MEMORY OF THE CAMPS (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945, 1985)

At the end of the war, I made a film to show the reality of the concentration  camps, you know. Horrible. It was more horrible than any fantasy horror. Then, nobody wanted to see it. It was too unbearable. But it has stayed in my mind all of these years. —Alfred Hitchcock

 

As searing a film about the Holocaust as anyone could imagine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Memory of the Camps claims a curious history. Shot by cinematographers who accompanied Allied forces at the liberation of the Nazi death camps at the end of World War II, the raw footage was deemed worthy of preservation in the form of a whole film aimed at confronting Germans with the truth about the camps. Therefore, the project was launched by the British Ministry of Information and the American Office of War Information, under the supervision of British producer Sidney Bernstein. Bernstein, who would help produce Hitchcock films (Rope, 1948; Under Capricorn, 1949; I Confess, 1953), enlisted Hitchcock in the project. It is Hitch, the imaginative magician, who tamed the beast of the raw footage, giving it structure and coherence; the ideas behind its formal assenblage were all his. However, geopolitical propriety intervened; the shift in postwar Allied relations with Germany caused the project to be halted. Hitchcock’s brilliant work, incomplete, was buried alive in London’s Imperial War Museum, where it remained until the mid-1980s, when the U.S. TV documentary series Frontline appropriated the material, to which it added nose-rubbing script that actor Trevor Howard, possibly in his cups, read aloud with a voice that had dwindled down to a frail reed and in a smug, superior sing-song manner. Whatever damage the public television people inflicted, Hitchcock’s superlative movie shines through.

We tour a number of the camps, including Buchenwald and Dachau, just as those in charge there scramble to hide away the mass human slaughter they had accomplished (11 million people, including six million Jews). Mounds of corpses, limbs twisted every which way, were bulldozed into mass graves. These camp officials and their subordinates weren’t quick enough; we see, or imagine we see, everything. The coldness and cruelty of the entire enterprise of the camps are encapsulated in the attitude and behavior of guards: an example of the representative piecemeal strategy that permits the more delicate among us (including, ironically, Hitchcock himself) to get a grip on the enormity of the Nazi evil and horror. If you doubt that Hitchcock was a genius, consider the darkly magical dimension of this metaphor: structurally, the true nature of the camps is initially hidden behind the smiling faces of children, enraptured by the cameras, purportedly at the perimeter of Bergen-Belsen. Of course, in the actual chronology of events, who now knows when or where that shot was taken? How I love Hitchcock! How I love cinema! Perhaps our love for all this alone buoys our spirit as the imagery launches our descent into overwhelming depravity and inhumanity. Perhaps this is why Hitchcock elected to turn his Ed Gein-film (Psycho, 1960) into a black comedy.

Distancing is almost always necessary in art; this is most certainly the case when the subject matter is something so horrible as the Holocaust. I doubt, though, the folks at Frontline would agree.

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