Newly restored by Britain’s Imperial War Museum, the punishing 1945 doc German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was made to shock German P.O.W.s into becoming more aware of their complicity (the Allies’ strategy changed, and the film never screened in Germany). Today, its gruesome, wide-angle footage of skeletal bodies still provokes revulsion.
Also hard to stomach is the accusatory scope of co-writers Richard Crossman and Colin Wills’s narration (dramatized here by the actor Jasper Britton). Crossman and Wills emphasize broad generalizations like “Germans knew about Dachau but didn’t care” or “[Germans] grew to like being told what to do” while ignoring German resistance to Hitler: 17 million cast their ballots for the Nazi Party in 1933, while 20 million voters chose alternative parties.
Still, Crossman and Wills condemn the vanity of the camp architects (who plastered their company’s name on Dachau signage) and the “well-fed and well-kept” German collaborators/volunteers. This is Allied propaganda, of course, but these attacks, which might seem blunt or ineffective to us today, cannot dilute the visceral impact of the footage, such as the montage overviews of camp living conditions and gas chamber protocol. Britton’s voice quavers as the camera focuses on a pile of eyeglasses: “If one man in ten wears spectacles, how many does this heap represent?”
German Concentration Camps Factual Survey may not teach us today much that Schindler’s List, your local rabbi, or a quick Google search can’t, but it remains a vital artifact of a time when Dachau and Auschwitz were not synonymous with “genocide.”
German Concentration Camps Factual Survey
Opens January 6, Cinema Village
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 4, 2017