The whole truth…

August 17, 2014 by  
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Dr Toby Haggith, is the Senior Curator of the  Department of Research at London’s Imperial War Museums and restoration director of the German Concentration Camps Factual Survey…a documentary featuring  the original work of wartime film cameramen who produced irrefutable evidence of the horrors of the Holocaust being shown in Sydney this week.

J-Wire’s Henry Benjamin met with Dr Haggith.

HB:  Tell me about yourself and your work.

Dr Toby Haggith

Dr Toby Haggith

TH: I  have worked in the film archives at the Imperial Museum for 25 years. My main job has been lending out film to universities and colleges as we hold the oldest film archive in the world and the collection is mainly material relating to war.

The fourth most popular title in the archives was this film in its five reel incomplete version with a commentary read by Trevor Howard. It was first broadcast on PBS Boston (US) in May 1985 on the anniversary of the liberation of the camps.

My colleagues and I would introduce it at screenings, often for Holocaust Day Memorials.   It was at a restoration festival in 1984 when we realised the tape format  version was getting really tired and had a sound echo . Despite this, the film still had a very powerful impact on the audience but we realised that we could no longer lend it out.

I knew it was an important loan item and that we were storing 100 reels of rushes along with the roughcut. Together with David Walsh, George Smith and Andrew Bullas the idea grew that maybe we could do more than restore it but incorporate the unused sixth reel.

HB: So you are talking about making a specific project?

TH  Yes. The important thing to understand is that the 100 reels are source material.   During the War all footage came back to London. Even the US shot film was processed in London. The material was black and white shot in the field on 16mm with clockwork driven cameras.

HB : So how did you make a start?

TH: The British and Americans started filming sights of atrocity in 1942 with the view that they might eventually have use in war crime trials.

Previously it had not been practice to film civilians in distress but in 1943, the British film unit started filming evidence of German atrocities in Italy.

At this point I have to get technical. Dope Sheets or Shot Lists are a list that would be attached to every reel sent back to Pinewood Studios in the UK. They are an exact list of what is on a film, the name of the cameraman, the stills photographer (who accompanied him). It also included the dates and place of the footage and who had instructed them to shoot that film.

HB: So the films were intended as evidence?

TH: Yes, this was a really important form of corroboration.  For example, there might be close-ups that showed that men’s hands had been tied and they had been stabbed with bayonets.

The cameramen were ex- combat soldiers who had been trained in camera work.  Men in the army film units were tough and battled hardened and travelled on the front line, often arriving first on the scene.

HB:  Were there losses with film crews?

TH:  Yes, these units lost more men proportionally than any other unit.

 HB:  How can you deal with the deniers?

TH:  We know that the army film unit were told that there were to be no re-enactments, faking or creating scenes.  Instructions were to film on the front line and if there were any re-enactments, this information had to be included on the dope sheet.

So what is important here that this is genuine, authenticated material, organised by the army, backed up by the dope sheets  as official records, film and kept in the Imperial War Museum.

HB: What is the running time?

TH:  72 mins

HB:  How did you go about editing it the original film?

TH: Instead of just tacking on the sixth reel at the end, we decided to go back to all the source material and build up the film from scratch. We went back to the shot sheets for the whole film and George Smith and I found all the original film. This meant we had better quality film to work with.

In the case of the Belsen films, we had the original camera negatives, and assembled the film from scratch and digitally restored as much of the film as we thought was appropriate and then added a soundtrack and rerecorded the commentary.

HB:  Was there much unusable?

TH:  Not really.  The items had been looked after very well.

We restored it frame by frame but did not overdo the restoration and removed the accretions of time but did not try to improve it. Our intention was to honour the film and the work of the brilliant filmmakers who made a very important film about the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Our job was to complete their work and not to go beyond it.

HB: Could you show it to children.

TH: No you could not. It is too disturbing and not suitable for children.

HB: Let’s discuss the deniers.

TH: The material is completely authenticated.  It is true that there were a couple of Jewish cameraman but the idea that it is Jewish conspiracy is fantastical.

Ultimately, deniers will try to undermine the authentication but it has hard not to believe the evidence. However for the moment, let’s forget the value of the film as evidence against the bulwark of deniers.

In 1945 it was farsighted and modern of these people to be so scrupulous in documenting the proof of what they recorded.  The film is a an object lesson in what the documentary once was which was to use archival footage to inform, educate and ultimately change the world and as the ethos of a force for good . This film is imbued with that ethos.

HB: I am sure that you get asked this frequently. Why did you keep the original title and not change it?

TH: In German Concentration Camps Factual Survey every piece of footage is in the correct position. By that I mean where it relates to the particular site in discussion.  As an archivist and historian that is absolutely vital because it shows one is not patronising the viewer, but are being honest.

That is why I love the title.  It is not dramatic. It is not over the top. This is what it is. The makers set out to make a factual, feature length documentary report about the concentration camp. We have honoured that.

HB:  Why do you or your colleagues introduce the film and have a Q&A session every time it is shown?

TH: The film is disturbing and alienating and we warn people before a screening and encourage people to leave at any time if they are uncomfortable.  The Q&A session is used as a way of debriefing the viewer.

HB:  What is the main reason why people should see it?

TH: The film should be periodically showed to remind people of the futility of it all.

HB: What else can you do with it to make it more widely available?

TH:  It is not practical for a team member to be at every screening. It would cost a lot of money to put it onto 35mm film. At present is shown at festivals  and museums as part of the general history of film, but we still working out what else can be done to make it more widely available. It is obviously not practical for a team member to accompany every screening.

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey will be screened  in Sydney on Tuesday and Wednesday August  19 and 20 2014 at the Events Cinema, Bondi Junction

www.jiff.com.au for further details

 

Introduction by Dr. Toby Haggith, Senior Curator at the Imperial War Museum
Followed by a Q & A and panel on both nights
Tue Aug 19th panelists: Dr Toby Haggith, Emeritus Professor Konrad Kwiet & Professor Danielle Celermajer
Wed Aug 20th panelists: Dr Toby Haggith, Emeritus Professor Konrad Kwiet & Helen Lewis

 

UK, 1945/2014

ENGLISH / 72 MIN

RESTORATION DIRECTOR — DR TOBY HAGGITH

RESTORATION PRODUCER — DAVID WALSH

ORIGINAL PRODUCER — SIDNEY BERNSTEIN

CO-PRESENTED BY THE GOETHE INSTITUTE AND THE SYDNEY JEWISH MUSEUM

 

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