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'Night Will Fall' review: Alfred Hitchcock's untold story of the Holocaust

"Night Will Fall" reveals the previously untold story

"Night Will Fall" reveals the previously untold story of this 1945 documentary film about concentration-camp atrocities when it debuts Monday, Jan. 26 at 9 p.m. exclusively on HBO Credit: Imperial War Museums

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In June 1945, Alfred Hitchcock arrived in England to help his friend and colleague Sidney Bernstein complete a film on Nazi atrocities. "I felt I needed to make some contribution to the war," which had just ended, he said. "There wasn't any question of military service -- I was over age and overweight."

Bernstein, working under the auspices of the Allies, had collected a vast archive of footage, first from British soldiers arriving at Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, then from other sources, including the Soviets and Americans. The proposed film, "German Concentration Camps: A Factual Survey," was never completed by them. The U.S. government wanted one quickly, and hired another great director, Billy Wilder, to produce "Death Mills" (available for viewing on YouTube). The Bernstein-Hitchcock collaboration was shelved, primarily for political reasons, but, 70 years later, the British Imperial War Museums finally finished it. (Bernstein, who went on to become chief of U.K. TV giant, Grenada, died in 1993).

This documentary, narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, is the story of this long-forgotten effort to chronicle the worst crime in human history. The genesis of its title comes from a line in "Survey's" script, written by Richard Crossman: "Unless the world sees these pictures, night will fall."

MY SAY Perhaps losing their grasp of language along with their sanity, American soldiers arriving at newly liberated death camps often seemed to rely on this one phrase to describe the inconceivable horror before them: "The bodies were stacked like cordwood..."

But as glimpsed through "Night Will Fall," Bernstein and Hitchcock's blandly titled "Factual Survey" quickly demonstrates the inadequacy of the metaphor. These victims aren't just stacked but also strewn across open fields or jumbled together or bent or broken in half, with whatever sinew or muscle they once had long since desiccated.

While Holocaust atrocities have been documented in hundreds of films -- from the very short, like Wilder's "Mills" (21 minutes) to the very long, like "Shoah" (nine and half hours) -- "Factual Survey's" contribution was to offer razor-sharp clarity. And as "Night" demonstrates, Bernstein and Hitchcock also sought to contextualize the horror, with maps that revealed the proximity of camps to villages and towns. They insisted on long shots and tracking shots to establish the sheer scope of the crime.

They also wanted to tell a story -- the worst one ever told -- but their version wouldn't be told for 70 years. Because "Night" never averts its gaze, it finally has been.


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