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Filming the camps and the Nuremberg effect

By Peter Hulm

On 1 May 1945, a team of cameramen under the Hollywood director George Stevens began a week of filming in Dachau concentration camp, liberated just the day before. It changed him for ever, and thanks to Jean-Luc Godard became one of the most celebrated stories about Hollywood and the Holocaust.

Now, for the first time, we can see Hollywood's films of the camps in their chronological sequence. The Mémorial de la Shoah (Shoah Memorial) in Paris has mounted an exemplary exhibition on the three major Hollywood directors who were involved in putting the Nazi atrocities on film: John Ford (1894-1973), Samuel Fuller (1911-1997) and George Stevens (1904-1975).

Filming the camps (10 March - 31 August 2010), put together by historian Christian Lange and a team with Sophie Bréuil responsible for the installations, restricted itself deliberately to Dachau (filmed by Stevens) and to Falkenau (part of Flossenbürg), filmed by Fuller.

A parallel cycle of films (from 25 May to 31 October 2010, under the direction of Sophie Nagiscarde, in charge of the Memorial's cultural activities) offers a curated series of projections of Hollywood movies on the Holocaust, including modern products such as Defiance (10 October) and Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (11 October), often followed by debates.

One result of this self-restriction is that there are some major gaps in the coverage of the camps: Alain Resnais/Chris Marker's Night and Fog, and Claude Lanzmann's monumental Shoah — both the antithesis of Hollywood's ideas of how the camps functioned. But what the exhibition offers in place of comprehensiveness (could anything on the camps be comprehensive?) are enough original vignettes to stimulate thought for months to come.

Not least of the Memorial's many smart decisions was to focus on the impact of filming the camps on the directors themselves as well as on what they filmed. Presentations of these three stalwarts of Hollywood open the exhibitions. But even the direct narrative presentations and videos themselves offer original and invaluable material for researchers.

The shock of color

For example, Stevens went into Dachau with a team filming in 35mm but also used his personal 16m camera to take color film of what he saw. The exhibition brings both together. Seeing bodies piled in railway wagons in full color is almost a physical shock after being accustomed to black and white even in modern films such as Schindler's List (1993, which is being projected on 3 October 2010).

Stevens even filmed camp guards and soldiers who had been beaten and sometimes killed by the inmates -- scenes that did not make it into the compilation John Ford put together to show at the Nuremberg war crimes trials on 29 November 1945. We have these color films available because Stevens insisted on having the films sent to his home. But as later researchers point out (below), the Holocaust is black and white in our imaginations because of the decision to screen the monochrome version.

Similarly, the programme notes for the film festival point out, until 1977 American films in the era of the Cold War usually focused on the scapegoats of Nazism as victim survivors or on the perpetrators as criminals rather than on experience of the camps. This wilful blindness ended in 1978 with the television series Holocaust, otherwise much criticized for its dramatic faults.

Nevertheless, the film available from Dachau in 1945 and now presented in the exhibition already makes clear the fortitude of many whose ordeal had just ended. We hear from Edmond Michelet, one of the first organizers of resistance in France, a Polish Jew who survived three years in Dachau, and a French Jew from Antwerp who survived Dachau by using false papers. He told interviewers: "I had a better position than others because I spoke German and several other languages."

The British scenarist Ivan Moffat (1918-2002) provided much of the written records of what was filmed, composing "master caption sheets" that often told in a couple of paragraphs some of the moving stories. Thus he reported on "the youngest prisoner in Dachau," an 11-year-old found playing "Twilight" on an accordion to other prisoners. Part of a travelling circus family captured in Cracow ghetto, he survived thanks to Oskar Schindler. The boy emigrated to the U.S. in 1946.

It is Moffat who records the words of David Max Eichhorn of the XV U.S. Army Corps celebrating the first Jewish ceremony to be held in Dachau on 6 May, one week after liberation: "As long as there are Jews in the world, the term 'Dachau' will be one of horror and shame."

General Dwight D. Eisenhower had called in the Hollywood cameramen under George Stevens as a Special Coverage Unit (Specou) to film the Allied troops from D-Day to Berlin, after being dissatisfied with the shots produced by the Signal Corps.

When Specou, also known as "the Hollywood irregulars", were sent into Dachau, their instructions were clear: to "bring back evidence of war crimes and atrocities" and to film "acceptable proof of the occurence, identify the participants, and afford a method of locating principals and witnesses."

But they hardly expected what they found. Some did not realize that Dachau was a concentration camp rather than extermination camp, notes Delage. So they conducted interviews that focused on the variety of ways in which inmates were put to death, rather than on the gassing through which most were exterminated. This becomes evident in the film Ford's assistant Ray Kellog produced, entitled That Justice Be Done, available on the Memorial website. Kellog gives a large chunk of the film to the issue of German mistreatment of American prisoners of war.

