Historicizing Films – An Example from the Holocaust

Dr. Kelly Donahue offers a thoughtful interpretation on how we consider films when doing history:

As the British began liberating concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Europe some 70 years ago, they and their allies shot footage of what they found.  Initially the purpose of filming the camps was to provide irrefutable evidence of the camps to Germans.  Such evidence was deemed necessary amidst rising concern about how to de-Nazify Germany at the beginning the occupation.  However, due to delays in getting footage and the changing political climate that sought reconciliation with Germany, the film was not completed until 2014. Scholars from the Imperial War Museum in London recently finished the film and German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, aired at the BFI London Film Festival last October. For the record that not-so-snappy title was the original one given to the project in 1945.

AP_holocaust_lw-20140801113631625936-620x349Examining the history of this film gives a unique perspective on the role of film as a historical source. Indeed Toby Haggith, a historian from the Imperial War Museum, discussed in an NPR interview how the original film tended to de-emphasize the number of Jews killed in these camps. Instead the filmmakers noted how the victims were from many countries, were of multiple religious groups, and in some cases were even German. He explains this aspect of the film as being a product of 1945. The original makers of the film in 1945 did not believe that Germans who had been inundated with Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism would be properly shamed if they believed the only (or primary) victims were Jewish. What this film and the stories of its making reveal is how even a piece of film simply intended to document one of the greatest crimes in history still has to be constructed and that it is made within a particular historical context that must also be examined.

At this time it does not appear that the completed film is available to American audiences but there are accessible versions. In 1985, PBS aired a Frontline episode that showed the film (then called Memory of the Camps) which can be found via PBS: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/memory-of-the-camps/.

Additionally, the story of the making of the film was at the heart of a documentary called Night Will Fall that aired on HBO.

If you should choose to watch any portion of this film please do so with full knowledge that it is brutal, unrelenting, and profoundly unsettling.  You do not see people being murdered but you will absolutely see naked corpses and mass graves.  The film is no more or less brutal and unsettling than the events it documents.

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