A False Start

A False Start

The Filming at Theresienstadt of January 20, 1944

Karel Margry
On January 20, 1944, one day of filming took place at the Theresienstadt ghetto. This can be regarded as a ‘false start’ of Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet, the infamous Nazi propaganda film subsequently shot there during the summer. The essay discusses how it came about, and why the filming, although planned to be the first day of a longer shoot, was aborted after one day. It shows that the shooting was based on a script that was different from the one later written by Kurt Gerron. It identifies the probable scriptwriter – Jindřich Weil – and shows, by analysis of his three surviving scripts, that the filming of January 20 followed the second of these. It describes the actual filming on a cold wintry day in the ghetto. It tracks the disappearance of Weil’s film papers after the war and, shows how when they finally resurfaced after 15 years, they were wrongly interpreted before being buried again in archive collections. The article presents the only remaining visual images of the shooting but, because of misinformation provided by the cameraman who preserved them, these 18 film stills have for decades been wrongly thought to be secretly made images showing the true misery of the ghetto rather than what they actually were: deliberate products of Nazi propaganda. It discusses the reasons why the cameraman chose to do this.
Jindřich Weil; Kurt Gerron; Anton Burger; Karl Rahm; Ivan Frič; Ghetto Theresienstadt; Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet; Aktualita; Nazi film propaganda; Holocaust film studies

The Decision to Start Filming

Jindřich Weil

The 8-Page Treatment

The Speech Text

The 12-Page Script

Shooting the Arrival of the Dutch Transport (January 20, 1944)

The 26-Page Script

The Film Project is Temporarily Halted

Content Analysis

Discovery of Weil Papers

Surviving Images from the Film




Suggested Citation

It is today well known that the Nazis in 1944-45 produced a propaganda film about Theresienstadt, the concentration camp for Jews in occupied Czechoslovakia. Long thought to be titled Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer donates a Town to the Jews), it is now firmly established that its actual title was Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area). The purpose of this film was to give a false image of life at the ghetto camp and to deceive the outer world as to what was truly happening to the Jews of Europe. The film was made on orders of the SS, who appointed the Berlin cabaret artist, actor and film director Kurt Gerron, himself a prisoner of the ghetto, to write a film script and head a Jewish production team. Hundreds of inmates were enlisted as actors or extras. A camera crew from the Prague newsreel company Aktualita arrived to do the actual filming. Shooting began on August 16, 1944 and, with pauses, lasted for 11 days, being finished on September 11. The film was edited in Prague and completed in March 1945 (Karel Margry 1992a, 1992b, 1996).

However, few people realise that planning for this movie had started a full eight months earlier; that various scripts for it had already been completed within weeks of that, and that a start with actual filming had already been made shortly after. On January 20, 1944, a camera crew from Aktualita recorded the arrival of a train transport from Holland in the camp. However, on orders from the SS, filming was discontinued after this one day. All this happened long before Kurt Gerron got involved in the film project or even was present in the ghetto.

The focus of this article is on this one day of filming, which can be regarded as a “false start” of the big film subsequently shot during the summer. This essay will discuss how it came about, and why, although planned to be the first of a series of shooting days, it was aborted after this one day. It will show that the shooting was done on the basis of a film script different from the one later written by Kurt Gerron. It will identify the probable scriptwriter – a man named Jindřich Weil – and, by a careful and first-ever analysis of his three surviving scripts, show that the filming of January 20, 1944 followed the second of these. It will describe the actual filming on a cold wintry day in the ghetto and how this was perceived by both the camera crew and its mass of involuntary Jewish actors and extras. It will reconstruct how Weil’s film papers disappeared after the war and, when they finally resurfaced after 15 years, were wrongly interpreted and then got buried again in archive collections. It will present the only remaining visual images of the shooting – 18 film stills – and show how, because of misinformation provided by the cameraman who preserved them, these same images have for decades been wrongly understood as secretly-made images showing the true misery of the ghetto instead of what they actually were: deliberate products of Nazi propaganda. It will discuss the reasons why the cameraman chose to do this. This is the first in-depth study of this important moment in the history of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany and film propaganda, and it adds an important background to one of the most-notorious movies ever made.

The Decision to Start Filming

The decision to make a propaganda movie about Theresienstadt had been made by SS-Sturmbannführer Hans Günther, the chief of the Zentralstelle zur Regelung der Judenfrage (the Gestapo Central Jewish Office) in Prague in December 1943. Günther had thought up the idea in direct connection with the so-called Stadtverschönerung (Town Beautification), the large-scale campaign to embellish the ghetto town in anticipation of an inspection visit by a commission of the International Red Cross and representatives of the Danish government, planned to take place sometime in the spring or summer of 1944. Diverging from usual practice, Günther embarked upon the film project without prior consultation with his direct superior, SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, the chief of Section IV-B-4 (the Jewish Section) in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Main Office) in Berlin.1

