Art

The Hollywood Directors Who Filmed the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps

George Stevens, John Ford, and Samuel Fuller, best known for their work in Hollywood, all documented the Allied liberation at the end of the war.

George Stevens’s Special Coverage Unit at Dachau Concentration Camp (image courtesy the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, California)

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) was founded in 1961 not by any government or corporate motion but by survivors of the Holocaust. It claims to be the oldest such institution in the United States and draws particular attention to survivors’ personal testimonies. The Holocaust was the first genocide to enter public consciousness via modern media, primarily cinema, and our cultural conceptions of the horrific events continue to be shaped by this. Numerous documentaries and ventures, such as the Shoah Foundation, have given survivors a platform for telling their stories tailored to the age of mass communication, forming a new kind of oral tradition.

We see this reflected in many museums dedicated to the subject, which place great emphasis on edification and empathy through listening. At LAMOTH — a small, private institution with a collection that’s limited compared to the likes of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC or Yad Vashem — this is even more pronounced. There are few exhibits, but hundreds of audio files for visitors to listen to via free headphones and iPods, each one expounding at length on everything from the distinctions between different concentration camps to the background of a single menorah in the collection. The museum’s current temporary exhibition, Filming the Camps: John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens, from Hollywood to Nurembergshifts the focus by moving from audio recollection to direct encounter in film.

The permanent exhibits in the museum are arranged along a horseshoe-shaped gallery, demonstrating the events of the Holocaust chronologically — the first room is about the broad history of Judaism in Europe, the second about rising antisemitism in the early 20th century, and so on. The structure reduces both natural and artificial lighting as one travels further in, culminating in a dark environment at the curve of the horseshoe, which is dedicated to the Nazi death camps. The space for temporary exhibitions is at the end of the path, and this works well for the context of Filming the Camps, which is about people who bore witness to the horror of the Holocaust only at its end.

The Musuem’s “Tree of Testimony.” Visitors can enter any screen’s code into an audio device to hear 52,000 Holocaust survivor testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive

The exhibition, arranged by the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris and curated by historian Christian Delage, centers around the work of three Hollywood filmmakers who documented the Allied liberation of concentration camps at the end of the war: George Stevens, John Ford, and Samuel Fuller. (Fuller was actually a soldier at the time and wouldn’t go into film until later, but he nonetheless took 16mm-footage of Falkenau as it was liberated.) Each director either already was or would go on to become a legend in their own right — Ford for Westerns such as Stagecoach and The SearchersStevens for pictures like A Place in the Sun and Giant, Fuller for low-budget, boundary-pushing features like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. But during this period of war, they were acting less as artists than as functionaries of US propaganda and information efforts, working for the US Armed Forces and Secret Services. The contents of the exhibit come from the directors’ own archives, much of it rarely seen before now.

The exhibition’s section on the concentration camps
A detailed model of the Sobibór extermination camp, made and donated by camp escapee Thomas Toivi Blatt

There are some physical artifacts, most of which come from the Fuller estate, such as his camera, helmet, uniform patch, and some postcards sent home. Declassified military documents, both original and replica, are presented pressed in glass. Requests for celluloid stock and similar supplies provide an interesting glimpse into the practical logistics of filmmaking in wartime. But as befits the cinematic subject matter, most of the exhibition consists of small screens showing loops of what the directors captured in the camps — surveys of the gruesome facilities, prisoners receiving aid, and interviews with survivors, some of them still wearing their striped uniforms.

Alongside the footage are the original scripts for the newsreels they’d be turned into. In this, we can see how documentarians make conscious choices to shape the narratives they build. Excerpts from the directors’ fiction films, such as Fuller’s The Big Red One, which he based on his time as a soldier during World War II, are presented as examples of how their experiences in the war shaped their filmmaking sensibilities. Stevens, previously known for lighthearted movies like Swing Time and The More the Merrier, made a turn to drama after seeing the camps, culminating in 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank.

Sam Fuller’s camera (on loan from the family of Samuel Fuller)

We only move further away from the Holocaust as time passes, and the number of survivors dwindles every day. In the face of continued antisemitism around the world and the genocides that have been committed since, “Never forget” has become a common refrain among those concerned with learning from history. It is a message that underlies the many, many cinematic depictions of the Holocaust. Given that several of these have also been overwrought Oscar bait, the actual utility of remembrance becomes muddled when it comes to pop culture. It’s valuable, then, to strip away decades of storytelling tropes that have accumulated around this subject and return to primary accounts. In seeing how these directors processed their witnessing of these events, we can better think about how we remember them.

Section from the Filming the Camps exhibit

Filming the Camps continues at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (100 The Grove Dr, Los Angeles) through April 30.

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