Here's the thing that puzzles me about Night Will Fall: that the fascinating true story behind one of the most important motion pictures in the history of cinema is formatted as a "companion piece" to something you can't see. British producer André Singer's smooth retelling of the political and artistic backstory involved in assembling Allied footage of the Nazi concentration camps in WWII refers constantly to a piece that can only be seen in restricted and highly controlled circumstances: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.
Originally code-named "the atrocity movie", the project was headed by producer Sidney Bernstein, then running the Allied film services, and aimed at being a hard-hitting revelation to the world audiences about the true nature of the Nazi regime, harnessing the specific powers of film to make its point as a document both for immediate effect and later memory. Bernstein and journalist Richard Crossman organised footage shot by the military cameramen that accompanied the Allied troops that liberated the camps, and Alfred Hitchcock dropped by with some suggestions and improvements towards the end of the process. (His contributions to the film have been greatly discussed over the years.)
But the "atrocity movie" was quietly shelved when it became clear that there were disagreements between the British and the Americans regarding the nature of the film, and was never truly completed. Billy Wilder edited part of the footage into a shorter film called Death Mills at the behest of the US Army, and what was ready of the film surfaced in 1984 as Memory of the Camps. The film as intended by Bernstein and incorporating Hitchcock's suggestions was only truly finished to the original specifications in 2014 under the aegis of the Imperial War Museum - and cannot be commercially exploited nor screened without the presence of a member of the restoration team.
As such, Night Will Fall, which tells the story of the film in roughly chronological order, from its inception as part of the Allied use of film as propaganda to the rediscovery and restoration of the original material, is a conundrum. It's a film that refers constantly to another film that remains unseen and truly "invisible", and does so in a traditional "talking-heads"-slash-"making of" format, professionally done and glossily presented.
In a way, the original's invisibility is quite appropriate: Mr. Singer points out recurrently that exposure to the rough footage from the camps as it was arriving was a shocking, disturbing experience for the film processing and logging crews, something that could not be "un-seen" nor forgotten. The original 1944-45 material thus becomes a sort of real-life horror film, whose use could be devastating; no wonder the entire project eventually got bogged down in the politics and diplomacy of an overly cautious post-war world. What had started as a public service film for the historical record got buried for political reasons - like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the records of the Bletchley Park team.
But precisely because the importance of the original footage remains undeniable and undimmed, and because the tale behind its slow reemergence is so compelling, it's a shame that Night Will Fall becomes so dependent on the film it can't show. The bribes of footage that are indeed shown are harrowing in and of themselves - and strong reasons to make sure the material is only used parcimoniously. But since there is a referential void at its heart - this is the tale of a film that cannot be seen - what we get is a lot less than what could be. And what we get is a sort of "historical whodunit" that seems formatted for the small screen's history programmes (you can almost notice the "commercial breaks" inbuilt in the narration), an enterprise that never quite reaches
But, ultimately, maybe the fact that Night Will Fall - a perfectly decent, well-made if anonymous documentary in itself - falls short of what could have been is the best tribute there could be to the original "atrocity movie". Though it never really existed as it was meant to until now, its footage has survived beyond the original assemblage to become a historical record for future memory. And that is reason enough for this documentary to exist.
NIGHT WILL FALL
United Kingdom, USA, Germany, Israel, Denmark 2014
Director André Singer; screenwriter Lynette Singer; cinematographer Richard Blanshard (colour); composer Nicholas Singer; editors Arik Lahow and Stephen Miller; producers Sally Angel and Brett Ratner; production companies British Film Institute, Ratpac Documentary Films, Danish Film Institute, Spring Films and Angel TV in co-production with Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, ARTE, Cinephil, Final Cut for Real and GA&A
Screened October 10th 2014, Lisbon (Doclisboa 2014 screener)