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Boston Globe (07/May/1985) - A Horror to Learn From




It shouldn't come as that much of a surprise that two of this year's best programs are two of the most difficult to watch.

"Threads," produced by the British Broadcasting Corp. and shown on Ted Turner's WTBS last January, provided a terrifying study of what would happen if the two superpowers ever came to superblows.

"Memory Of The Camps," at 9 tonight on Ch. 2 is an even more horrifying document of what happened when a superpower of the past went insane and the conscience of a country was content to just follow orders.

This 1945 film, presented by "Frontline," is the world television premiere of a British-American compilation of what awaited the Allies when they liberated the Nazi concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen. ("Frontline" scheduled the film before the recent controversy over President Reagan's visit.)

The film has been in a vault in London's Imperial War Museum for the past 40 years. Knowledge of its existence came to light only last year when Lord Sidney Bernstein, former head of the British wartime propaganda effort and Granada Television, mentioned it in his autobiography.

As powerful as previous footage of German atrocities has been, "Memory Of The Camps" will undoubtedly become the definitive cinematic record of the hell on earth that Hitler created. Among those who worked on the film was Alfred Hitchcock, who directed films for the British Ministry of Information, which supervised the editing of the film.

According to David Fanning, "Frontline" executive producer, "It's not entirely clear what role Hitchcock played in the development of this film. This is partly because the film was never completely finished. One reel of the original six, made by Russians who liberated Auschwitz, has been lost. There was a written narration, but it had never been recorded. "Frontline" has taken the original pictures, in their original order, and added that narration - in order to present the film in as close to its original form as possible."

Trevor Howard's narration plays a large part in making this such a conscience-searing, gut-wrenching film. What is seen makes Picasso's surrealistic nightmares look representational - the bodies, living and dead, that are more bone than flesh; the SS troops and their frauleins burying the dead and showing little, if any, remorse. Howard, in a world-weary, matter-of- fact tone reminiscent of modern poetry, is constantly understating the gruesome imagery, thereby making it even more horrific.

For example, after showing a clip of corpses being thrown into a mass grave, he says, "We only know they were born, they suffered, they died - in agony - in Belsen camp."

Or, "The German citizens were brought in from Weimar. They came like tourists to this chamber of horrors . . . Some of the visitors did not care for the sights."

It has become commonplace for contemporary filmmakers to add sound effects to historical footage, a practice that usually adds to the realism of the documentary. "Frontline" wisely eschews such audio editing, along with the use of a musical soundtrack, and the result is staggeringly eerie. The hour is an uninterrupted silent scream that one can't turn a deaf ear to or look away from.

Which raises the question: Why should we expose ourselves to such horrors again? Even if we haven't seen such detail before - the barbed-wire beds, the bodies being dragged along the ground and tumbling down the hills into their mass graves, the living huddled in excrement, the lice, the charred bodies that were set afire by the SS in a final attempt to hide the final solutionfrom the Allies, the staring dead eyes, the victims - both living and dead - whose bodies bear no resemblance to anything seen in anatomy class?

A purely selfish answer is that with all the numbing television that is part of modern existence - the game shows, the situation comedies that aren't funny, the bland TV-movies, even the average newscast - it is reassuring to rediscover that television has the ability to shake the soul as it does in "Memory Of The Camps."

The more important reason is given by Howard at the end of the film. "Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But," his voice finally rising in emotion, "by God's grace, we who live will learn."

That may sound as abstract as "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to relive it." But how abstract is it, considering that the world turned its back when Cambodia massacred 2 million of its people and that China is trying to reinstate Hitler's heir, Pol Pot, as head of the Cambodian government?

And how abstract is such a summation when the President of the United States says that a visit to a concentration camp would only open old wounds and that German soldiers were as much victims of the Nazis as were the Jews and others massacred by the SS?

One wonders whether Ronald Reagan would have gone to Bitburg if he had seen "Memory Of The Camps." It is unfortunate, but the world still needs to learn the lesson these pictures teach.