Holocaust cinema: why film-makers are revisiting a never-to-be-forgotten hell

[From the Guardian]

Auschwitz-set Son of Saul is focusing the film industry’s attention on the wartime atrocities committed by the Nazis – and it couldn’t be more relevant.

“No one could bear to look at these things without losing their sanity,” said WG Sebald, just before he died in 2001: he was talking about the Holocaust, and specifically the numerous acts of bestial persecution visited on the Nazi’s unfortunate victims. This has been a preoccupation of film-makers too, ever since the first newsreels emerged from concentration camps after their liberation. The desire to show, to tell, to educate, comes up against decency, taste and revulsion. What purpose, exactly, is served by documenting and/or recreating unwatchably violent and horrible images: hapless civilians murdered in their millions; shot, beaten, starved and tortured in greater numbers than ever believed possible; an entire national civilisation that prided itself on its sophistication undergoing the most spectacular moral breakdown in history. At what point do film-makers take responsibility for the trauma their images inflict, even if they are simply reflecting actual events?

The story behind the recently completed German Concentration Camps Factual Survey film attests to that: it was compiled from footage sent to London in 1945 by combat film units, as Belsen, Dachau, and Buchenwald were liberated: more was acquired from the Soviet film crews present at the death camps further east, Auschwitz and Treblinka. At some point the project – which briefly involved Alfred Hitchcock as a consultant – was abandoned, for no clear reason. The best guess is that its stated aim – to confront the surviving German population with atrocities carried out in their name, and partly in their midst – was neither effective nor expedient, as the allies sought to rebuild and reorganise in the already-burgeoning cold war with the USSR. But even at 70 years distance, the images it contains are appalling. The enormous mounds of emaciated corpses, tipped into giant burial pits; crowds of starving, disease-ridden survivors barely clinging to life; the unutterably gruesome remains of a man who had attempted to dig his way out under the wall of a burning building, only to be shot by soldiers waiting on the other side.

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