Atrocity Film

Atrocity Film

Fabian Schmidt and Alexander Oliver Zöller
What if the SS as the main Nazi organisation responsible for the Holocaust produced a secret film about the persecution and murder of the European Jews during World War 2? The essay discusses the possible production of a documentary film about the genocide, made by the perpetrators. In doing so, it challenges a set of assumptions that is commonly put into action against such an endeavour. By examining the various activities of private and official photographers and cameramen in the context of the deportation and extermination of the European Jews and by drawing on contemporary sources which hint to such a – now lost – film project, the essay examines the available evidence and investigates comparable footage, arguing that the gaze of the perpetrators has long been part of our collective visual memory of the Holocaust.
Budd Schulberg; Liepāja; Holocaust; Reichsfilmarchiv; visual propaganda; documentary film; film archives; concentration camps; ghettos.

By order of 12 November 1940, Reichsführer SS
[Heinrich Himmler] has prohibited the taking of
photographs during executions and ordered that,
if such photographs were necessary for official
reasons, the entire material be archived.

(Reinhard Heydrich, April 1942)1

It has now been definitely established
that at least one secret film on concentration
camp atrocities and other Nazi cruelties
has been made in Germany for a select
audience of top Nazi officials.

(Budd Schulberg, September 1945)2


The outset of this essay is a hypothetical question. What if the SS produced a secret film about the Genocide of the European Jews? Instantly, a lot of arguments come to mind that speak against this idea. Didn't the SS and all National Socialist institutions do everything possible in order to destroy all incriminating evidence rather than produce it? Wasn't filming in the camps and during executions forbidden by several decrees? Isn't it commonly accepted knowledge that no film footage exists of the extermination camps, the gas chambers and mass shootings, except for the well-known 8 mm amateur footage from Liepāja? At the same time, there are various references to the existence of such incriminating film material. In reaction to Claude Lanzmann's (1994)3 announcement that he would destroy any film footage from the gas chambers if he were to find it, Jean-Luc Godard claimed that with the right amount of money and a good researcher it should be possible to find exactly this kind of material within 20 years' time.4 It is not known if he ever really attempted to find it, but in any case nothing turned up. Intriguingly, the idea of secret film material from the extermination camps is a trope in popular culture. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Lili Marleen (1981) the protagonist travels secretly to the Eastern front in order to secure a reel of film as evidence of the atrocities against Jews. The incriminating footage is even scrutinised for a fraction of a second but is subsequently destroyed during a failed exchange of Jewish concentration camp inmates.

Lili Marleen (1981, Rainer Werner Fassbinder).
Lili Marleen (1981, Rainer Werner Fassbinder).

In the seminal TV series Holocaust (1978) Reinhard Heydrich is present during the projection of film footage of an execution (he in fact watches the so-called Wiener film, a privately shot 8 mm film from 1941, which shows an execution in Liepāja, discussed below) and then takes the extraordinary decision to start collecting this kind of material, which interestingly connects private and state filming at least within the diegesis of the series. Also in Holocaust (1978), Wehrmacht cameramen and a civilian photographer are present to document a mass shooting (see Ebbrecht-Hartmann 2016a: 321). In Andrzej Wajda's Korczak (1990) SS men are seen filming in the Warsaw Ghetto where re-enacted scenes of the Nazi camera crew are combined with the historical footage from 1942. Zbyněk Brynych's Transport z ráje (Transport from Paradise, 1963) revolves around the production of the propaganda film Theresienstadt (1945), two years before parts of the material were actually rediscovered, and in John Avnet's TV drama Uprising (2001) Dr. Fritz Hippler, the director of Der Ewige Jude (1940), is translocated to Warsaw in 1943, a fictional turn in which he directs a Propaganda Company camera crew to film the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.5 In "The Pianist" (2002) Roman Polanski recreates a number of well-known shots from the Warsaw Ghetto film from 1942, such as the crowded bridge6 which connected the two ghettos, and combines it with a countershot of a Wehrmacht camera crew.

Uprising (2001, John Avnet)

The Photographer of Mauthausen (2018) tells the true story of photographer Francisco Boix, who became famous for his concentration camp photographs. Son of Saul (2015) reenacts the shooting of the Sonderkommando photographs (secret photos taken from the crematoria inside Auschwitz-Birkenau) by inmate Alberto Errera. In the series The Man in the High Castle (2015-2019) the focus is on newsreels (representing factual history) which have leaked into the contrafactual parallel universe in which the series takes place. While the producers of the series mainly made use of real newsreels they also fabricated fake archival footage, which features some of the series' protagonists. Interestingly, this footage is not ordinary newsreel material, but shows atrocities of the Nazis, such as ad hoc executions of civilians and eventually scenes from a secret Nazi experiment taking place in a mine, reminiscent of the underground labor camp Mittelbau-Dora. Without further dwelling on the background of this film material the series clearly implies that these images belong to a larger body of execution and labor camp footage not meant to be shown publicly. Cédric Jimenez's biopic HHhH (2017),7 to give another recent example, features the fictitious filming of a mass execution in the presence of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, and the murderous operations of an Einsatzgruppe being filmed by an SD cameraman, with Heydrich later watching the film in a cinema. The Hollywood production Defiance (2008, featuring Daniel Craig) opens up with black and white archival footage of roundups and executions in Poland and connects this with the diegetic reality through a fictional SS cameraman who films the atrocities. He is introduced with a shot fading from black and white to colour:

Opening credits of Defiance (2008).

