Last night, I prepped myself mentally for the difficult visual experience ahead and sat down to watch the much-anticipated “Night Will Fall” documentary, which premiered Monday on the HBO network just before International Holocaust Memorial Day.
The film tells the story of another documentary made in 1945 with the involvement of famous director Alfred Hitchock, using real footage taken by Soviet and British soldiers while liberating concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen.
This original documentary, titled "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey," was meant to be shown to the German people in the aftermath of the Holocaust in order for them to see the horrors committed by the Nazis, but it was never completed or released. Seventy years later, the original film has been restored and completed by the British Imperial War Museum. “Night Will Fall” tells the story of that film’s original production and incorporates some of the original footage shot by Allied troops.
The monstrosity of the Holocaust is well-documented. Even so, the images of skeletal bodies with sunken eyes, contorted or even missing parts of their faces, other gruesome injuries, and evidence of the infamous crematoriums are difficult to bear—even for the toughest of spirits.
Another kind of powerful footage shows the detained concentration camp SS guards and commanders, as well as regular German citizens who had lived near the camps, being paraded around and shown what they had done—and what they had silently allowed to be done. Their faces remain cold at the site.
I believe this documentary—perhaps more so the original 1945 production, if and when it is publicly released—should be viewed by all around the world as a reminder of what happened during the Holocaust and what could happen again. But I was troubled by one seemingly small, but in my view major, faux pas.
In addition to Jews, the Nazis persecuted a variety of groups such as the Roma (or Gypsy) people, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and dissidents. While these victims of the Holocaust are notable, no one can deny that the Nazi system, from the Nuremberg Laws to the Final Solution, primarily targeted the Jewish people. Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
As such, it surprised me greatly that the narration of “Night Will Fall” never once mentioned the word “Jewish” when describing the victims seen in the footage. This word is uttered only once, well into the film, by a Jewish survivor.
I would have been less surprised to see the word “Jewish” excluded from the original 1945 film, given that governments after the war tended to ignore the issue of anti-Semitism. After months in production, the film was buried without ever being released because the British began to care more about helping the German people to "pick up the pieces and help energize the destroyed Germany economy," said "Night Will Fall" director André Singer.
"They didn't want to demoralize the people further by rubbing in their guilt, and the 'German Concentration Camps Factual Survey' would not have helped restore confidence," Singer said. Thus, the Holocaust persecution of Jews was swept under the rug.
It is also well known that in some Communist bloc countries after the war, Holocaust memorials tended to describe the victims as general civilians rather than specifically Jews. But how could a 2015 film that is supposedly intended to remind the world about the Holocaust and its lessons do the same?
My reaction is not unique. Jeffrey Salkin expressed anger over this issue in a recent piece for the Religion News Service. Given the climate of anti-Semitism in Europe today, recently manifested by the terror attacks in Paris, we are reminded that hatred for Jews is unfortunately alive and well today, and yet again being swept under the rug. To top if off, this whitewashing of the persecution of Jews comes in a film about the Holocaust, of all topics.
While this omission may have been more misguided than intentional—and I am willing to give the filmmakers some leeway in that regard, given their otherwise good work with the film—the mistake needs to be called out for what it is.