The gas chamber in Dachau was not functioning when the Americans arrived, but they filmed it extensively. Moffat does note that it was impossible to determine whether it had been used. They were still on site when they learned of Germany's capitulation on 8 May 1945.

Film as evidence

The filming was originally destined for use in the United States but when Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson became chief prosecutor in Nuremberg, he commissioned John Ford, head of the Field Photographic Branch, to put together The Nazi Concentration Camps from the filming, to show as evidence during the trials.

Apparently only six of the Nuremberg accused attended the 29 November showing of Stevens' footage, and of these the filmed record clearly showed the distress of being confronted with the images, says Delage (but see conflicting accounts from others, discussed below). The issue of what kind of evidence the film presented is also discussed below.

The Memorial exhibition details the differences in how the Americans, British and Soviets shot the camps. The Hollywood team carried over their fictional approaches to documentary. The scene of the U.S. entering Dachau (restaged) matches almost perfectly John Ford's Grapes of Wrath (1940) scene when the Joad family arrive at a migrant camp in California: the camera moves slowly forward while the people going about their daily business look into the camera and move across the screen.

The British insisted on lining up the guards on the top of the pits from which we could see the murdered victims, a conjunction which was hardly typical of life in the camps. But the British then kept the scene in longshot and slowly panned the camera at this distance rather than tracking forward.

The Soviets, who had liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp on 27 January 1945, had no camera operators on scene, but came back later and filmed under strict political control. Thus we have the famous scenes of prisoners behind barbed wire, but they were staged, Delage observes. "They are in a single row and stare fixedly at the camera, which the deportees rarely did, finding the filmers' presence intrusive." The Red Army opening the gates and prisoners' joy at liberation was also reconstructed.

In July 1944, the Soviets had liberated the Majdanek labour camp near Lublin, Poland, and had film cameras on hand. The filming here was almost brutal, notes Delage: dead bodies are shot in close-up, individuals tend to disappear in the mass. The Soviets apparently saw no reason, after years of suffering themselves, to do anything more than film in close-up what was before their eyes. The Soviet material also tends to push the victimization of Jews into the background, the U.S. historian Stuart Liebman has remarked.

It also makes us aware how little we have on film from the most notorious deathcamp of Nazi times.

Impact on directors

Perhaps even more dramatic than these examples, the exhibition considers the impact on the Hollywood directors themselves, a chronology also thoroughly detailed in the accompanying background articles produced largely by Samuel Blumenfeld forLe Monde magazine, a partner of the Memorial for the exhibition.

John Ford, the propagandist of simple values and only marginally involved in the camp filming, went back to Westerns that concentrated on lawmen and soldiers, though even John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart no longer portrayed one-dimensional goodness in their simplicity. He showed increasing skepticism towards official versions of events in films such as The Man who shot Liberty Valance (1962).It was 1964, however, before Ford turned his camera on civilians and atrocities (against the Indians in Cheyenne Autumn)

Stevens, who before the war made his name as a specialist in light comedies and musicals, "was no longer the same film-maker" after Dachau. "I could not continue to make films as before," he told the Jewish War Veterans Review. He tried to make a comedy with Ingrid Bergman on his return but gave it up. Giant (1956) was a much darker film than he had previously produced. Over four years he worked on a Shoah project, even producing it himself, without a star. He spent six months filming it and went to extraordinary lengths to achieve authenticity.choosing like Spielberg to shoot in black and white for dramatic effect. The night before shooting he showed his actors the film he had shot in Dachau.

That project was The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). It got a terrible commercial response but Shelley Winters won an Academy award and donated it to the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam. She writes in her memoirs that making the film created a fear in her that never disappeared. The producers re-made the ending to give it a more ambiguous, happier conclusion: we see seagulls flying up into the sky. Stevens' original was only restored in the 1990s.

Godard and Fuller

The trauma experienced by Stevens became the centre piece of Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinèma, a meditation on the incapacity of the rest of Hollywood to come to grips in any serious way with the Holocaust, at least before the 1990s.

By contrast, Sam Fuller's shooting of the liberation of Falkenau on 9 May 1945 was his first film. He was not attached to any film unit and used a 16mm camera sent by his mother to shoot the scenes at his commanding officer's request. We see the guards still present in the camp and local authorities forced to see the ditches used to bury the bodies. "The tension was unimaginable," Fuller reported in 1988, in the documentary by Emil Weiss, Falkenau: vision of the impossible, shown at the Memorial on 10 March. The dead were unearthed, dressed and buried once more. The guards were thus forced to touch the dead and give them a decent burial.

Two of Fuller's films refer directly to the Shoah. He made Verboten in 1958, set in the last days of the war and ending with the Nuremberg trials using some of the film projected along with Stevens' footage.

