The British Army Film Unit cameramen who shot the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 used to joke about the reaction of Alfred Hitchcock to the horrific footage they filmed. When Hitchcock first saw the footage, the legendary British director was reportedly so traumatised that he stayed away from Pinewood Studios for a week. Hitchcock may have been the king of horror movies but he was utterly appalled by "the real thing".
In 1945, Hitchcock had been enlisted by his friend and patron Sidney Bernstein to help with a documentary on German wartime atrocities, based on the footage of the camps shot by British and Soviet film units. In the event, that documentary was never seen.
"It was suppressed because of the changing political situation, particularly for the British," suggests Dr Toby Haggith, Senior Curator at the Department of Research, Imperial War Museum. "Once they discovered the camps, the Americans and British were keen to release a film very quickly that would show the camps and get the German people to accept their responsibility for the atrocities that were there."
The film took far longer to make than had originally been envisaged. By late 1945, the need for it began to wane. The Allied military government decided that rubbing the Germans' noses in their own guilt wouldn't help with postwar reconstruction.
Five of the film's six reels were eventually deposited in the Imperial War Museum and the project was quietly forgotten.
In the 1980s, the footage was discovered in a rusty can in the museum by an American researcher. It was eventually shown in an incomplete version at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984 and then broadcast on American PBS in 1985 under the title Memory of the Camps but in poor quality and without the missing sixth reel. The original narration, thought to have been written by future Labour Cabinet Minister Richard Crossman in collaboration with Australian journalist Colin Wills, was read by actor Trevor Howard.
Now, finally, the film is set to be seen in a version that Hitchcock, Bernstein and the other collaborators intended. The Imperial War Museum has painstakingly restored it using digital technology and has pieced together the extra material from the missing sixth reel. A new documentary, Night Will Fall, is also being made with André Singer, executive producer of The Actof Killing, as director and Stephen Frears as directorial advisor. Both the original film about the camps and the new documentary will be shown on British TV in early 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the "liberation" of Europe. Before that, next year, they are due to be shown together at festivals and in cinemas
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