When the decision was taken to make the film, SS-Obersturmführer Anton Burger was still in command of the ghetto. Burger had taken over from SS-Hauptsturmführer Siegfried Seidl on July 3, 1943. Born in 1911 in Neunkirchen in Lower Austria, a merchant by training, Burger had enlisted in the Austrian Army in 1929. He had joined the NSDAP in 1931, the SA in 1933 and the SS in 1938. After helping to organise the deportation of Jews from Vienna, he had in 1939 been transferred to the Protectorate, where he first worked in the Prague Zentralstelle and then in 1941 was appointed head of its satellite office in Brünn (Brno). He violently hated the Czechs, and Czech Jews in particular. At Brünn, and during his tenure at Theresienstadt, he not only brutally maltreated the Jews, but he enjoyed being present at the departure of each transport to the East, knowing full well that the victims were being dispatched to their death. (Zdenek Lederer 1953: 75; H. G. Adler 1960: 130, 146-147; Gabriele Anderl 1992: 216-218; Karla Müller-Tupath 1994: 16-67).

For Burger, the film shoot that he now was to supervise was his first; but in the history of Theresienstadt it was the second – a first short documentary film had already been completed by Jewish inmate Irena Dodalová under Seidl in September-December 1942 (Margry 1998: 181-212, 1999: 309-337; Eva Strusková 2009, 2011, 2013: 261-299). This second film project (December 1943-March 1944) – with which we are concerned here – should be seen as a direct forerunner of the third film project, the final and large-scale one led by Kurt Gerron (July 1944-April 1945). The latter two projects are separated by a time interval of some four months, but in fact are one and the same enterprise. The second project, although it remained principally a paper scheme, was essentially a first try at making the film that was finally completed in 1945. Seen as such, the third film project – so often regarded and studied as an isolated case, a category to itself – only picked up and carried to full fruition what the second had set out to do.

There is, however, one important difference between the two. Eichmann had ordered the Beautification for the sole purpose of preparing Theresienstadt for the visit of the Danish and International Red Cross commission. That visit took place on June 23, 1944. The third film was only initiated after that date, so, whatever else the Nazis planned to achieve with that film, there was one thing they could no longer do: show it to the commission during the visit. But this is not so with the second film. When it was ordered, in December 1943, there was still every possibility to have it ready in time for the inspection visit and there is strong evidence that this was indeed Günther's, if not Eichmann's intention. For if the film was to be shown at Theresienstadt, then the SS needed screening facilities there. And indeed, right at the start of the second project, the ghetto authorities ordered an inventory of buildings that could be used as, or transformed into, a cinema, plus a specification of the technical equipment required for that. But the SS could not have foreseen the problems that would prevent the screening.

A document headed “Errichtung eines Kinos” (Setting-up of a Cinema) listed five suitable buildings. Two were former cinemas: the one in the Sokolovna (building C1) and the Orel Cinema at Parkstrasse 14 (L-514); two were theatres: the former theatre at Langegasse 13 (L-313) and the theatre in the former Savings Bank in the town square (Q-414 – the building that housed the SS-Kommandantur); and one was the gymnasium of the school on Hauptstrasse 17 (L-417), just off the square. The report suggested the Sokolovna hall as the best and easiest choice, “because it was originally a cinema and the fire-safe and soundproof projection cabin still exist, as does the projection screen”.2

Jindřich Weil

A number of important documents concerning the second film project have survived:

- an 8-page treatment;

- the text of a speech by the Judenälteste (Elder of Jews) of Theresienstadt, in three versions;

- a 12-page script;

- a 26-page script;3

None of these documents is signed or has a name on it. However, as they were all found in the posthumously discovered belongings of a man called Jindřich Weil, it is generally assumed that he was their author. We must accept this, if only for lack of a better candidate. But who was Jindřich (Jindra, Heinrich) Weil? Other than the basic facts, very little is known about him. He was born on March 6, 1916 and before the war had been trained as a photographer and had worked as a scriptwriter and cameraman at the A-B Barrandov Film Studios outside Prague. He had arrived in Theresienstadt on December 4, 1941 in transport J from Prague, one of the very first train transports to arrive in the ghetto, and later had his lodging in the Hannover Barracks (Block B IV). At the ghetto, he was one of Irena Dodalová’s assistants and had worked with her on the 1942 film and later as lighting technician at one of her theatre productions. When he received the order to write a script for a new film in December 1943 he was 27 years old. He was deported to Auschwitz in transport Ev of October 28, 1944, the last of the mass train transports of that autumn. Having survived the first selection there, he was sent to do forced labour in the Mauthausen concentration camp, where he perished in March 1945.4

Apart from the fact that the papers were found in his estate, there are indications in the papers themselves – linguistic indications – that support their attribution to Jindřich Weil. Both the treatment and the two scripts contain words and phrases that characterise them as having been written at Theresienstadt5and by someone belonging to the German-speaking segment of Prague Jewry (the speech text is a case of its own). Just as the German minority in pre-war Bohemia developed an idiom and dialect typical to itself, so the ghetto developed its own vocabulary and examples of both can be found in the Weil papers.

