Night Will Fall: Producer Sally Angel Discusses the HBO Holocaust Documentary [Exclusive]
If you’re like me, you had no idea that when the British, Soviet and American troops liberated Nazi concentration camps in 1945, army and newsreel cameramen recorded the terrible discoveries they made. This footage was used byÂ Sidney Bernstein of the British governmentâ€™s Ministry of Information and his team, including supervising director Alfred Hitchcock, to create a harrowing film titled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.
Despite the documentary’s pedigree, the initial support it received and the use of the most riveting concentration camp footage you’ll ever see, this project hasn’t been widely viewed. Night Will Fall reveals the previously untold story of this deeply moving documentary.
I spoke exclusively with producer Sally Angel aboutÂ why she and the filmmakers decided to tackle this project, why it’s important to tell this story now and what she hopes people will get out of watching this film.
TV GOODNESS: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to be involved in Night Will Fall?
Sally Angel: â€œIâ€™m a TV producer primarily and I became involved in this film because I was doing some work at the Imperial War Museum. I was giving a talk to the student film festival crowd and over coffee one of the curators there, Toby Haggith, told me that he was about to digitally restore and complete a film that had been shot when the allies went into the concentration camps.
Iâ€™d seen fragments and clips of footage all through my life, I guess, but I hadnâ€™t realized any of them had come from a film that had been part of a bigger, considered thing. I was intrigued by that and then he had told me it had been shot by this amazing team, which included, as you know, Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein and Richard Crossman and had been stopped by the British government.
I wanted to tell the story behind the film. In my time at the BBC, one of the things I did was to work on a lot of the archive programs. So I always knew there were really good backstories to programs and films and lots of interesting background information.
I really wanted to dig deeper and start to tell that story. It occurred to me that maybe some of the people around would be alive and able to tell their story. That was the starting point and that was about four years ago.â€
TV GOODNESS: With documentaries, I find itâ€™s always interesting to know how the filmmakers decide what story to tell and what narrative to construct around such powerful images. Can you talk about that?
Sally: â€œThat was a bit of a process, to be honest. Itâ€™s really quite complicated in some respects, because first of all the footage is so harrowing.â€
TV GOODNESS: It is.
Sally: â€œAnd horrific. Iâ€™ve never really seen such close-up horror. Real, you know? So we had an ethical issue about content. We knew we needed to provide context all the way through. So that was one thing.
I was always quite keen to tell the story of the film and use that as the backbone. Andre [Singer], the director, had a wider scope of telling a broader story. And what happened was we wove in between those two things. The first cut that we did, we actually included 3 historians, each an expert that could talk about Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald — so the British sector, the Americans and the Russians.
We made that cast and also tracked down and interviewed the liberated, cameramen and survivors. As we looked at these two strands, the first-hand experience of those that had been there and the interpretive layer that historians brought, we thought, â€˜Letâ€™s get rid of those historians,â€™ in the nicest possible way and let the pictures tell the story and letâ€™s let the people who were there bear witness to what went on. That became what happened, really.
Because the original material was so powerful, the script is really strong and the imagery is extraordinary â€“ both in terms of how horrific it is, but also in terms of how well the shots were framed and how bizarrely beautifully constructed the edit is â€“ itâ€™s a really difficult thing to get across to people, but itâ€™s an incredibly well made film, despite its content.â€
TV GOODNESS: I agree. The actual footage from the camps is hard to watch, but at the same time so important to see. How did you decide how much of that content you wanted to include?
Sally: â€œThatâ€™s a really, really good question because it was really a tough one. It was so overwhelming. In actual fact, thereâ€™s only twelve minutes of the original film in our documentary.
We were really, really clear that whatever we do we want to have context around. Because otherwise, in a sense youâ€™re dealing with issues to do with the pornography of violence. We just didnâ€™t want to be gratuitous. All of those dead bodies you see in the film are somebodyâ€™s relatives, theyâ€™re real people with a life and a family, even if we donâ€™t know their names. So we were really attempting as best we could to make sure that everything we used from the original film was properly anchored in some context and there was always a reason for it.
One of the things I was really clear about is that in other documentaries about the Holocaust, quite often thereâ€™s an indiscriminate use of footage making general points about a camp or what happened. Maybe thereâ€™ll be footage from Auschwitz from someone talking about Belsen or Buchenwald. We wanted to be really clear that whatever we used was appropriate, not just used to cover commentary in any way, shape or form. So everything is carefully chosen.â€
TV GOODNESS: I lived in Germany as a child and Iâ€™ve toured Bergen-Belsen. I have to admit that it wasnâ€™t until I saw this film that I truly understood the atrocities of what happened there. I had an idea, but this film opened my eyes. Why is it important to make this film, to tell this story? And why is it important for people to see it now?
Sally: About Bergen-Belsen, one of the interesting, slightly difficult things when you visit there is itâ€™s so clear of any sort of physical element, thereâ€™s no huts there. Itâ€™s just nature. In a sense, itâ€™s a quite meditative space and itâ€™s a memorial space, but in terms of being able to connect what happened, itâ€™s really tough.
For me, personally, making the film, looking at the footage and then going there, it was a really powerful moment to connect that black and white footage. Those people that were being put into the pits with that space that is there now, itâ€™s really important. Things grow over and you donâ€™t remember. And itâ€™s really important that we do remember and that we do bear witness to what happened.
Andre was talking last [week] at the screening and he was saying his children, that generation have no real concept and the depth of what his generation or my generation do of what happened. Itâ€™s really important that we keep communicating about what can happen when civilization breaks down in this way, as will be show in the film.
We, each of us, have to take responsibility for making sure that this kind of thing doesnâ€™t happen again and we need to be reminded of it. It is around us. Civilization is quite a fragile thing and we need to be quite vigilant.â€
TV GOODNESS: If thereâ€™s only one thing people take away from this film, what do you want it to be?
Sally: â€œCan I have two? The importance of honoring people who bear witness to atrocity. Thatâ€™s a really important and powerful thing to do and I know a lot of the cameramen and people that went into the camps, from the film that we made, they couldnâ€™t talk about it afterwards.
The legacy and the testimony theyâ€™ve left behind is incredibly important as evidence. Itâ€™s proof and thereâ€™s an emotional connection we can all have with that. I think thatâ€™s really important and not looking away from things.
One of the points that they make in the film is that the local people around the camps benefited from the camps in all sorts of ways and chose not to look, not everyone but a significant number of people.
Thatâ€™s really important for all of us as well. We can all choose to look away from things. We need to force ourselves to have the courage to look and not to turn a blind eye to see that we all individually have a responsibility to make sure things are ok and not assume itâ€™s down to someone else.â€
TV GOODNESS: Any final thoughts?
Sally: â€œThe only other thing I would say is that weâ€™re incredibly honored that HBO are screening the film. I donâ€™t know if you know that itâ€™s going to be a global thing. Weâ€™ve got it going into over twenty territories to commemorate World Holocaust Day. Itâ€™s great because everybodyâ€™s joining in and showing how important this is.â€
Edited for space and content.
Night Will FallÂ premieres Monday, January 26th at 9/8c on HBO.
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