The production of film footage and photographs in the context of the Holocaust have repeatedly been the subject of documentaries, such as Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished (2010) about the Warsaw Ghetto film, Gezicht van het verleden (1997) by Cherry Duyns and Aufschub (2007) by Harun Farocki about the Westerbork film to name but a few.8 This dealing with fictitious and real 'secret' images from the genocide is not a phenomenon of the past 30 years of pop culture; it rather emerged already while the atrocities were still happening. As the astonishing example of Calling Mr. Smith (1943, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson) shows – a British experimental short film about the persecution of Polish Jewry – a combination of incriminating newsreel material and secretly taken photos of humiliated and murdered ghetto inhabitants was already part of cinematical treatments well before the end of the Second World War.

Götz Hirt-Reger as a PK-Filmberichter with his hand-held 35 mm Arriflex camera. Unusually, Hirt-Reger took along a private 16 mm camera, enabling him to be filmed himself by a fellow soldier.

Contrary to these pop cultural references and documentary films, the status quo of the historiographical approach as well as the public discourse is unmistakably consensual: no filming was allowed due to a decree by Himmler (hence no films were taken, one ought to conclude). Additionally, historians routinely refer to the perpetrator's alleged intention to destroy any kind of traces of their genocidal actions. This subject is frequently discussed in connection with a concept of total annihilation: not only did the Jews have to be eliminated physically – murdered and burnt – but also the memory of them and any trace of how they were put out of this world was to be erased, hence an enhanced genocide, a mnemocide was put into action.9

So why inquire about "the SS film" at all, given this consensus? For two key reasons, we might reply. The mere possibility of the existence of such a film project is intriguing. But even more intriguingly, the current historiographical position on the subject appears to be biased. The recourse to arguments about photo bans and the destruction of evidence reminds of the ultimately apologetic "resistance was futile" narrative that dominates German typically victimising remembrances. The popular narrative of "we couldn't do anything", in combination with the claim "there's no evidence left anyway", risks inspiring a type of historiography that tends toward escapism and romanticisation. The tendency to present Germans as victims of "the Nazis" often found in German TV documentaries and documentary-drama is not including an interest in filmic evidence related to the genocide (Ebbrecht-Hartmann 2011). Pointing out the manifold images of the ghettos, camps, deportations and executions already puts into question the mainstream perspective. Looking for the SS Film means challenging established certainties of collective remembrances – yet it also touches on self-evident truths within the historiographical academic discourse.

The assumed absence of images of the genocide also marks a broader fissure between historiographical and public discourse, regularly addressed by historians researching the genocide. While information about the events reconstructed in the academic domain has become ever more detailed, Holocaust remembrances on the other side, especially in Germany, tend to narrow their focus despite repeated attempts by historians to broaden or redirect this perspective.10 The heterotopical Holocaust seems to present a paradox: while the monstrosity of the genocide and the resulting guilt is acknowledged and admitted, at the same time the notion of a ban of documentation inscribes an awareness of guilt into the narrative identities that somehow excludes them already from bare culpitry and places them in a self-relation that actually wants to be part of a humanistic consensus. In contrast to this escapism, the SS Film represents the almost unbearable idea of a conscious decision to undertake mass murder – and to document it for posterity. To face the SS Film, in this perspective, would mean to face or to attribute full responsibility for the genocide and this perhaps echoes in the pop cultural references, reminding of its absence in more formal representations and contexts. Counter to the paradigm of the forbidden photographing and the crime that left no visual marks there are many photographs from executions and a growing number of films with similar subjects. Though these are widely unacknowledged, they prove that Himmler's ban on photography was either not followed closely or that there were notable exceptions. In fact, Himmler's decree was renewed at several levels of the Nazi ministerial bureaucracy, suggesting it was widely ignored.

As such, the search for the Atrocity Film is bound up with contemporary discourses about the Holocaust. While, after the war, the Allies were looking for incriminating film evidence for the Nuremberg trials, today's historiographical analysis does not have to prove the genocide anymore. From today's perspective it is highly questionable whether a project like the Atrocity Film would have resulted in a documentary 'proving' the genocide at all. What is actually haunting about the notion of a film about the genocide is the patent motivation of its makers. Nonetheless, the use of the surviving footage connected to the genocide in public remembrances is still informed by Lieutenant Budd Schulberg's appropriation of the footage mainly as incriminating evidence in preparation of the Nuremberg trials during his investigations for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Schulberg's search for the Atrocity Film and the historiographical scrutiny of the perpetrators' gaze11 mark the crossing point of two contemporary and somewhat contradictory discourses that we will want to interrogate.