A prime instance of Prague-Jewish German idiom is the use of the word “Tusch” for “Dusche” (shower).6Examples of expressions typical, or even unique to Theresienstadt are words like “Hundertschaft” (labour group of one hundred), “Ubikation” (dwelling) and “Kriechlingsheim” (baby crèche).7

Of course, from what is known of him, the profile of a German-speaking Jew from Prague fits Jindřich Weil perfectly and reinforces the case that he was indeed the author of these film papers. But this is not the whole story. For, with one of the documents – the speech – there is certainty of a second author and with another – the 26-page script – there is a strong suspicion of that.

The Weil papers are not only unsigned and untitled, they are also undated. Yet, there are enough clues in each text that enable us to delimitate the time period in which each one was written and, by careful analysis and comparison, to determine their relation to one another. This, and the fact that we know that there was one day – January 20, 1944 – of actual filming at Theresienstadt, in effect enables us to establish the chronology of the second film project and to reconstruct, to a large extent, the probable course of events.

Page 1 of the 8-page treatment written by Jindřich Weil. Image from author’s Collection.

The 8-Page Treatment

The 8-page treatment (Fig. 1) gives the outline for a film of 20 sequences and a duration of 39 minutes and 45 seconds. The 20 sequences were to deal with the following subjects:

1) Historical introduction: “The film starts with a shot of a map of the Reich area with Protectorate. Theresienstadt is marked large. The camera zooms in on it and the map dissolves into the typical star-shaped plan of Theresienstadt.” Follow different shots of the fortress town “all of them without people”.

(2½ minutes)

2) Build-up: “In the commentary we hear about the arrival of the ‘Aufbaukommandos’ with craftsmen.” The star of Theresienstadt dissolves into the Star of David. Images of construction work and improvisation. “Here as in all following shots, the streets are densely crowded.”

(1¾ minutes)

3) Population: Tables showing origin and structure of population; arrival of a transport, speech of the Judenälteste to the newcomers.

1) Historical introduction: “The film starts with a shot of a map of the Reich area with Protectorate. Theresienstadt is marked large. The camera zooms in on it and the map dissolves into the typical star-shaped plan of Theresienstadt.” Follow different shots of the fortress town “all of them without people”.

(2½ minutes)

2) Build-up: “In the commentary we hear about the arrival of the ‘Aufbaukommandos’ with craftsmen.” The star of Theresienstadt dissolves into the Star of David. Images of construction work and improvisation. “Here as in all following shots, the streets are densely crowded.”

(1¾ minutes)

3) Population: Tables showing origin and structure of population; arrival of a transport, speech of the Judenälteste to the newcomers.

(ca. 2 minutes)

4) Housing: Shots of men's quarters, women's quarters, a home for the aged, a toddlers and babies' crèche, a children's home, a home for the sick, a home for war invalids, for the blind, and finally a “Prominente-Wohnung” (VIP dwelling).

(ca. 3½ minutes)

5) Administration: Offices at the Magdeburg Barracks, session of the Council of Elders.

(ca. ¾ minute)

6) Working parties: The “Hundertschaften” leave for work, the men from the Hannover Barracks, the women from the Hamburg Barracks; road construction, railway construction, construction of huts. “The commentary should point out that all needs of the Jewish Self-Administration regarding facilities, repairs, etc., have to be done by its own labour force.”

(ca. 2 minutes)

7) Special works and needs of the ghetto: Timber factory, woodworking, engineering and glass pane workshops; repair workshops for clothing, shoes, gloves, artificial limbs, glasses, watches.

(ca. 2 minutes)

8) Provision of stores: “The commentary should point out again and again that all repairs have to be done from available materials.” Central clothing depot, recycling of refuse, boiler-house servicing the central baths and cookhouses.

(ca. 1¾ minutes)

9) Food: Central kitchen, distribution of food, central food depot, central bakery.

(ca. 2½ minutes)

10) Mail: A truck unloads at the post office; people collecting their parcels; others handing in postcards.

(ca ½ minute)

11) Shops: People waiting outside shop. Food store, pottery shop, crockery and utensils shop, laundry, clothing shop and shoe shop; customers paying with ghetto money.

(ca. 1 minute)

12) Bank: Shopkeepers depositing money at the ghetto bank; activities at the bank's counters; the bank's safe.

(ca. 1 minute)

13) Security Service: A ghetto guard at his post; graphics showing organisation of Security Service; ghetto court in session. “The text should point out that criminal cases are brought before the ghetto court”; turn-out of the ghetto fire brigade.

(ca. 1¼ minute)

14) Various achievements: Waterworks; motor workshops; electricity works; construction of the ghetto by-pass road, of wooden huts, of the branch railway into the ghetto.

(ca. 1¾ minute)

15) Health Department: The central hospital, with shots of a clinic, a sick ward, a chirurgical operation in progress, the central chemist store. The central clinic; the X-ray station; disinfection and delousing station; the central laundry “which, it is true, does not belong to the Health Department, but as an essential hygienic facility we can here deal with comprehensively in text and pictures.”