A scoop

Here the exhibition offers another scoop: film of the death of a German soldier killed by an American soldier using a knife. This scene reappears in The Big Red One (1980). In the fictional film the German survives.

The exhibition enables us to compare the two scenes. The key section of the 1980 film deals with the 1st Infantry's liberation of Falkenau, though Fuller told one of the actors it was much worse than he was able to depict.

"I lie with a camera," Fuller tells Weiss in a video you can see at the exhibition and on the website. "I lie like hell. I don't want people to leave."

The film at the trial

On the 50th anniversary of the start of the Trials, Lawrence Douglas looked at the broader issues around the film in the Yale Law Review. He pointed out that the movie was steamrollered awkwardly into a discussion of the Austrian Anschluss. It was shoehorned into the trial of leading Nazis (some relatively minor figures but including Hermann Goering) by Supreme Court Justice Jackson, responsible for prosecuting dubiously criminal charges of conspiracy to wage aggressive war.

It was within this framework the screening was presented. Douglas points out: "The film understands the crimes to be the consequence of aggressive militarism rather than genocide.[...] The word 'Jew,' for example, is mentioned only once in the entire film, and in such a manner as to obscure any suggestion that Nazi terror was directed against Jews as a group."

Nor does the offer visual evidence of the Nazi extermination program: "The camps liberated by the British and Americans were not, technically speaking, centers of extermination."

Such oversights were typical of the first Nuremberg trial itself. "The French prosecution, responsible for presenting evidence under the fourth count of the indictment ("Crimes Against Humanity"), mentioned the Jews as a target of Nazi violence on but one occasion," Douglas notes.

Douglas adds: "By its own terms, then, Nazi Concentration Camps is a film about political terror and the excesses of war. It documents a barbaric campaign to exterminate political enemies of a brutal regime. It exposes the horrific mistreatment of prisoners of war, and the enslavement of civilians to service a ruthless war machine. It bears witness to spectacular excesses of cruelty and reveals the administrative and technological apparatus that made possible campaigns of mass murder. It does so, however, in a manner that understands extermination in terms of the perverted logic of political control and military conquest. The film understands the crimes to be the consequence of aggressive militarism rather than genocide."

Robert E. Conot, one of the psychologists assigned to investigating the prisoners, reports in Justice at Nuremberg (1983) that "it was evident even to Jackson that it was necessary to spice up the trial" (148). The showing left several defendants in a state of shock, he says: "Funk, biting his knuckles, cried like a baby; Sauckel shuddered; Schirach gasped; tears welled in Ribbentrop's eyes. Hess appeared bewildered. None watched the movie in its entirety" (149).

The prisoners' reactions were visible because Jackson had a row of dim bulbs recessed into the balustrade of the dock "so that the guards could continue to observe the defendants" (149)

However, Douglas also reports, citing The New York Times report from the next day*: "All but Schacht followed every scene of the film, leaning forward to get a better view.... The only other prisoner affected ... was von Ribbentrop, who watched the first third of the film and then turned away and closed his eyes for most of the remainder, taking only an occasional glance at the screen as if urged to it by some horrible fascination."

By contrast, Douglas then quotes the prison psychologist G.M. Gilbert as noting a different response in his diary: "Funk covers his eyes ... Sauckel mops brow ... Frank swallows hard, blinks eyes, trying to stifle tears ... Frank mutters 'Horrible!' ... Rosenberg fidgets, peeks at screen, bows head, looks to see how others are reacting ... Seyss-Inquart stoic throughout ... Speer looks very sad, swallows hard ... Defense attorneys are now muttering, 'for God's sake - terrible.' ... Fritzsche, pale, biting lips, really seems in agony ... Doenitz has head buried in his hands ... Keitel now hanging head."

An associate counsel, Telford Taylor, reported in 1992: "Schacht turned his back on the screen to show that he had had no connection with such bestiality; Goering tried to brazen it out; the weaker ones like Ribbentrop, Frank, and Funk appeared shattered" (Douglas).

Conot also quotes from Gilbert to give Goering's reaction in his cell that evening: "It was such a good afternoon, too -- and then they showed that awful film, and it just spoiled everything!"

In fact, the prison warden had shown the group film of Buchenwald after American soldiers had arrived there: "They were nauseated by the mounds of corposes, they regarded the picture as propagand," reports Conot, "and could not understand how it / related to them. Ribbentrop walked out. Doenitz, missing the point entirely, inquired harshly: 'If this is American justice, why don't they shoot me now?' Goering waved his hand cavalierly: 'That's the type of atrocity picture we used to show our Russian prisoners'" (33-4).