The search for a secret SS film appears to ask for two things: on the one hand it is about finding new evidence and on the other hand it is about heuristically mapping a theory about the existence of such a film project that enables us to search already known documents and archives for its traces – even if the question of palpable evidence for a direct connection to a secret film project cannot be answered for the time being. An entire set of assumptions needs to be challenged: that filming was forbidden; that all official filming has been accounted for; that we know what existed in the film bunkers and vaults at the end of the war; that all relevant film collections had been destroyed by 1945; that the Germans tacitly admitted a sense of guilt by avoiding to leave any traces (they were well aware of the criminal implications of their genocidal policies – see the explicit suspension of legal prosecution during the invasion of the Soviet Union)12; that the fear of foreign propaganda or postwar prosecution of crimes was stronger than the attachment to National Socialist ideology; that we know exactly what the Allied forces found in the archives after the liberation, and that these films are properly accounted for today.

Two Access Points to a Different Perspective

There are two documents which call into question the dominant discourse of the absence of systematic filming and seem to lend credence to the existence of an as-yet undiscovered film about the murder of the European Jews. One is a decree issued by Reinhard Heydrich in April 1942 and the other is a report by U.S. Lt. Seymour Wilson [Budd] Schulberg from September 1945. Schulberg claimed to have found believable traces and testimonies of an Atrocity Film, a secret SS film project documenting the Holocaust. Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 specified Himmler's ban of photography during executions, originally issued in November 194113 and emphasised an aspect of Himmler's initial decree that so far has not been acknowledged by historians: the order that all films and photos of executions were to be sent to and centrally collected at the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) in Berlin.

The Schulberg Report

During World War II, U.S. Navy Lt. Budd Schulberg was assigned to the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the direct precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), working with John Ford's documentary film unit. In 1945, Ford gave Schulberg and his fellow officer Ray Kellogg the order to locate incriminating motion picture film evidence that could be used against the Nazi perpetrators at the Nuremberg trials. While Kellogg was handling logistics, Schulberg supervised the editing of the compilation film The Nazi Plan (1945) which consisted of footage of Nazi origin. During the editing, Schulberg claims to even have arrested Leni Riefenstahl as a witness, and to have forced her to identify Nazi officers.14 Schulberg's mission to gather incriminating film material resulted in the OSS's War Crimes Project amassing a considerable body of newsreels, documentary and propaganda films as well as photographs and other records, many of which had been seized from captured Nazi sources. In September 1945 Schulberg filed a report for his OSS superiors in which he gave a detailed account of any such efforts undertaken thus far. In section III. he lists what he calls "films of German atrocities" or simply: "Atrocity Film". Under subsection D "German sources" he states that

[...] it has now been definitely established that at least one secret film on concentration camp atrocities and other Nazi cruelties has been made in Germany for a select audience of top Nazi officials.

In the following pages Schulberg explicitly names several sources who claim to have either seen the film or at least have knowledge about participants, content and possible whereabouts of the physical film elements. Schulberg further reports that his efforts to find the film had been unsuccessful thus far, as three of the film storage sites of the former Reichsfilmarchiv, in Rüdersdorf, at the Olympic stadium in Berlin, and in a salt mine at Grasleben were burnt down or otherwise destroyed shortly before his arrival, while other such film vaults were still waiting to be examined.

The CIC's interrogation report for Albert Neumann, forwarded to the Office of the United States Chief of Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality at Nuremberg. NARA, RG 238, Entry 160, Box 040.

Schulberg also refers to a report by an informant named Albert Neumann, who in April 1945 had been interrogated by the American Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). Neumann, who as an assistant worker had prepared descriptions for captured French films at Reichsfilmarchiv, was forced out of the archive in 1942 as 'half-Jewish'; he survived the war with the support of a number of film professionals, including German film director Helmut Käutner. Neumann appears to have made it his mission to hand over information on the Reich Film Archive to the Allies, and in March 1945 passed through the frontlines to contact American forces.

Neumann proved a valuable informant on the Reich Film Archive for US military intelligence. His interrogation resulted in the Nazi film archive being elevated to a Priority 1 target in the SHAEF intelligence target reports, with U.S. forces being ordered to secure its vaults and storage sites, including the main compound outside Babelsberg, by all means possible.15 The CIC also forwarded a copy of Neumann's interrogation report to the Office of the United States Chief of Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality at Nuremberg. Neumann stated that he had actually seen footage "showing SS massacre of Jews in Warsaw, mass murder of Russians and Poles, gas chamber tortures and other crimes". In the corresponding file of his first interrogation, Albert Neumann claims more precisely to have watched a film "about LUBLIN in which Jews were shown digging their own graves and being machine-gunned by their Nazi guards".16 It should be noted that Neumann's descriptions are comparably detailed and hint to an unusual level of knowledge about the genocide. His account is fairly descriptive, and the number of collaborators listed by Schulberg is considerable. Schulberg attributed all this information to credible sources, leading him to believe in the existence of such an atrocity film, and that further OSS efforts to locate the film were warranted.