- Filming the End of the Holocaust: Allied Documentaries, Nuremberg and the Liberation of the Concentration Camps by John J. Michalczyk
John J. Michalczyk’s engaging new book examines films that were used in trials of Nazi war criminals, and how such films were employed during and after the war to persuade audiences of the Germans’ guilt. At Nuremberg in 1945 Robert H. Jackson, U.S. chief prosecutor, made it clear that he was going to include films as evidence—uncharted territory for a groundbreaking trial. Michalczyk’s informative study [End Page 150] complements Lawrence Douglas’s The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), as well as recent studies of newsreels and compilation films, most notably Ulrike Weckel’s 2012 Beschämende Bilder: Deutsche Reaktionen auf alliierte Dokumentarfilme über befreite Konzentrationslager; and Christian Delage’s 2014 Caught on Camera: Film in the Courtroom from the Nuremberg Trials to the Trials of the Khmer Rouge. Unlike Weckel and Delage, Michalczyk does not attempt to be comprehensive, but rather asks specifically how the Allies mobilized film in the interest of persuasion. The prosecutors concerned themselves not only with establishing facts and proving guilt, but also with convincing viewers to believe their eyes.
The history of the unfinished film German Concentration Camps Factual Survey—better known by the name of Frontline’s 1985 reconstruction, Memory of the Camps—is now widely known because of the 2014 documentary Night Will Fall, which detailed the original project’s curious fate. The Office of War Information pulled out of the joint agreement to produce the film, turning its attention to the shorter project Death Mills (1945), slated for immediate release. For this and other reasons, the British film remained fragmentary. In recounting this story Michalczyk assembles interesting details about Hitchcock’s participation, something scholars have discussed. Michalczyk provides a shot-by-shot resume of the British production in light of the filmmakers’ conflicting and competing motivations. Those responsible aspired to shame the Germans, yet seem intent on morally supporting the reconstruction of West Germany, soon to become the West’s most significant ally in the nascent Cold War.
Readers will likely be interested in Jeremy Hicks’s 2012 study of Soviet screenings of German atrocities, First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938–1946. Michalczyk too examines Soviet film of camps’ liberation, particularly the footage of Auschwitz and Majdanek screened at Nuremberg. Of greatest interest here is Michalczyk’s discussion of the 1942 Soviet film Moscow Strikes Back, which includes footage of the Germans’ devastation of Soviet cities. In the U.S. that film was a commercial success and Oscar winner. For Michalczyk, the film reinforced Western publics’ understanding that they were dealing with a uniquely barbaric enemy, while also validating the Soviets’ desire for retribution. The narrator of the American release, Edward G. Robinson, tells viewers that words cannot sum up the Nazis’ brutality, explaining that this is why Americans are fighting; U.S. and Soviet interests were, for the time being, identical. The film is, in some ways, an attempt to fan the flames of vengeance. Michalczyk rightly observes that the Soviet production recalls Battleship Potemkin (1925), occasionally raising the dead to the level of martyrdom.
Another one of Michalczyk’s sources will probably be new to readers: G.M. Gilbert’s Nuremberg Diary (1947). Gilbert was a prison psychologist who monitored the German defendants on trial at Nuremberg, and he noted their reactions as they [End Page 151] watched films entered into evidence such as Nazi Concentration Camps (1945) and The Nazi Plan (1945). Gilbert’s observations, which Michalczyk highlights at several points, contain fascinating first-hand speculations about whether the viewers experienced shame; Gilbert reproduces comments by the defendants, though each seems more outlandish and self-serving than the last.
Michalczyk devotes attention as well to films’ use for re-education, including, among...