(ca. 5 minutes)

16) Youth Care: A class in a children's home; small children at playground; children at work, mainly in youth garden.

(ca. 1 minute)

17) Agriculture and industry: Work in the fields; agricultural machinery; livestock; gardeners at work in town park; workshops producing artificial flowers, fancy goods, cardboard products, jewellery; uniform repair shops; shops processing rabbit hair, ink, powder sachets; ceramics workshop; production of puppets.

(ca. 2½ minutes)

18) Leisure-time activities: A puppet theatre, a stage performance, an orchestra concert, the ghetto library, a soccer match in the yard of the Dresden Barracks, the café, the town orchestra in the music pavilion in the market square, sports on Bastei III (the sports field on one of the town battlements), a lecture.

(ca. 2 minutes)

19) Religion: A chapel in a loft; chapels for different persuasions; a wedding; a funeral with shots of mourners escorting a cart loaded with coffins to the street barrier; the crematorium; an urn in the columbarium hall.

(ca 1¾ minute)

20) End montage: “The remaining shots of the film and the end of the accompanying speech should show the life and on-goings of the ghetto inhabitants, and talk of the latter's necessary adjustment respectively. The scenes form a reportage and therefore need not be staged; instead we show daily, yet striking scenes of Theresienstadt.” Suggested were shots of street scenes with a modern tractor but also a hand-pushed cart, groups of workers, coffin bearers, people with food trays, a group of blind people being escorted, cleaning activities, garbage disposal, Beautification activities, etc. “To visualise the relatively tight space […] we dissolve into the empty Aryan Street of the German Headquarters and slowly pan across the dividing fence so that for a moment the crowded Jewish street half is seen together with the empty Aryan half.”

(ca. 3¼ minutes).

Although it is undated, there are many clues in this treatment that enable us to narrow down the time period in which it was drawn up and establish when it was written. The two main clues are:

a) the music pavilion in the town square (in Sequence 18) – construction of which was only started in December 1943; and

b) mention of the Hamburg Barracks as women's barracks (in Sequence 6) – which it only was till January 14, 1944 (on that day the SS ordered it to be immediately emptied and all women had to evacuate the building within 48 hours). (Adler 1960: 164-165, 698; Lederer 1953: 107).

From this, we can say with certainty that the treatment was written sometime between the end of December 1943 and January 14, 1944 – a period of two weeks.

The film, as conceived by its author, was to be structured in two parts: part one (Sequences 1 to 14) was to show the build-up of the ghetto organisation; and end with a fade to black to separate it from part two in which the daily life in the ghetto would be shown. The story unfolds logically, with smooth transitions from one sequence to another. The commentary text, as the quotations show, was to stress the autarkic, self-sufficient character of the “Jewish settlement” and the need for its inhabitants to adjust to conditions. Although it is not said with so many words, it seems clear that the writer had in mind to use a speech of the Judenälteste of Theresienstadt as the prime component of the film's narration: in Sequence 3, in about the fifth minute of the film there is the scene in which the Judenälteste gives a welcoming speech to the new arrivals in the ghetto; some 30 minutes later, in the last sequence, the treatment refers to “the end of the accompanying speech”.

The Speech Text

This brings us to the next surviving document, the actual text of such a speech. In fact, three versions of this same speech exist:

1) the original text;

2) the same, but with indications where additional text is needed;

3) the expanded, final version.

Although the speech is part of Jindřich Weil's film papers, it is pretty certain that he himself did not write it. That is made clear by the very fact that in version 2 is indicated where and what additional copy is needed. If Weil, or whoever it was who thought of using a speech as a ready-made narration, had written version 1 himself, he would have included that extra copy in there in the first place, or – if he did write it, and only decided to expand it later – there would have been no need to write down the indications, which are clearly meant for someone else than the scriptwriter.

However, by comparing versions 1, 2 and 3, it is fairly easy to reconstruct how Weil, or whoever it was, went about his work. The basic idea was that, with a little adaptation, the existing speech could introduce and explain every aspect of the ghetto that the filmmaker wanted to deal with; and that, after adaptation, it was just a matter of filming such scenes as the speech called for. If the text was right, all a director needed to do was to shoot the correct scenes to illustrate the words.

With this in mind, and armed with a listing of subjects plus the time allotted to each, the author went to work on the speech. He carefully noted down what he could show with which words, one by one crossing off the subjects on his list. He computed how much time it took to read a given sentence and compared this with what he thought he needed for the film. At several places, where the text looked tight, he indicated that he needed additional lines:

- “Text of over ca. 12 seconds concerning housing, possibly women lodging”;

- “Text about kitchens, ca. 10 seconds”;

- “Any textual expansion about the following crafts, be it only 2 or 3 words for each kind of job, are of great advantage to the visual adaptation”;

- “Text which enables one to really show the organisation of the Health Department”;

- “Text, like the one about crafts. Any expansion, be it only 2-3 words with each single [construction] achievement, is useful”;

- “Text will be needed to explain the 3 or 4 workshops that one wants to show.”8

Again, as with the treatment, it is possible to put an approximate date to (at least the first version of) this text, for, no less than three times, it refers to the fact that Theresienstadt as a Jewish ghetto has been in existence for “a little over two years”.9This means that it was certainly written after November 24, 1943, the ghetto's second anniversary, and probably a few weeks later.

