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The Times (12/Dec/1983) - What Hitchcock saw, filmed, and hid

(c) The Times (12/Dec/1983)

Caroline Moorehead uncovers another missing Hitchcock

What Hitchcock saw, filmed -- and hid

The five "missing Hitchcocks" recently being shown at the London Film Festival are not the only films of his to have disappeared mysteriously: five reels of a documentary about German concentration camps, compiled by Alfred Hitchcock in the summer of 1945 and lasting just under an hour, are filed away in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. They have never been shown.

The idea for an "objective report, which would demonstrate the terror methods used by the Germans" came from Sidney Bernstein (now Lord), owner of the Granada chain of cinemas and attached to the Ministry of Information during the war.

In April 1945 Bernstein entered Belsen and Buchenwald. Shortly after returning to London, with incontrovertible evidence of the enormous scale of the German extermination programme pouring into his office, he drew up plans for a "German special film", an Anglo-American coproduction, to be made for SHAEF -- Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces.

The film was intended primarily for viewing within Germany so that Germans could witness, in a way they could never refute, what had taken place on their soil. It might also, he suggested, help to "promote German acceptance of the justice of Allied, occupation measures". A second English version was to be prepared for world distribution.

Almost at once, the film ran into difficulties. As the footage shot by army film units throughout Germany began to reach England, horrified people inside the MoI expressed their anxiety that unless the concentration camp film was wholly convincing, "it might have a boomerang effect since the public might query its authenticity". It was not that the evidence was insufficient: it was too shocking, too unbelievable.

Bernstein now sent out instructions to cameramen to take sound interviews as well as filmed records of the British officers and German SS men at Belsen, and "any material which will show the connexion between German industry and concentration camps -- e.g. name plates on incinerators, gas chambers and other equipment". Davidson Taylor, Chief of Theatre at SHAEF, had already written to him saying that a mood of dissociation from the atrocities was fast spreading through the German people.

By June, Bernstein had decided the only way to give his film the impact it needed was to recruit the best people he could find Hitchcock, a film friend of Bernstein's from the 1940s, came from Hollywood to direct it. Colin Wills of the News Chronicle was asked to write a first outline, and Richard Crossman agreed to work on the treatment. Solly Zuckerman was made medical and scientific adviser.

The film opens with Hitler among cheering crowds. It follows the allies as they move through neat and tidy orchards into the camp at Belsen, with its piles of bodies, staring guards and living skeletons. The message written to end the film was that "Unless the people of Germany cleanse their minds and their hearts of a creed which has been responsible for the physical and moral degradation of human beings, as they have just seen, there is no hope for them in the world of the future."

By now, however, official policy towards Germany had changed. The government bodies to whom the film was shown objected that it might make their new relationship with the Germans more difficult. Donald McLachlan, of the political intelligence department of the Foreign Office, wrote to Bernstein that "policy at the moment in Germany is entirely in the direction of encouraging and stimulating the Germans out of their apathy".

Only five of the original six reels survive. All the papers relating to it are at the Public Record Office in Kew, and the correspondence peters out after July 1945, There are references to two further files, but these have vanished.

Caroline Moorehead is the author of "Sidney Bernstein: A Biography", to be published by Jonathan Cape on January 30.