Students Staff

10 October 2014

Q&A on Night Will Fall with Professor Rainer Schulze

  • Watch the trailer for Night Will Fall on YouTube

Professor Rainer Schulze from the Department of History was one of the historical consultants on acclaimed new film Night Will Fall.

The film by André Singer tells the story behind a documentary made in the aftermath of the Second World War which tried to provide lasting, undeniable evidence of the Nazis’ unspeakable crimes during the Holocaust.

We spoke to Professor Schulze about his involvement in the project.

Can you tell us a little bit about Night Will Fall?

"Night Will Fall chronicles the history of a British documentary on the liberation of Nazi concentration and labour camps that was originally commissioned by the British Ministry of Information to provide lasting and undeniable evidence to the German public of the Nazis’ crimes.

"The production team included director Sidney Bernstein, later founder of Granada Television; Richard Crossman, an influential cabinet minister under Harold Wilson; and Alfred Hitchcock who joined the team as treatment advisor and supervising director. However, the film was never completed. Interweaving original archival footage by British, American and Soviet army cameramen from the filming of the liberation of the camps and its aftermath with eyewitness testimony, the film addresses questions such as: Why was the film commissioned? Who were the people who did the actual filming? and why was the documentary ultimately shelved?

"The director of Night Will Fall is the acclaimed film maker André Singer, who was also one of the executive producers of the 2012 award-winning documentary film about the Indonesian killings of 1965–66, The Act of Killing.

"Night Will Fall is now on general release and will be shown on television next year in Britain and around the world."

How important do you think the release of Night Will Fall is?

"The original 1945 documentary film has now been restored by the Imperial War Museum in its intended sequence using Richard Crossman’s original script, digitally remastered and given back its original title: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. This is a documentary which is extremely hard-hitting: some 75 minutes of absolute horror and despair, with very little footage that conveys any hope.

"The importance of Night Will Fall lies in the fact that it explores the political context of the 1945 documentary and at the same time addresses wider questions such as: Why does documentary film matter? What problems are involved in documentary film? And what – if anything – can we learn from it?

"Night Will Fall uses an approach that we already used when developing the new permanent exhibition at Bergen-Belsen (which opened in October 2007): the narrative is driven by those who suffered. In the words of André Singer: Night Will Fall is a film that respects “that the story was something that had to be told by the people who experienced it, not by others”, and it brings together “the right combination of characters who... had the right to interpret what was happening at that time for another audience, 70 years on”.

"Night Will Fall uses some 12 minutes from the German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (although it seems to be much more because of the impact of the images), and by embedding this footage into a wider context and using eyewitness testimonies (some of the witnesses have not spoken on camera before), it is more accessible than the original 1945 documentary. Thus I hope it will help an audience to watch German Concentration Camps Factual Survey better prepared and with a better understanding of the relevance of this documentary.

"Night Will Fall does not only show the survivors of the Nazi atrocities as emaciated skeletons, but also indicates what became of some of them following their liberation: Branko Lustig, liberated at Bergen-Belsen, became a prominent film producer, producing among many other successful films the Oscar winning Schindler’s List; Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a member of the Auschwitz women’s orchestra and also liberated at Bergen-Belsen, went on to become a distinguished member of the English Chamber Orchestra."

What did your role as historical consultant involve?

"As an expert on the history of Bergen-Belsen and in particular its liberation by British troops in April 1945, my main role was advising on the events surrounding the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. I had been the project leader for the segment on the liberation in the new permanent exhibition at the Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen, which I designed as a process going back as far as February/March 1945 and only coming to some form of a provisional close in May/June 1945 when the temporary emergency hospital set up some two miles away from the concentration camp became a displaced persons camp for those survivors who had nowhere else to go.

"A large part of the original 1945 documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey focuses on Bergen-Belsen and covers much of this period as it was at Bergen-Belsen where the British Army Film and Photographic Unit produced the bulk of their historically important footage on the liberation of Nazi camps. Therefore, Bergen-Belsen features very prominently in Night Will Fall as well.

"I was also able to introduce the film team to George Leonard, a former lance corporal in the Oxford Yeomanry and a member of one the first units to reach Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945, following the local armistice that was agreed between the German and British armies, who until now had never talked about his experiences on camera.

"Together with my new colleagues Professor David Cesarani at Royal Holloway and Dr Jeremy Hicks Queen Mary, the other two historical consultants, I also commented on the overall narrative of the documentary."

With the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps approaching in 2015, there will be wide coverage of the Holocaust. What do you think are the key issues for film makers, artists, curators and others to consider when involved in reporting, commemorating or reflecting on events of this kind?

"In my view, the two key issues are (a) to ensure that the Holocaust is not seen as something that happened a long time ago in a far-away country so that we can easily say it does not have all that much to do with us today, and (b) to highlight that whilst the Jews were obviously by far the largest group of victims of the Nazi racial and extermination policy, the Nazis targeted other groups as well in their attempt to create a “racially pure” and “homogenous” society: Sinti and Roma (commonly referred to as “gypsies”), disabled people, people of Slavic origin, gay men, Jehovah’s Witnesses and more. These are the often “forgotten victims” of the Holocaust, and their stories remained untold for a long time and in some instances until today. It is demeaning to these victims to call them “other victims” (as is so often done), and thus deny them their identity. Prejudice and hatred of people just because they seem different from us continues to exist in our society today, including in Britain, and any Holocaust education needs to ask what attitudes and prejudices still prevail around us, and within ourselves, that contributed to that what made the Holocaust possible.

"It goes without saying that we need to remember and commemorate those who suffered and died during the Holocaust, but this is not only an end in itself. We are keeping the memory alive for a very important purpose: to help prevent another total break-down of civilisation such as the one we witnessed during the Nazi rule over much of Europe.

"The genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Darfur are terrible reminders that we do not seem to be able, or willing, to learn from history, but we must not give up. As I said in another context: the best way to honour the victims of the Holocaust is to acknowledge and speak up against the rise of race hate today. If the Holocaust tells us anything loud and clear, it tells us that if the human rights of one group are violated, no group can feel safe."

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