A revealing story of Hollywood directors recording Nazi war crimes

As the Holocaust passes from living memory and the last of the survivors and liberators die, testimonials of that horrible passage in history seems essential.

“Filming the Camps, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens: From Hollywood to Nuremberg” at the Atlanta History Center serves that mission while casting the World War II experience in a new light. It examines the role Hollywood directors played in the vital task of documenting the Holocaust.

These directors, through personal resolve or assignment, filmed what they saw of the war, whether from the battlefront or during the liberation of the concentration camps. There is evidence that the experience was transformative: Stevens, for instance, went on to make heavier dramatic films after WWII including “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Fuller crafted his wartime experiences into “The Big Red One” in 1980.

Director John Ford, a blue chip Hollywood director whose pre-war films included “Stagecoach” and “The Grapes of Wrath” was tasked with recording what some would disbelieve, as director of the Field Photographic Branch. It seems that the military brass anticipated denial of the extent of the Holocaust and felt compelled to offer incontrovertible evidence. While images of mountains of corpses and of people starved to skeletons — shot by Ford’s unit and Stevens — are hard to take; you understand their importance as unflinching witnesses. The filmmakers documented not just the abject horror of what they saw but captured moments of catharsis, from the first Jewish service at Dachau to the on-camera testimony of camp survivors.

Footage shot by Stevens was eventually assembled by Ford’s team into a documentary shown at the Nuremberg trials. The work has been described as the first instance of movies being used as evidence.

While the film elements shown in “Filming the Camps” tell this story in the most immediate, arresting and visceral way, there is a great reliance on written documents, featured here. The directors fed the military bureaucracy with countless written accounts in their field log books of the scenes they shot.

There are several short excerpts of interviews with the salty, outsize director Sam Fuller who would go on to make outrageous melodramas like “The Naked Kiss” and “Shock Corridor.” In one memorable clip, Fuller attests to the brutality he witnessed in no uncertain terms, sounding very much like the pulp novelist filmmaker he was in describing the carnage of war.

There are excerpts from Samuel Fuller’s war film “The Big Red One” starring Lee Marvin, juxtaposed with film Fuller shot with a camera his mother sent him during the war, of a wounded German soldier during World War II. Unlike Stevens or Ford, Fuller was not directly tasked with making films by his commanders, but instead used his camera to record what he experienced as a soldier on the front lines as a member of the Big Red One, as well as the liberation of the Falkenau camp.

Curator Christian Delage has brought a fascinating aspect of World War II history to light even if there are moments when his critical acumen falters. In one of the few moments of actual filmic analysis of the footage, Delage makes a comparison between footage shot by Stevens at the entrance to the Dachau camp and a similar scene in John Ford’s 1940 masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath,” though it is very hard to see anything but coincidence in that not especially revealing juxtaposition.

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