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Coming soon: The Holocaust documentary Hitchcock was almost too scared to make

Before Hollywood dubbed him the “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock made anti-Nazi propaganda films for the British Ministry of Information. Some of his work from that period, including Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942), enjoyed wide release, but two of the films – Bon Voyage (1944) and Aventure Malgache (1944) – were deemed by ministry officials “too subversive” to serve the allied cause and remained in storage until the 1990s.

Now another of his long-forgotten propaganda films – perhaps the most disturbing – is set to make its worldwide debut. Britain’s Imperial War Museum announced this week that it had digitally restored and re-edited a nearly 70-year-old Holocaust documentary that Hitchcock worked on with Sidney Bernstein, the film chief of Britain’s Psychological Warfare Division. The film has never been publicly screened in its entirety.

Toby Haggith, a senior curator at the Imperial War Museum and one of the people responsible for reviving the film, told the Independent that “colleagues, experts and film historians” who had prescreened the movie were profoundly disturbed by it. “One of the common remarks was that it was both terrible and brilliant at the same time,” he said.

The film consists of footage captured inside concentration camps by Army videographers at the end of World War II. As the story goes, Hitchcock found the footage so horrific, he refused to return to the studio for a week after first screening it. When he finally did come back, he worked with Bernstein to give the film a cinematic treatment that would set it apart from conventional newsreel documentaries from the period.

The project was meant to be a British-American collaboration, and the film was to have three versions, according to documents drafted by Bernstein: one for Germans living in Germany, one for German prisoners of war, and one for Allied audiences. The German versions were intended to remind “the German people of their past acquiescence in the perpetration of (war) crimes” and encourage them to take responsibility for those crimes.

It’s not clear how much Hitchcock contributed to the film. He certainly didn’t oversee any of the filming – but he helped Bernstein order and set the mood of the piece. One of his major contributions, said Bernstein, was situating the atrocities of the Holocaust within a familiar, pastoral setting, the proximity of which would shock audiences. A 2011 article in the journal Arcadia argued that the auteur’s influence is “clear already in the beginning of the film when images of an idyllic countryside create, in light of the horror to come, a kind of vintage Hitchcockian suspense.”

The project was abandoned for a number of reasons. The production ended up taking much longer than expected due to myriad logistical challenges. The U.S. Department of War and its collaborators, impatient to produce a short, to-the-point atrocity film, pulled out in light of these delays to make their own movie, Death Mills. After hostilities ended in May 1945, the psychological warfare office was dissolved, leaving the film in the hands of the British Ministry of Information. By 1946, official demand for atrocity films had diminished in response to the changing political climate. A note to Bernstein from an official at the Foreign Office highlighted some of the challenges to completing the film: “Policy at the moment in Germany is entirely in the direction of encouraging, stimulating, and interesting the Germans out of their apathy and there are people around the (regional commander) who will say ‘No atrocity film.’ ”

Eventually, Bernstein, too, abandoned the film. Comprising six reels, the documentary lay forgotten in government archives until the 1980s, when they were discovered by a researcher. Shortly thereafter, PBS aired a version of the documentary made up of the first five reels and some additional Russian footage used in previous Holocaust films.

The digitally remastered version of the film to be released by Imperial War Museum next year will include all six reels, edited in a the way “that Hitchcock, Bernstein and the other collaborators intended.”

But will the footage leave contemporary audiences as traumatized as it left Hitchcock?

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