It would be wrong to assume that a speech by the Judenälteste to newly-arriving transports – let alone a welcoming speech – was ever part and parcel of real-life Theresienstadt. There never was a routine like that. The only time that Judenälteste Paul Eppstein had delivered such a greeting had occurred some two months before – on the occasion of the arrival of the Jews from Denmark. The Danish Jews – who arrived in three transports on October 5, 6 and 14 – came from a country that had vehemently protested against the Nazi persecution of its Jews and refused to lose track of them. Consequently, the SS wanted it to look like they were treating the Danish Jews well and they were sent to “privileged” Theresienstadt. On arrival they were given an unprecedentedly friendly reception, with a meal served in the courtyards and a welcoming speech by Eppstein. That illusion of friendliness was short-lived. After the meal, the speech and the writing of enthusiastic postcards to people back home, the Danes were taken to “the sluice” and robbed of all their belongings like any other transport. Yet, it is true, they continued to enjoy some group privileges at the camp (Adler 1960: 162-164, 306; Lederer 1953: 99-100).

Although the “film speech” postdates the arrival of the Danes by some two months, it is not unreasonable to suppose that it was basically the same text as that spoken by Eppstein back in October. All that was needed to update it was to change “just under two years” into “a little over two years”. Everything else that had been said in October was still valid (that is, not necessarily true, but rather useful as a positive introduction to the “settlement” of Theresienstadt) in December, or even in January 1944.

As to the relative chronology of the film documents, there is no way to tell whether version 1 of the film speech preceded the 8-page treatment, or the other way round, nor whether version 2 and 3 were prepared with the treatment at hand or independent from it.

The logical conclusion seems to be that the original speech (version 1) was written by someone else than the scriptwriter (it might well have been Judenälteste Eppstein himself: and it might well have been written for an altogether other occasion than the film); that the scriptwriter (probably Weil) read it to see how it could be used for a film; returned it with his suggestions for improvement to the original author (version 2), who then wrote the desired extra lines (version 3).

Having analysed the genesis and authorship of the film speech, what can we say about its contents? Like the commentary of the treatment, the speech text was clearly designed to stress the autarkic character of Theresienstadt and, even more so, the need for inmates/inhabitants to adjust to circumstances. The speech, which in its third version is less than 1,000 words long, hammers down words like “Gemeinschaft” (community; nine times), “zusammen” (together; three times), “Umstellung” (adjustment; four times), “Verantwortung” (responsibility; four times), “Disziplin” (discipline; four times), “Ordnung” (order; three times) and “Pflicht” (duty; three times) – clear indications of the rigidity and austerity of life in the camp.

The length of version 3 also gives an indication of what time length the makers had in mind for the envisaged film. Typed in a half-page column, the speech was 201 lines (3½ pages) long. Computing from an equation chart of 60 seconds for 17 lines and 3 minutes for a page of 50, which had been drawn up beforehand, the whole speech would have taken some 11 minutes to deliver. However, when someone tried it out and timed page 1 with a stopwatch, the actual time needed turned out to be much less: 2 minutes and 8 seconds for the page, or some 7½ minutes for the whole speech.10 Whichever of the two it would be, one thing is clear: compared with the 8-page treatment, with its proposed length of 39 minutes and 45 seconds, the speech text envisaged a much shorter film.

So, in early January 1944, there was a film treatment and a film speech. Both could serve as the basis of a film script – although not necessarily of the same script. The treatment and speech could be combined and merged into one script; or each could be developed into an independent script. The latter – one script out of each – is what happened, as is shown by an analysis of the two scripts preserved in Jindřich Weil's papers.

The 12-Page Script

The 12-page script is a direct elaboration of the speech text: the right-hand (sound) column of the script is in fact a word-by-word transcription of version 3 of the speech; and the left-hand (image) column, listing 73 shots11, provides the precise pictures needed to illustrate the spoken word.

