Holocaust victims were Jewish. It does not explain that there was hierarchy in the camps, which accounts for why certain prisoners were discovered to be better fed than others when the Allies arrived. It speaks instead to a universal victimhood.

This omission is jarring, and the restorers expertly explained in the Q&A why it is there. The omitted discussion of Jewish victimhood was part of a directed effort by Allied propaganda officials to focus instead on Catholic and Lutheran German victims of the camps. The destined audience for the film was German, and the British Information authorities were convinced that virulent anti-Semitism in Germany would prevent the film from having its intended effect, undermining Nazi loyalties, if the film’s victims were identified as Jewish.

Yet another major limitation of the film, not discussed in the Q&A, is that, while it contains Soviet footage, there is very little. From Auschwitz, the most important Nazi death site, for example, there is only a few minutes’ worth (such as overhead views, plans of the gas chambers, images of the remains of the crematoria, etc.). As our historical knowledge increases, and we understand better the extent to which the Holocaust’s brutality was most felt in the East––in the ‘Bloodlands’, as Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls them, at the intersection of Hitler and Stalin’s advancing and retreating armies––one needs to ask whether camp documentation from the West always needs to be explained in a wider frame. The focus on the camps’ technology overshadows the more primitive means of disposing of victims (‘a Holocaust by bullets‘) farther East.

For all these reasons, this film is insufficient both as Holocaust education and as the ‘survey’ it claims to be. But, the film’s restorers do not claim the film to be either. They spoke strongly at the Q&A of their ideal screening involving a careful contextualising of the film––hopefully with view to these two important limitations. They see this film, as they should, as simply an important document, with its errors and limitations intact. It is undoubtably deserving of careful restoration, as a testimony to the propaganda needs of the Western Allies in mid 1945 and the horrors they found behind the camp gates at the time of liberation.

I do wonder whether the restorers did add one unacknowledged detail to the film’s otherwise excellent and faithful restoration, which are the words ‘The End’ after the final reel. These words strike one as jarring, when one is witness to such horrors. The film left this Berlin audience in a state of stooped silence––without a whisper, or hint of applause. We were not left at ‘The End’ of something, nor at the beginning––and, in this, one senses the importance that the premiere occurred in the German capital.


-Dr Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.