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(Credit: Dr. Macro)

Film

Watch 'Memory of the Camps', the film that "traumatised" Alfred Hitchcock

It would be wrong to label, as some have, Memory of The Camps “Alfred Hitchcock’s lost Holocaust documentary”. While the great director was involved in finishing off the project, it was put originally put together by the American and British governments. The unflinching and deeply disturbing footage was captured in 1945 in an attempt to show German nationals the full extent of their government’s actions. But with Germany in ruins, it was felt that the film would only slow down efforts to reconstruct the fragmented nation.

The documentary remained locked in a vault of the Imperial War Museum until 1984 when five reels of edited footage were unearthed and subsequently screened with a new commentary at the Berlin Film Festival, and later on PBS. The five reels had been kept in a 55-minute fine-cut print without titles or credits. The ‘sixth reel’, however, remained unaccounted for. When the film was transported to the Imperial War Museum in 1952, a shot list dated May 7th, 1946 was found which suggested that the missing reel contained Russian film of the liberation of Maidanek and Auschwitz. It’s believed that this footage was left in Moscow and belongs to the Russian cameraman who captured it.

Midway through the project, The film’s director, Sidney Bernstein, called on his friend Alfred Hitchcock to return to England to help edit the film. Hitchcock left Hollywood and arrived in late June, shortly after footage of Bergen-Belsen had been assembled. A month later, he returned to America, refusing payment for his work. Two months after that, work on the film stopped altogether. According to Bernstein, who spoke about the project shortly before his death, Hitchcock was charged with defining the shape and flow of the documentary: “He took a circle round each concentration camp as it were on a map, different villages, different places and the numbers of people — so they must have known about it…Otherwise you could show a concentration camp, as you see them now, and it could be anywhere, miles away from humanity. He brought that into the film.”

Peter Tanner, one of the film editors, remembered how Hitchcock was acutely aware that people might think the footage had been staged: “Hitch was very careful to try to get material which could not possibly be seen to be faked in any way.” This explains the wide establishing shots which help to locate the camps in an identifiable environment. Around half of the documentary focuses on the liberation of Bergen Belsen and what the British forces did when they took charge. While young doctors from places like King’s College London went about treating the surviving prisoners – some of whom had been born in the camps – British soldiers ordered the SS to bury the dead in mass graves, an activity that commanders and other local notables were required to watch.

These images of pale, emaciated corpses being lifted and thrown into graves are still incredibly disturbing, despite our familiarity with such footage. More shocking still is the astonishment and suprise on the faces of the liberating soldiers, many of whom had no idea of what had been going on inside the camps. According to The Independent, when Hitchcock saw a screening of Memory of The Camps, he was “so traumatised that he stayed away from Pinewood Studios for a week.” Take that as a warning: this footage contains incredibly graphic imagery and viewer discretion is advised.