“In April 1945 my father, Sidney Bernstein, was with the Allied Forces that liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. As a film advisor to the Ministry of Information, he was responsible for overseeing the film units as they documented the atrocities found there.” – Jane Wells, Founder and Executive Director of 3 Generations
Sidney Bernstein was a filmmaker during World War Two, working for the British Army and later SHAEF – the Supreme Allied Expeditionary Force. For 5 months in 1945 his orders were to film the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, collect footage shot by the American, British and Russian liberators and create a documentary that would provide evidence to show the German people what had been done in the name of Hitler and the Third Reich.
The story of what he and his colleagues witnessed, recorded and assembled has produced not one, but three films: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (1945/2014) – his film begun and suppressed in 1945; A Painful Reminder (1985) – a partial telling of what did and didn’t happen in 1945 and Night Will Fall (2014) – a contemporary documentary film about why the original film was never shown.
All are dramatic, moving, deeply disturbing and raise as many issues as they seek to settle. Andre Singer’s Night Will Fall (HBO in the US, Channel 4 in the UK, Arte in France and Germany) tells the history of the film that wasn’t completed or shown. Using archival footage and present-day interviews with survivors and liberators, it explores why the Allies decided to suppress my father’s film. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey has been painstakingly digitized and fully restored by the Imperial War Museums in London who are the guardians of the footage and the archives. The restoration precisely follows the script, notes and cameramen dope sheets from 1945, and its restoration brings a 21st century viewer face to face with documentary evidence of atrocities as if they had happened yesterday. Sequences showing Adolf Hitler are so strikingly “fresh” and clear that one can see sweat dripping down his face. He is brought to life anew. The concentration camp footage is brutally real. The filmmaking is artful and under the influence of skilled cameramen and Alfred Hitchcock is careful to employ techniques that would refute accusations that the atrocities they document did not happen.
In A Painful Reminder, made in 1985 when the footage from the camps was first declassified (40 years after it was shot and then suppressed), Sidney Bernstein’s comments about its purpose are quite clear:
“The film was not intended as propaganda. This was the visual evidence that nobody could deny. It was to be a record for all mankind”.
Another interviewee, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, explains in the film, “the name Auschwitz didn’t mean anything. That which today is such a byword, at that time had no ominous significance for us at all.” It wasn’t until June 1944 when five inmates escaped that the world knew what horrors were being perpetrated in Auschwitz. First-hand accounts and newsreel footage were the only way the world got information. What happened when that information was known became political, then as today. The Distinguished historian Martin Gilbert explains that the Allies refused to bomb Auschwitz because a few Civil Servants determined that information about death camps was “Jewish sob-stuff”.
There are many tragedies within and surrounding these films — the obvious ones that document atrocities by the Nazis, the issue of suppression of vital evidence 70 years ago, the question of who should and should not have access to this type of material (the Imperial War Museums are adamant that the footage is too disturbing for educational use) and the accusation that the holocaust and this evidence was fabricated.
3 Generations is committed to keeping this footage and the truths it tells alive and available in the 21st century.
For more information about the film, visit the Imperial War Museum site.