When Hollywood Went To The Holocaust, For Evidence

Taking in the ‘Filming the Camps’ exhibit.

04/03/12
Associate Editor
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Was there ever a war in which the combatants took movies as seriously as in World War II? Not just on the homefront, with studio dramas such as “Casablanca,” and Germany’s anti-Semitic “Jud Suss,” but on the front itself, where “shooting” meant cameras, along with the guns.

The Nazis shamelessly filmed enough “documentary” material to fill around-the-clock programming on The History Channel, what some jokingly call “the Hitler channel.” In 2010, the Israeli-German “A Film Unfinished,” however, unearthed raw footage from an unfinished 1942 Nazi documentary of the Warsaw Ghetto — the only footage anyone has of the ghetto — that revealed the Nazi film to be less a documentary than an accumulation of scenes that were often rehearsed and plotted, ostensibly to show how strange were these soon-to-be murdered Jews.

If Winston Churchill famously took the English language and sent it into battle, the Americans sent some of our finest Hollywood directors into war, not only to document the fighting but to finish, in a sense, what the Nazi films left unsaid, filming the evidence of nothing less than the Holocaust itself.

The new exhibition “Filming The Camps” (at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, through Oct. 14), tells how two of the greatest Hollywood directors of that era, John Ford and George Stevens, filmed the era, along with a future director, Sam Fuller, then just a young Jewish infantryman, who filmed one camp’s liberation with a small Bell & Howell movie camera that his mother mailed to him.

“It might be the work of an amateur,” says Fuller of his Falkenau film, “but the killings in this are very professional.”

The now-deceased Fuller, speaking in an old interview presented on one the exhibit’s many video screens, remembered arriving at the Falkenau concentration camp “and the first man I ran into was Capt. Walker. He said, ‘Do you still have that camera your mother sent you?’ I said, ‘Yes, Sir.’ He said, ‘Get it.’ I returned with my camera, loaded and all that, and walked right into the camp,” filled with the sprawled skeletal bodies and limp corpses.

The exhibition, originally curated by historian and filmmaker Christian Delage for the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, is intriguing not only for the rare footage, sometimes in color, but also for the narratives and captions, primarily from Dachau, written by the film crews in the moment.

When Stevens and his film crew entered Dachau the day after liberation, April 30, 1945, it was only a few years after Stevens directed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in all their glory in “Swingtime.” The lush music of Jerome Kerns’ “The Way You Look Tonight,” to which Fred and Ginger danced, carries softly in the exhibition from one video screen to a another, a few feet away, where videos show Stevens’ filming the dead, the dying and the survivors.

Maybe the United States was slow to enter the war, but the American film crews were at the ready. As far back as the 1930s, John Ford, then a reservist in the Navy, was ordered to get some film crews available “in case of emergency.” By 1939, long before Pearl Harbor, Ford had already trained 60 men to film a war that was still two years away.

In a memo on display from the autumn of 1944, Ford wrote to his men that what they would soon be filming would a darker, more haunting, than they could have known. “Because human memory is faulty,” wrote Ford, “and because objects constituting physical evidence decompose or are lost, it is important that a contemporary record be made of the event that it will constitute an acceptable proof of this occurrence.”

Ford continued, “To record such evidence in a uniform manner, and in a form which will be acceptable in military tribunals or courts, it is essential that the instructions herein be followed closely.” Shoot from several angles. Get close-ups of hands wired or tied behind the back, and evidence of brutality such as beheadings, marks left by torture, beatings, kickings. “If bodies are rotting to the extent of making the photographing difficult, wear gas masks or do whatever necessary to make it possible to work close to them, but get close-ups,” and he underlined “get close-ups.”

Stevens, a lieutenant colonel in the army, filmed Dachau with an eye to establishing evidence that the “showers” were not showers at all.

The caption sheet: “Note airtight door … Note absence of means of opening door from within … Note absence of rust or oxidation on nozzle and absence of normal exterior plumbing…” Note the bodies that lay “sprawled, awaiting incineration.” Note “the ovens were obviously in process of being used at the moment of interruption … unswept of bones and ashes. See shot of interior of oven.”

More rare was the color film of Dachau, and the still photographs of Nazis who had been beaten to death by inmates shortly after liberation.

Stevens stayed in Dachau for several days, where the Angel of Death still hovered over the camp, even after liberation, but where army chaplain Rabbi David Max Eichorn spoke (and the complete video of his sermon is shown) to the survivors at the first Shabbat services after liberation. Stevens ordered the U.S. soldiers to surround the outdoor service, as the gentile Polish survivors had been violent to the Jewish survivors, even after the Nazis had left.

A caption sheet from May 4, 1945: “It is not surprising to see the [survivors] cooking [over small fires] beside the typhus-ridden bodies of their roommates. They were obliged to sleep in the same room, and even in the same beds as those who died while they were asleep.” In one “washroom,” 35 corpses “lay to one side, while the survivors did their best to keep clean.”

Stevens said later of his wartime experience, “I couldn’t continue to make films like before.”

In 1959, Stevens prepared for directing “The Diary of Anne Frank” by showing his films and photos from Dachau to his Hollywood film crew, and then returning to Dachau himself.

On one of the video screens is a clip from Fuller’s “Verboten!” in which a young German after the war, nostalgic for the Nazis, is taken by his sister to attend the Nuremberg trials. There he watches (to Fuller’s narration) some of the actual film shot by the Soviets, British and Americans when first entering the various camps.

The American film crews tried to befriend some of the survivors. Some of the crew members in Dachau noted, “Alexander Rossner, aged 11, of Cracow … observed sitting outside the hut in which he lived in conditions of the usual squalor, playing accordion to former members of the bloc. He was playing ‘Twilight.’”

The boy “had the precocious features of a child actor, or perhaps more properly, a member of a traveling circus. The lively manner in which he ran through the list of the places of his previous imprisonment … Auschwitz, Grossrosen, Blachov, Birkenau, he had them all on the tip of his tongue.” Birkenau, the boy explained was a vernichtungslager, an extermination camp, “from which he admitted he was very lucky to emerge alive.”

The film crew asked, “Is there anything you would like, Alexander, that you can’t get and have always wanted?”

Anything in the whole world!

“A comb,’ was the unflinching reply.”

“We gave him a comb,” said the notes, “and left him to his accordion and his audience.” 

Last Update:

04/05/2012 - 19:58

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A powerful article, with information new to me. I'm particularly struck by the clarity and foresight of Ford's observations and "orders" to his trainees/crews.

Jonathan, this is a magnificent piece and a worthy reminder that humanity must do better.

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