Every so often, I find it beneficial to take time out from watching fictional horror works, and remind myself of the real horrors that once existed, throughout history. An emotional recalibration, of sorts. This allows me to never become desensitised to some of the graphic and unsettling material I often view.
Thankfully, nothing can ever come close to the real-world horrors that took place in 1940’s in Germany, from the Nazi’s, with which the documentary film GERMAN CONCENTRATION CAMPS: FACTUAL SURVEY depicts, and which I am going to review here for you.
The Concentration Camps were considered to be, and still are considered to be, humanity’s worst ever atrocities. Even during the height of the Cold War, and the impending threat of Nuclear War in the 1980’s, never have human beings stooped so low, as to use fellow humans as medical experiments and to force them to suffer, purely for the sick enjoyment of the torturers. (The possible exception may be the events of China in 1937, at Unit 731.)
The British Film Institute (BFI) and Imperial War Museum, London (IWM), have joined together, and recently resurrected and restored a notorious piece of cinema, originally partly photographed by Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein. The film was comprised of reels of silent footage from German Concentration Camps, which is where this film gets its title from, and this film is now doing a short tour of the United Kingdom, before – we hope – an eventual UK DVD release later this year.
This 88 minute, 18-certificate documentary feature, is quite possibly the most harrowing thing I’ve watched, for the sole reason that everything you see on screen is 100% genuine! This is real-life death and suffering, writ large! The BFI and IWM realised that few viewers would be able to stomach much of what is shown. Thankfully, they have topped-and-tailed the 75 minute main feature, with an Introduction and Outro, that allows viewers to “decompress”.
In the Introduction, we meet the restoration team and staff from both the BFI and IWM, who give a brief talk about the forthcoming material. They warn you in no uncertain circumstances that what you are about to witness, will unsettle, distress and horrify the audience – as it should – and that it should be a warning to all humanity, that we never, ever repeat what happened in the Second World War. They explain why the film exists, how it came to be in the IWM’s hands, and why they decided it was necessary to be restored and given life once more.
Then the main feature begins. Much of the footage is silent, with newly-recorded narration, taken from a surviving script/outline treatment that existed. The monotone delivery is necessarily stark and non-judgemental, allowing the viewer to comprehend what we are being shown. The restoration is fantastic. Razor-sharp for the most part, considering the time and conditions under which it was obtained and created. The near-HD presentation is astounding, which makes the horrors that unfold so deeply sickening to view. There will be times, when you will need to look away, because what you will see will be so truly harrowing. And so it should be! Trying to soften the nature of the footage, would do a huge disservice to the people featured in it.
Opening with footage from Belsen Camp, it’s not long before we see the worst human suffering imaginable. Living beings, so emaciated and cruelly-treated, that their skin barely covers their skeletons. Pallid skin of young and old alike, feature and it is horrible to feel so powerless as a viewer to stop their suffering. Seeing them at their lowest, is extremely unsettling. Knowing what is about to happen to them, is a thousand times worse. Watching scene-after-unremitting-scene of degradation, is near-traumatising. Worse still when you see some of the injuries they suffer: from malnutrition, and lack of basic facilities like hot water to wash in, or clean clothes to cover themselves. One especially harrowing scene, features a man who’s genital flesh has been eaten away by his own body, trying to keep him alive. In another, we see the remains of children’s bodies, burnt in the crematoria.
Deliberately unsettling and never afraid to depict the very things we would all much prefer to deny existed, the film beautifully, but disturbingly portrays events that hopefully, the human race will never, ever repeat. After 75 minutes, the film ends – just at the point most viewers would wish it too, before it becomes prurient – and there is a necessary and much-desired Outro, in which staff from the BFI and IWM who worked on the film, talk about their reaction to seeing it for the first time, and the way it affected them, during the restoration work. Not only is it very informative, but it allows the viewer to “decompress”, and hopefully not leave the cinema feeling too depressed.
If you can get to see this film, then please, please do so, as it’s an excellent piece of cinema. Just be warned, it’s extremely harrowing! Highly recommended!
ADDENDUM: Apologies for the lack of images accompanying this review. Blogger is refusing to play-ball, and display images correctly. Once the issue is fixed, images will be accompanying this review, as per usual.
I’ll be back shortly, with another update.