The film was shown only because the Trial did not require usual standards for admitting evidence. "The enabling charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal [...] declared that the trial would 'not be bound by technical rules of evidence'" (Douglas).

The film in history

In the Canadian trial of a Holocaust denier, Douglas points out, Nazi Concentration Camps was shown to the jury, [...] as evidence of precisely those crimes against the Jews that the film fails to mention. On appeal, the film was excluded from evidence and the conviction overturned." Ironically, then, Nazi Concentration Camps has been used as irrefutable proof of an event the film did not originally see itself as documenting."

Objections to the film

As for the film's movie qualities, Douglas finds it open to many objections.

Though it could have been in color (Stevens shot a lot of the material with the camera he used to film behind the scenes while directing Gunga Din), the Army feared the three-track projectors for Technicolor might not be available. So it came about that we tend to see the Holocaust as a black and white event.

Reenactments were staged to portray several scenes, and these were least effective, coming across as a lighthearted depiction of harsh realities as the Russian prisoners of war smiled at the camera.

Douglas notes the failure of one attempt to create an 'artistic' shot: "The film offers a close-up through the camp's fence of a bearded camp survivor, his head framed by a rectangle of barbed wire. The frame within the frame, a perfectly adequate and appropriate technique for a Hollywood shot, seems in this context mannered and indecent. Indeed, the man's grim vanquished stare haunts not simply because it abandons any pretense of posturing for the camera, but because it suggests contempt toward this self-conscious effort to aestheticize his experience."

Nevertheless, he concludes of this shot: "The image succeeds despite itself, for it draws attention to the horror of the survivor through the plight of the camera."

Confusion and embarrassment

Douglas shows himself unusually sensitive to the difficulty of using an 'objective' camera style in filming the camps:

"In Nazi Concentration Camps we catch glimpses of [...] the camera's confusion and embarrassment. Its efforts to occupy a position of detached neutral observation -- the putatively privileged position of the realist documentary -- merely call attention to a central confusion that leaves its traces throughout the film. Even those moments when the survivors treat the camera as invisible are unnerving, as we are so accustomed to posing for a photograph that the subjects' capacity to stare past the camera's gaze becomes revealing. Close-ups of former inmates show the twisted facial geometries and afflicted eyes of the demented. Their very obliviousness to the filming eye, the absence of any defense against the camera's intrusions, makes their isolation and despair manifest. The camera functions, then, less as the invisible witness imagined by theorists of realist documentary and members of the Nuremberg prosecution. Instead, it serves to provoke -- we learn of the survivors' world through their reaction (or lack of one) to the lens's awkward probings."

The trial in history

Though this is not an article about the Trials (read Conot's illuminating account of the confusions and incompetence that dogged the first Nuremberg trial), it is worth adding a few words about its imapct on history. Cornot concluded in 1983: "While many of the principles of Nuremberg have been incorporated into international law, practices have changed little" (521).

Nevertheless, after Nuremberg, "the American government found it more and more impolitic to conduct two policies: one for international consumption, and the other for domestic accommodation" (520).

In 1948 the United Nations adopted a Genocide Convention, but the U.S., in a time a racial segregation, refused to ratify it. The Soviet Union, under Stalin, made sure it excluded political groups.

But President Truman desegregated the armed forces that year. In 1954, when the Supreme Court unanimously held school segregation unconstituional, Justice Jackson made it clear that the "awful consequences of racial prejudice revealed by [...] the Nazi regime" influenced his decision, as reported by Richard Kluger in Simple Justice (1976:690) (Conot 520).

Perhaps the biggest irony is that General Eisenhower's words emblazoned at the entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Museum — "What I saw beggers description" — did not refer to the treatment of the Jews.


The Mémorial de la Shoah website, including the program of films.

Memorial address: 17 rue Geoffroy-l'Asnier, Paris 4e

métro: St-Paul/Pont-Marie

Le Monde magazine

Robert E. Conot. 1983. Justice at Nuremberg.. Harper & Row/Carroll & Graf 1984.

Lawrence Douglas.1995. Film as Witness: Screening 'Nazi Concentration Camps' before the Nuremberg Tribunal. Yale Law Journal. Volume: 105. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 1995. Page Number: 449-481.

Raymond Daniell, War-Crimes Court Sees Horror Film, N.Y. Times, Nov. 30, 1945, at 6.

Claude Lanzmann's DVDs are available commercially, including a revised 2007 edition of Shoah.

Alain Jaubert has produced Auschwitz, l'album la mémoire (1984) -- "a meditation on the difficulty of showing the unthinkable". Four deportees comment on photographs taken by the SS.

Frédéric Rossif put on three DVDs five hours of material in De Nuremberg à Nuremberg (2004), of which the most relevant here is François Girod's Avant l'oubli? (France 3,2001).