I haven't received the BFI disc yet but am writing this from the screening on Channel 4 last night:
A difficult film, and not just to watch. This is all about the filming of the discovery and liberation of the concentration camps as the Allies moved across Nazi occupied territory. The first half of the film is interesting but plays relatively straight as a documentary, dealing with the shock of witnessing the horrors and including contemporary (or near contemporary) interviews with either the liberators or those inside the camp. This includes a couple of 'then and now' moments of showing people in the footage and as they are now, which were interesting but which also made me slightly uneasy, as it reminded me a little too much of the nostalgic use of the same technique in the BBC Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon
series. Except instead of someone being picked out of a street scene for their current relatives to reminisce about, instead it is emaciated people with their faces pressed up against barbed wire fences as their current selves marvel that they survived at all.
If the film had stayed in that register I perhaps would not have thought as highly of it, but the second half moves into the post-war attempts at gathering together disparate footage from the various Allies in order to create a kind of definitive (and perhaps naively impossible given what follows) account of the Holocaust. However immediately this gets compromised in many different ways, from needing to use material for war crimes trials (the first moving picture documentation of atrocities used to subsequently prosecute?), to classical censorship of extremely horrific images to spare audiences from being exposed to some of the sights. Which is understandable, particularly since this is documentary footage of the corpses of real people - there are some images in here that are extremely horrific, particularly the final procession past the bodies at the side of the road showing bullet impacts, people with half of their heads missing, or hollowed out heads with the brains in the grass next to them.
Then the entire project seems to implode on itself as the Allied nations appear to split apart into wanting to create a 'story of the camps' that would best appeal to their individual home nation audiences. The idea of any man's inhumanity to any man getting in some ways 'safely' distilled down into the Nazi's inhumanity to the Jews, isolating the horrors into one event in one period of time. The film gets into Billy Wilder and Death Mills and its use of footage that has previously been shown earlier in the documentary with the addition of a more triumphalising moralistic voiceover on top of it, shocking the viewer but also saying that the horror has somehow been stopped.
Even the pure need to document piles of bodies or the prisoners, just to prove that such an event occurred to naysayers in some ways gets compromised, as in the section in which the filmmakers get some of the children (according to the now adult subject in the contemporary interview) wearing the most photogenic striped uniforms to lead a procession between two barbed wire fences. This documentary does allow the suggestion that re-creation of those kind of events allowed the sense of the horrors of the Holocaust to be witnessed by more people more powerfully. But there is an ambiguity there of seeing how 'real events' can be composed according to a filmmaker's intentions. It is not all just captured serendipitously.
And that I think makes the second half of the documentary extremely powerful. It is perhaps less about the Holocaust, or even the concentration camps, but about the inherent contradictions (and perhaps callous cruelties, in the way that it uses up and then discards images of real people, alive or dead) of the documentary medium itself: the choices and decisions made by the 'first responders', the choices and decisions made by the different parties then working from the same raw footage that is captured, and the way that even the worst horrors can eventually be packaged for the needs of different audiences, or to fulfill different purposes.