Night Will Fall

Back in the autumn I went to my second home, Edinburgh’s wonderful Filmhouse, to watch a remarkable documentary, Night Will Fall. Actually it’s more a documentary about a documentary – as World War Two faded into its final days in 1945 and the Allies liberated the concentration camps, camera teams were sent in to record and document the hideous atrocities, partly for evidence for the planned war crime trials, partly because even then they knew some people would say it never happened, or it had been exaggerated. The British team had film reels from British, American and Soviet teams and decided to also make a full length documentary film (appropriately, given British cinema in the 20s and 30s was the birthplace of modern documentary film). Sadly for various reasons, some political, the plug was pulled just after the war and the film, which was two thirds complete, was left in limbo, unseen, for decades, despite a script by Richard Crossman (later the famous politician and diarist) and having involvement by Alfred Hitchcock. Seven decades on and Andre Singer has made Night Will Fall, telling the story of this project.

night will fall film poster

And while I note this as one of the most impressive films I saw in 2014, I must also say it was, quite simply, the hardest film I have ever sat through. I’ve watched every kind of horror film there is over the decades, but this was true horror, the sort it is hard not to turn away from, the sort that makes you spiritually and physically ill. I have never seen an audience leave a cinema in a silence that roared so loud. Obviously given I knew this was about the Holocaust I knew to expect this going in. But you can’t really prepare yourself for it. In one scene we see captured German guards forced to clear up the piles of bodies of the murdered they hadn’t had time to bury or cremate before the Allies reached their camps (the soldiers could smell them long before they saw them, the stench of the dead and of the diseased, weakened survivors, giving lie to German civilians nearby who pretended they didn’t know what was going on). You see them picking the bodies off of piles, hoisting them over their shoulders, the arms and heads loll horribly, like a marionette with the strings cut. This was a person. This obscene thing was once someone’s dad, mum, aunt, sister, brother, son, daughter, reduced to this thing after abject, long suffering… It’s beyond vile. And those are just the remains that can be seen, not including the ones who went up the chimneys from ovens designed for human bodies…

Why the hell did I subject myself to watching something like this, you might ask? A few days before I saw this in the cinema Nigel Farage and his odious Ukip band of bigots made a deal with a far right Polish party. A party whose leader denies the Holocaust (among many other reprehensible beliefs he holds on women and other groups). This was not even for ideological reasons, Farage cosied up to this bastard and his party simply for money-grubbing reasons, to get funding for a group of like-minded parties in the European parliament. I was already considering going to see this, but that decided me – when a British politician is making deals with right wing Holocaust deniers it makes it all the more important more of us see this film, not matter how horribly hard we find it to watch what monsters in a human skin can do to others. Because we need to be reminded where their kind of bigotry leads to – first of all it is treat them different because they are ‘different’ from us, so it becomes acceptable to talk about them like that in public, in the media. Then demand legislation to legally differentiate their rights from other citizens. And then what? Smashed windows? A new crystal nacht? Then it is okay to treat them any way you want, remove them from society, put them in camps… We have been down this road. We know that small starts like that sort of xenophobic bigotry can lead to the most awful acts imaginable.

The documentary makes the point that this happened in a civilised, educated, Western society in the heart of Europe, and given the right manipulation of people’s opinions this could happen anywhere, again. And right now every country sees a rise in these right wing movements attacking immigrants, multi-culturalism, the place of women, gays, anyone who they think is ‘different’. And there is Farage, his “cheeky chappy with pint and ciggie” mask revealed for what it is, an odious little creature who happily makes deals with a party of Holocaust deniers, for which there can be no forgiveness (and why has this not been more widely debated in the media?? How can any UK politician get away with doing that in this day and age??). There is an old adage about dreadful events which we, as individuals are powerless to prevent – but if we cannot stop it (and obviously we cannot stop an even that happened decades ago) we can still bear witness. We bear witness so that it will be remembered and not allowed to happen again. And so I watched Night Will Fall, all the way through, hard as it was. On January 24th, as part of Holocaust Memorial Day, Channel 4 will be screening the film on British television. It is difficult to watch, I know, but please try. And Farage, perhaps you should watch this then explain to the entire British electorate why you are making friends with scum like your Polish Holocaust denying party chums.

Nuremberg

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the commencement of the Nuremberg trials, where the surviving leaders of Nazi Germany were brought before a court which gave the world a new term: crimes against humanity. Just another historical anniversary? Far from it; all of our collective history is relevant – events from 60 years ago influence and shape our present just as events 600 years ago. History is far from a purely academic interest, it is the mould of our current world and a lack of awareness of our history denies us the means to understand and thus alter that mould to a new and better design.

The Nuremberg trials set the basis for later international law and set leaders on notice that they could be held to account for their actions in a world court – as old Slobby is at the moment (‘ethnic cleansing’ – a hideous case of history repeating itself if ever there was). Unfortunately it is unlikely we will see all of those who use their power and position unwisely – will we see Mugabe in the Hague? Blair? Bush? The leaders of the insurgency in Iraq who murdered dozens of Muslims at prayer on Friday? As with the supposedly impartial law of our own land those with influence and connections can and often do manage to circumvent the legal consequences to their actions. Nonetheless, the principal is a good one and we ignore it and the lessons of history at our peril.

On which subject I was watching the documentary series The West (from the producers of the excellent Civil War series, which drew largely on the work of the wonderful Shelby Foote) and once again was struck with how patterns repeat in history, usually to our shame. This episode dealt with Custer’s arrogant downfall at the Little Bighorn, the forcible taking of the sacred Black Hills by the US government after promises not to and the flight of the Lakota and the Nez Perce. Legendary names abound in this episode – Sherman, Custer, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull – but the one thing which stared me in the face from over a century ago was the blind arrogance and greed of a larger power which would make many indications of friendship and peace then break their word and commit any and all forms of brutal act on warriors and civilians alike when they saw land and resources they coveted. Be it minerals in the Black Hills or the black gold of oil in the deserts of Iraq, it seems we are doomed to repeat some patterns as long as those with weak morals and no grasp of history are allowed to rule.

All the more important then, I think, that the rest of us learn and debate these events, historical and contemporary. Perhaps it will only be some of us talking online, but as long as some think about it and discuss it we serve notice that we refuse to be comlicit in these events and that we are watching what they do. And who knows, perhaps one day the people who commit such atrocities, dressing them up in lies and broken promises, will have to answer to us. Last week we commemerated the fallen of previous wars and the phrase ‘lest we forget’ was repeated, almost as a litany; this is a good phrase and one we should and must apply not only to those who fell to protect us but to those who would abuse that sacrifice to further their own selfish ends, dressing it in a rhetoric of lies.

“Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for all my horses and cattle.

Good words cannot give me back my children. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves.”

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder coming up over the land from the water), better known to us as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, talking of the plight of his people, but it can all to easily be applied to current events. There is a commendable and concise overview of the chief by Jennifer Beck on this site.