A Lesson For All Mankind: The 69 Year Making Of: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey

If a picture is worth a thousand words, it could be said that a video goes beyond words all together. It captures animated expression, emotion, joy, and grief. 

In the early 1940s a small group of soldiers received training as field cameramen. Much of their footage was used to make newsreels and propaganda films that played in theaters before feature films. It brought viewers to the battle fields and gave them a first person look at the unfolding events of WWII. In an age where radio and newspapers were the only means of receiving current news, these newsreels visually enlightened the public of the wartime effort.

Cameras were rolling on April 15, 1945 when the British liberated the Bergen-Belson concentration camp. They found 60,000 prisoners clinging to life in appalling conditions and thousands of unburied corpses laying around the camp grounds. Producer Sidney Bernstein visited the liberated camp a week later and set out to make a documentary with the horrific footage. Calling on his friend Alfred Hitchcock for help, the film became a massive undertaking as more camps were liberated in the weeks to follow. While the Allied Forces pushed further into Germany, more footage came in, presenting new disturbing evidence of the appalling aftermath. As word trickled out about the atrocities of the concentration camps, there were many civilians in German who denied such horrors could be committed by their military. With the intention of bringing these warcrimes to the attention of the world, the project was named German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.

Sidney Bernstein
Since the events of the Holocaust, every generation that has followed has learned of the grotesque events that occurred, and memorable films such as Schindler's List and The Pianist have introduced the horrors of the Holocaust to new generations. When Bernstein set out to make Factual Survey he approached the project with one intention in mind. He wanted the film to be a lesson for all mankind. To do so the film needed to be gruesome, and the events needed to be presented as they had happened. 

There was an unwritten rule among photographers in WWI. A respectful approach was taken when photos were taken of the deceased. Pictures were often taken from a distance, or from behind the dead. This courtesy was a display of respect for those who had given their lives. There could be no such dignity for the countless dead shown in Factual Survey. The footage would act as concrete evidence that these events occurred and took place. Hitchcock recommended using long panning shots and close ups of the dead to dismiss the possibility of those who may accuse the horrors as fabrications made for film. Many of those who denied the Holocaust where German citizens who lived near the camps. Hitchcock also recommended using maps in the film to show how close many of the camps were to civilian neighborhoods. He also requested footage of German citizens visiting the camps after liberation be used. Both Bernstein and Hitchcock wanted to use this damning footage to silence any who continued to denounce the events of the Holocaust had taken place. 

The Allied Forces declared victory on May 8th 1945. While Germany had been defeated, the war was not over as the Allies turned their attention to Japan. In the weeks to follow the reconstruction effort with Germany was moving at a staggering pace. With animosity between Russia building, (the beginning of The Cold War) England was quick to focus on repairing its relationship with the German public. While the high ranking officers of the Nazi regime were sent to trial for their heinous acts of war, many Germans who did not support the war or who lived abroad during the time of the Holocaust were suffering unfair treatment and criticism. The events of the Holocaust tarnished the country’s image and left a stain on all of its citizens. Special consideration was taken in educating the youth of Germany to help the next generation avoid further backlash. This changed post war approach presented a problem for Bernstein’s film. Frustrated with the delays, the Americans eventually pulled out of the project and used their footage to make their own documentary film called Death Mills, directed by Billy Wilder. 

Wilder’s film was made for the German public to watch. Any film that educates the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps is a powerful learning tool. Although Wilder did what Factual Survey was attempting to avoid. Death Mills blames every citizen of Germany for the actions of the Nazis. Mills ends with a scene of German citizens walking through the camps with footage of a Nazi political rally layered over top. Wilder was a Jewish man who had lost family (including his mother) and friends to the Holocaust. It's easy to understand his anger and the presentation of his film. There is no doubt a large percentage of German citizens were supportive of the Nazi army and benefited from their actions. Those who did not, left the country if they could. Albert Einstein (a German citizen of Jewish beliefs) never returned when Hitler came to power. At the time, he was luckily visiting the United States.