The storyline is simple and straightforward: a transport arrives in Theresienstadt, the passengers alight from the train and listen to a welcome speech by the Jewish Elder, in which he explains the organisation of the “Jewish settlement” to them. As he begins to describe housing, the camera pans away to the façade of the barracks' courtyard and dissolves into a shot of a men's quarters. And so, following the words of the Judenälteste, we are led through Theresienstadt. The information is succinct and factual, there is no indication that scenes are to be staged or locations to be dressed up to look better. The film breaks up into eight or nine sequences:

1) (shots 1-7): Arrival of the train, beginning of the speech;

2) (shots 8-16): Housing: men and women's quarters, a home for the aged;

3) (shots 17-23): Food: food distribution, kitchen;

4) (shots 24-40): Work in the Hundertschaft: with Shots 33-40 a montage of work scenes incorporating shots of the post office (#37), the bakery (#38), the ghetto police and the fire brigade (#40);

5) (shots 41-43): Health care: the central hospital, an operation, the dental clinic;

6) (shots 44-48): Leisure time activities: concert, theatre, lecture;

7) (shots 49-58): Work: with Shots 51-58 a split-screen montage showing electricity works; water works; timber mill; agriculture; construction of wooden huts; clothing and shoe repair shops; and the boiler-room supplying the central baths, kitchens and laundry;

8) (shots 59-72): Shops: street scenes with shots of the café, the barber's shop, laundry collection point, children's clothing store, food shop and the bank [ending with:]

9) (shot 73)12: An end montage of 16 cross-section images of life at Theresienstadt. The film neatly ends with the last words of the Judenälteste's speech: “[...] Wishing you a most hearty welcome, we accept you into our community”. A final panoramic shot of the town. Fade to black.

It is of course difficult to judge from paper what a film would have looked like, but one thing stands out very clearly in the 12-page script: its professional quality. The basic idea of a frame story (the frame being the arrival of a train and the welcome speech to the passengers), the factuality and conciseness of the commentary, the logical storyline and its to-the-point elaboration into sequences and shots – all these qualities lead to the conclusion that whoever wrote this script was good at his craft, a man who knew how to make a documentary film. A film based on this script would, if nothing else, certainly have had cinematographic merits.

Dating the 12-page script is very simple. Since it incorporates the final version of the speech (which evolved about December 1943) it must necessarily originate from sometime after that. And because it, like the 8-page treatment, mentions the Hamburg Barracks as “a women's barracks”13, it must have been completed before January 14, 1944.

Shooting the Arrival of the Dutch Transport (January 20, 1944)

Less than a week later, on Thursday, January 20, 1944, cameras were turning at Theresienstadt, recording on celluloid the arrival of a train transport in Theresienstadt and the reception of its passengers. What was being filmed that day was, without a doubt, based on the 12-page script; that script had called for exactly such a sequence to be filmed – it was the very frame of its story. It must have been planned as the first of a number of shooting days. Yet, the filming lasted only one day, only that Thursday. There was no continuation, no sequel.

The order to begin with the shooting had been given by Günther. It seems reasonable to assume that Weil's 12-page script had been submitted to Günther for approval and that, after reading it, he had decided to proceed with the production immediately. Two orders had gone out. Firstly, he instructed the Prague newsreel company Aktualita to have a film team ready to go to Theresienstadt on short notice.14Secondly, he notified Burger in Theresienstadt that the next large transport to arrive in the camp was going to be filmed and ordered him to make all the necessary preparations.

In the event, the transport that was filmed came from Westerbork, the transit camp for Jews in the Netherlands. Why was it that a Dutch transport was used? Had it been chosen for any particular reason? Beginning on the 9th, a total of 34 transports arrived in Theresienstadt in the month of January 1944. They came from towns all over Germany (22 trains), the Protectorate (4), Austria (2), Holland (2) and Denmark (1). The majority, however, carried only a few individuals or, at the most, a few dozen deportees (3 to 73 persons). Until the Dutch train came in, there had been only one larger transport, from Berlin on the 11th, but that one had still counted only 352 deportees. The transport scheduled to arrive from Holland, however, was expected to bring a group of over 800. So it seems the Dutch transport was chosen for no other reason than its size. It was simply the first that met the film's requirements (Lederer 1953: statistical survey, tables IV and V).

To make room for the Dutch Jews, and to facilitate the filming, Burger on January 14 ordered that the entire Hamburg Barracks, directly adjacent to the railway platform, be emptied within 48 hours. No alternative accommodation was provided; the ghetto's Housing Department was left to solve that problem by itself. The Hamburg Barracks (Block C III) was a women's barrack, housing 3,200 female prisoners. The sudden order naturally caused some consternation, but on the whole the evacuation proceeded smoothly. The evicted women were first lodged in lofts and the whole first floor was furnished with the familiar equipment required for the search of new arrivals (Lederer 1953: 107; Adler 1960: 164-165, 698). In anticipation of the filming, Burger ordered long tables to be set up in the barracks' courtyard. On the day of the shooting, kitchen staff in white dresses would ladle out soup to the new arrivals.

Transport No. XXIV/2 had left Westerbork camp on January 18 with 870 deportees, mostly Dutch Jews, but also quite a few German Jews – refugees who had had the misfortune to see Holland invaded by the Nazis in May 1940.15Instead of the usual freight cars, the train was composed of passenger coaches, third class.

