Alfred Hitchcock’s movies have been the subject of intense scrutiny for decades. Understandably, we who love Hitchcock, focus on his unique cinematic language, the almost shamanistic ability to move the audience into shifting and complex points of view, and his mastery of suspense.
Less known are the propaganda films he volunteered to work on during World War II.
And perhaps the least known but most important allied film on which Hitchcock labored was never finished, and unceremoniously filed into the Imperial War Museum under the archival title number: “F3080.”
In June 1945 Hitchcock sailed to England to join his close friend and future producing partner, Sidney Bernstein, to make a documentary about the Nazi concentration camps. Bernstein, a British film exhibitor and producer, who had a long and close relationship with Hitchcock, was stunned by the horrors of the newly liberated death camps. Bernstein, a tireless anti-fascist and crusader against anti-Semitism, served as an officer in the Ministry of Information. Eisenhower ordered a documentary produced. Other important directors were proposed—Carol Reed and Billy Wilder—but only Hitchcock was able to set aside time.
In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life and Darkness and Light, author Patrick McGilligan writes:
[Hitchcock met] with two writers who had witnessed the atrocities of Bergen-Belsen first-hand. Richard Crossman contributed a treatment, while Colin Wills, an Australian correspondent, wrote a script that relied heavily on narration.
The director had committed himself to the project early enough to give Hitchcockian instructions to some of the first cameramen entering the concentration camps. Hitchcock made a point of requesting “long tracking shots, which cannot be tampered with,” in the words of the film’s editor, Peter Tanner, so that nobody could claim the footage had been manipulated to falsify the reality. The footage was in a newsreel style, but generally of high quality, and some of it in color.
There are several long panning shots in the film, and lingering close-ups which are almost unbearably graphic.
“One of the big shots I recall,” said Tanner,” was when we had priests from various denominations who went to one of the camps. They had a Catholic priest. They had a Jewish rabbi. They had a German Lutheran and they had a Protestant clergyman from England. And it was all shot on one shot so that you saw them coming along, going through the camp, and you saw them from their point of view all that was going on. And it was never cut. It was all in one shot. And this I know was one of Hitchcock’s ideas.”
This shot is not in the film.
The footage spanned eleven concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Ebensee, and Mathausen. The filmmakers ended up with eight thousand feet of film and newsreel, some of it shot by allied photographers, the rest of it impounded. It was to be cut and assembled into roughly seven reels.
One reel runs approximately 10 minutes.
Hitchcock watched “all the film as it came in,” recalled Tanner, although the director “didn’t like to look at it.” The footage depressed both of them: the piles of corpses, the staring faces of dead children, the walking skeletons. The days of looking at the footage were long and unrelievedly grim.
The film was supposed to “perform the miracle of excoriating Nazi brutality while holding up optimism for postwar Germany.” But funding for the film was suspended in early August. Said Bernstein many years later: “The military command, our foreign office and the U.S. State Department, decided that the Germans were in a state of apathy and had to be stimulated to get the machine of Germany working again. They didn’t want to rub their noses in the atrocities.”
Despite Bernstein’s protests, the unfinished fifty-five minute film—without completed sound or narration—was dumped into the Imperial war Museum, under the title of its archival file number: “F3080”—or “Memory of the Camp,” as it has come to be known—was discovered to be no Hitchcock flight of fancy, but an extremely hard-nosed, politically farsighted, totally unflinching look at the nightmare truth—“truth,” as Norman Lebrecht wrote in the Sunday Times, “at its most naked.”
You might also want to read Deanna Durbin and the Holocaust.