In the best interests of reestablishing a relationship with Germany, Factual Survey was shelved in September. Five reels were complete (without audio), and clip notes and footage for a sixth and final reel were left unfinished. Interestingly enough, that same month, footage from Bergen-Belson liberation would be used during the trial against Josef Kramer, the Commandant of the Belson Camp. Kramer was found guilty of war crimes and the deaths of thousands of Jews. He was sentenced to death in December of that year. The incomplete documentary sat on studio shelves until 1952 when the Imperial War Museum took possession of film. In addition the IWM also received all submitted footage taken by soldiers during the war, the original narration script written by Richard Crossman and Colin Wills, and the original shot list for the film. Factual Survey would sit on the shelf for 40 years until a commemorative piece was put together for PBS called Memory of the Camps (1985). The incomplete film was presented and narrated by Trevor Howard. It was the public’s first look at Bernstein’s original vision. After Memory of the Camps aired the IWM decided to restore the footage. In 2008 a team was assembled to finally complete Bernstein’s film. The footage was digitized, and the sixth and final reel was constructed using the original shot list. British actor Jasper Britton was chosen to speak the original dialogue, and sound effects were added from the IWM archives. 69 years in the making, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey premiered at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival. 

Three years later it made its North American premier in New York on January 6, 2017.

History books are full of pictures of the Holocaust. Great heaps of skeletal bodies in mass graves with entangled limbs and mouths agape in injustice. Factual Survey brings those events to light in real time. It's a video time capsule that displays one of the worst moments in human history. The documentary begins with the liberation of Bergen-Belson. The word surreal doesn't do it justice as piles of the dead lay about on display. It is a numbing watch that does not allow for disconnection. Many survivors are shown, too weak and ill to celebrate. They are too far gone to help, and to see them is heartbreaking. It is frightening to witness the extent the human body can be deprived and still manage to survive. It is miraculous how many fought against their hellish conditions and still managed to live. Their willpower is beyond courageous. Those who could be saved display pure heartfelt gratitude. You can see it in their smiles, in their eyes, and in their outstretched hands that are kindly held by soldiers. It is heartwarming to see the joy the Jewish prisoners display as they are not just liberated, but are treated as humans again. 

The restoration of the footage is top notch. Four years of work provided a crisp clarity to the footage taken by over 100 service cameramen. This military team of cinematographers gives Factual Survey the advantage of several camera angles. Little did they know their job to collect newsreel footage would lead to filming the terrible aftermath of the Nazi army. One of the worst scenes is the filling of a mass grave. It is an infuriating watch as Nazi soldier nonchalantly drag bodies across the ground and carelessly toss them onto the back of flatbed trucks. Even more terrible is when they remove the bodies from the trucks and toss them into the grave with little respect or regard. It is sickening to watch lifeless limbs flail about as they roll down the embankment to the pile of dead nude bodies below. Factual Survey goes completely silent during these scenes as body after body  tumble down the hillside. The silence makes it all the more effective, demanding the attention of the viewers. It is hard to witness such indignity. Worse yet is the realization that Bergen-Belson is only a portion of a much bigger picture.

Factual Survey visits dozens of camps. More horrors are displayed as each offer their own unique terrible notoriety. As suggested by Hitchcock maps are used to help viewers realize how close many of these camps were to neighborhoods and citizens. Near the end the pacing between camps quickens. The nearly rapid display offers a look at the magnitude of the Holocaust, and how it took the lives of 6 million Jewish victims. Factual Survey is a frightening look at what happens when hate is allowed to exist. It is the result of what happens when hate is fed and encouraged to thrive. This film was intended as a lesson for all of humanity to learn from. Despite the years of lessons and reflection that have followed since the end of the Holocaust, German Concentration Camp Factual Survey exists today because hate still exists. Hate starts out small, and this film serves as a powerful reminder of the devastation that occurs when it is taught, encouraged, and allowed to thrive. 

-Lee L. Lind