On January 19 the train reached Bauschowitz (Bohušovice) station, three kilometres from Theresienstadt, where it halted. Now the wheels were set in motion for the filming. Early on the 20th, the film crew from Aktualita arrived from Prague with their film van. It consisted of six men: company owner and film director Karel Pečený; cameramen Josef Čepelák and Ivan Frič; sound engineers Jaroslav Čechura and Josef Franěk; and driver Leo Chodil.

Before they had left for Theresienstadt, either the day before or early on that very morning, the crew had had a visit from Günther at the Aktualita building on Wenceslas Square. On his instructions, X. E. Lampl, the German government trustee at Aktualita, had addressed the assembled crew in an office room. As Frič remembered it, he had begun by saying “that it involved a secret mission, that we must not tell anyone what we would get to see or hear in Theresienstadt, not even our close relatives, and that we were not allowed to forward letters that we might get from the prisoners in Theresienstadt”. His speech then had taken a menacing turn: “should anyone contravene this order, we would be punished together with our relatives; it was insinuated that the Germans would liquidate whole families.”16

During the 60-kilometre drive to Theresienstadt, soundman Čechura, puzzled by the secrecy, had asked Pečený why the Theresienstadt project had been given to Aktualita and not for instance to Prag-Film, the central film production organisation in the Protectorate. “That is a confidential matter”, was all that Pečený had been prepared to answer.17

Now, duly intimidated, Pečený and his crew found themselves at Theresienstadt, this mysterious, sealed-off Jewish town. Quickly and routinely, they set up their cameras and microphones at the railway stop and in the barracks courtyard, where kitchen personnel were setting up the soup cauldrons. Judenälteste Paul Eppstein and his deputy Benjamin Murmelstein stood ready to receive the newcomers. No other prisoners were allowed to watch the filming. The railway stop on L2 Street – renamed Bahnhofstrasse (Station Street) for the Beautification – was closed to the public by SS men and Czech gendarmes. Everything was ready. A message went out to nearby Bauschowitz that the train could proceed into the town. The train passed through the south-eastern entrance gate of the fortress city and stopped in Bahnhofstrasse beside the Hamburg Barracks. There was no raised platform like in a normal railway station but wooden scaffolding had been constructed to facilitate getting off the train. Murmelstein described the scene:

Burger himself has come to the station to do the honours. For this occasion luggage porters stand ready to rush forward and help the important guests alight. Everything proceeds in majestic calmness, the quiet is almost complete. The train stops, no shouting, no pushing about whatsoever. Getting off the train proceeds in orderly fashion, as if we are in a Swiss Spa. An old lady stands hesitatingly on the footboard, for a short moment she looks confused, the next moment she thanks the officer who has dashed forward to help her with a courteous smile. Leaning on his arm, she gets off the train (Murmelstein 1961: 103-104).18

The behaviour of the SS was indeed quite extraordinary. Burger, in other times a cruel and violent Jew-hater, helped people alight from the train with a smile, and even SS-Scharführer Rudolf Haindl, Burger's irascible Lager-Inspektor, was playing with the children that had come off the train. Present among the SS and watching the day's filming was also the man who within a month would succeed Burger as commandant of Theresienstadt and within six months would oversee the production of the last and largest film to be made at the “paradise ghetto”:19 SS-Obersturmführer Karl Rahm. As Günther's deputy at the Prague Zentralstelle he had, in his own words, “been ordered to escort [the] film crew from Prague to Theresienstadt to film the arrival of the Dutch transport”.20

The entire crowd was quietly led from the Station Street into the adjoining Hamburg Barracks where white-dressed kitchen staff “waited” on the arrivals, serving goulash, coffee and cakes, and nurses took care of the sick. All this was captured on celluloid.

However, few of the new inmates paid any attention to the fact that they were being filmed, if they noticed it at all. Even more so, hardly any of them realised that their reception was anything out of the ordinary and had been especially put on for them. Fifteen-year-old Dutch teenager Gerhard Durlacher, in the transport with his parents, remembered it thus:

Arches and massive, smooth-faced balustrades allow a view of a courtyard, grey-black from mud and half-melted snow. […]Leaning over each other in dense rows, necks craned, one hand crooked behind the ear, eyes staring nervously at the entrance gate. An unintelligible call from somewhere. Orders: "Caps off! . . . Silence!", flash through the human multitude. The stirring and shuffling movements stop. Four men enter through the gate. The first two in SS uniforms, stiff but with nonchalant arrogance. They take up positions to the right of the gate, the building to their backs. Like disinterested semi-amused theatre directors, they watch the entry of the court clowns, coming up behind in their dark coats, marching awkwardly to the middle of the courtyard. I recognise one of them and from the slight relief around me, I feel that the others recognise him as well: Dr. Wachtel21, the small upright man, with grey curly hair and a reassuring aged face, well known [from Westerbork]. One of the few with a reputation of integrity. Next to him, equally small, at least 25 years younger, the well-groomed appearance of the Berlin university teacher still nearly intact, Dr. Eppstein, Judenälteste in Theresienstadt. We knew nothing of him (Durlacher 1985: 40-41).

