Interview: Award-winning director Andre Singer on his chilling Holocaust documentary

THIS week was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and last Monday filmmaker Andre Singer’s Night Will Fall documentary aired on Channel 4.

The film intersects horrific images from the liberation of the concentration camps with original interview footage, reimagining Sidney Bernstein’s 1945 documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.

“My instructions were to film everything which would prove one day that this actually happened. It would be a lesson to all mankind as well,” Bernstein said, discussing his experiences in 1984. Singer contextualises Bernstein’s film, giving voice to survivors of various concentration camps.

As an aside, Singer investigates the suppression of Bernstein’s film. Night Will Fall is one of the most resounding films from 2015’s on-going Holocaust memorial season, and I spoke to Singer at his London office about the process of its conception.

Director Andre Singer. Roar News / Johnny Tam

Why did you make the film?

Anyone who is computer literate, which is most people, can press a button and see atrocity footage – out of context it is pornography as far as I am concerned.

But in context it has a real value in terms of lessons learnt and taking the memory forward to the next generation. So it was for an evolution of reasons.

When I started talking to the individuals it was amazing talking to people who had spent their life digesting what happened and creating an explanation for it.

If anything it was more of a homage to them as individuals who had witnessed, suffered and gone through it and were still able to tell us about it now.

Was it cathartic or therapeutic? I don’t think so. As you get older you might want justification. They were hoping that by telling their story others would understand and learn.

A lot of them have dedicated their later lives to carrying on the story.

Do you think the film is something that could be shown in schools and if so from what age?

There is a generation of people emerging who don’t know about it. The Holocaust as education has become a hot potato.

There is a lobby that says anyone below a certain age shouldn’t be shown atrocity or horror footage due to its depiction of real people. It needs to have some sort of context and people need to understand why they’re watching it.

The film explains itself within the film, thereby giving it a lot of context. In terms of age, anything above the age of 14 [is the suitable age to watch the film].

When I was filming in Germany I was filming in several camps where most of the people looking around were school parties. It is a statutory part of the German education curriculum that 15-16 year olds see the camps.

I respect the idea of wanting to be circumspect about how children should look at death and bodies and people who might be recognisable as family members of people alive today. In the context of this film it is a process that teaches.

The question mark comes over not Night Will Fall as a film, but the original film that the Imperial War Museum has restored.

It doesn’t have context and is 75 minutes of unremitting footage. It is brilliant in its own right but unless it has context put to it that can be dangerous and traumatic.

Harry Lawson speaks to Singer. Roar News / Johnny Tam

Did you select images from the original footage based on whether they contained the interviewees? How did you choose the atrocious images?

One part of this was done for us because the original film had pre-selected what went into that film. It was based on the editing of the film in 1945 and the script that was written in 1945.

I chose bits that fitted the story that were already preselected with that sequence. From that point of view some of the work had been done for me. Only 12 minutes of stuff in Night Will Fall is from Bernstein’s original.

When I originally put it together it became numbing. My first edit threw out almost 50% of the atrocity footage. It was the biggest discussion point in terms of editing. I had watched too much of it to be able to tell if it was too much.

Another project you were involved in, The Act of Killing, is an interesting point of comparison to Night Will Fall. What is the relationship between The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence and Night Will Fall?

The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have a skill of being able to put across the horror of genocide without seeing a single dead body.

[The two films, for which Singer is an executive producer, document the Indonesian genocide of 1965-1966 through the performance of memories of perpetrators and victims] It is done purely through description, memory and re-enactment, and the harrowing story of a young man trying to trace his brother in The Look Of Silence.

It gives us a chance to really understand and sense the horror of a genocide that many people don’t know about. None of us can remember their stories, stories from another culture; it is a relatively hidden bit of history.

Night Will Fall is almost a polar opposite of this – the shock of the imagery is important, important in order to put across the whole madness of genocide and how to get to grips with it that way round.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong but it is an interesting and contesting debate. I couldn’t have made Night Will Fall in the way that The Act Of Killing was made. Stylistically it is a different approach. The Act Of Killing doesn’t mean that people should always approach genocide without real imagery.

Singer. Roar News / Johnny Tam

You previously said that The Act Of Killing was the most haunting experience of your career in cinema. Did you find Night Will Fall more difficult because of how close it was to home or because of the material that you were using?

I don’t think it was how close to home it was but perhaps there is an element of it. I found the The Act Of Killing chilling in a slightly different way.

I found myself appalled from a Western liberal upbringing – that people could find perpetrating as thrilling as they did in that film.It seemed incomprehensible.

In Night Will Fall I knew about the genocide and I was brought up learning about it, so it wasn’t a shock of the unknown, but the brutality again … of a system that found human life irrelevant and found that it was justifiable, even in the microcosm of the camps, it was okay, to commit such crimes against humanity.

The way it was done seemed more shocking because it seemed so much more real, tangible and something that we could actually do, whereas I’m not sure we could feel that what happened in Indonesia could happen in my backyard.

Roar News / Johnny Tam

Alongside Werner Herzog, you have done a lot of things about atrocity, about collective memory, about genocide. Why do we look to record atrocious things and look to make art out of atrocious things?

I don’t have a profound response to that. When I was with Werner Herzog [working on Into the Abyss, a 2011 documentary on death row] I don’t think he regarded using art as such.

Filmmaking is the language with which he will portray certain emotional behaviours that attract him and that he is fascinated by.

With Into The Abyss he was looking into human behaviour in certain individuals. He had access to them, he wanted to put that across and project it to others.

Genocide is just such a shocking aberration that anyone who feels it is important to tell others about it, or interpret things in it, will look at different devices to tell those stories.

This is why I am looking into imagery as such; the film image or film in a broader sense is the most effective and dramatic way of putting across to a second person what you as an individual see, so it is not a matter of using art as such but using it as a language.

I think the poet feels they have a different mechanism of putting across the same emotions.

With the Holocaust we are talking about millions of people – it is such an incomprehensible part of society and we need to understand why and how it happened. And obviously, fundamentally, that it should never happen again.

The film is available for purchase on DVD from the British Film Institute online and in store. Thanks to the BFI for their assistance in making this interview possible.

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