Now, Eppstein delivered the prescribed “welcoming speech”. While Čepelák and Frič filmed, sound operators Čechura and Franěk recorded his words. “Eppstein”, Murmelstein recalled,

in a sober but elegant dress, smiles through his tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles. His voice is sympathetic, his manner of speech skilful and convincing. He is the university professor giving his routine lecture: Jewish settlement, autonomous government, a Council of Elders, a bank, post office, monthly payments, shops, entertainment. The speech ends with an invitation and appeal to the new ghetto inhabitants to cooperate, to contribute their mite to all these fine things.

In Murmelstein's recollection, the rest of the sound recording was spoilt by an unexpected incident. According to him, Dr. Wachtel (Murmelstein does not mention his name, but it can only refer to him), in his reply on behalf of the new arrivals, artlessly referred to their new place of residence as “this camp”. Murmelstein was stunned by the man's naivety: “The old Dutchman [sic] replies in faulty German [sic], interrupts himself, starts anew, then once more. It is only at his third try that the speaker succeeds in correcting himself and stops causing a stir by calling Theresienstadt ‘a camp’. How on earth”, Murmelstein thought with bitter irony, “is it possible to confuse ‘a settlement’ with a concentration camp? It is a very unpleasant affair” (Murmelstein 1961: 103-104).

Murmelstein's description is from the perspective of the long-time inmates. But this is not at all how the new arrivals interpreted the scene. An altogether different picture emerges from the recollection of young Gerhard Durlacher:

Wachtel and Eppstein stood there right in the middle of the courtyard, bearers of an unknown message of fear and hope, focus of a thousand eyes. The Judenälteste talked, but only a few could hear every word he said. His voice did not carry and fragments of sentences penetrating through the wall of restless silence gave the impression of a mechanically-spoken standard speech. […] Attention flagged. A buzz of whispering grew all around. We had been through the mill. One or two years of camp experience had left their marks on us. Only one question was burning behind our eyes: were we safe from deportation to the unknown, menacing East? Dr. Wachtel understood our agony. At his first words, a complete silence fell. With his south-German timbre and the trained voice of an old officer, concise and clear, he spoke the words that quenched our burning anxiety: he, retired officer of the ‘14-‘18 war, bearer of the Iron Cross First Class and the Pour le Mérite, had been given the assurance of commandant [Burger], the word of an officer, that we, the transport from Holland, provided we behaved well, would be allowed to stay in Theresienstadt (Durlacher 1985: 41-42).

The end of the speeches was the end of the day's filming. As the film crew started to pack up their equipment, postcards were handed out to the newcomers – like had been done with the Danes three months before – and they were told to inform relatives or friends of their safe arrival and good reception. Some of the new arrivals had still not fathomed that Theresienstadt was not at all the privileged camp that they had been led to believe would await them. The veteran inmates could only feel sorry as they watched the bewildered crowd in the courtyard. Murmelstein reacted with typical cold irony:

The old lady goes to thank the officer, her knight, who is so different from all the other Germans whom she has had the misfortune to meet. Ignorant people, these Dutchmen. First they spoil the show by talking about a concentration camp in a settlement, then they won't realise that the shooting has stopped. Damned Jews, open your eyes, the filming is over (Murmelstein 1961: 104).

After the cards had been taken in by Burger and Haindl, the people were led to the first floor of the barracks for body and baggage search. Here, their entire luggage was taken from them. They were robbed of everything, except blankets and coats: money, cigarettes, valuables, clothes. Next day, the newcomers were registered, put to work and treated as badly as all other prisoners. The illusion was over.22

The day after the filming, January 21, Günther and Rahm suddenly turned up at the Aktualita office in Prague and ordered Pečený to call together the employees who had been with him at the ghetto. When all had been assembled, Günther once more reminded the crew members of the ban to speak to anyone about what they had seen or heard at the ghetto, not even to their families, and repeated the threats that had been made earlier. “Thereupon”, as Frič recalled, “he opened his leather briefcase and with his black-gloved hand took out a piece of paper, which he then ordered us to sign.”23

It was a document typed on Aktualita letter paper (Fig. 2) and read:

Verpflichtungserklärung (statement of obligation).

The undersigned gentlemen of AKTUALITA hereby explicitly bind themselves to keep the strictest reticence towards everyone about their film work at Theresienstadt on January 20, 1944. The gentlemen have been informed about the consequences of any indiscretion.

Director Karel Pečený:

Cameraman Josef Čepelák:

Cameraman Iwan Frič:

Sound engineer Jaroslav Čechura:

Sound engineer Josef Franěk:

Chauffeur Leo Chodil:

All six men signed the document.24

The document signed by the Aktualita crew on orders of the SS on January 21, 1944. Státní Oblastní Archiv, Prague: MLS 521/48: II-206, Annexe F.

The film exposed on January 20 was developed in Prague and finished at Aktualita under close SS supervision. Ivan Frič edited the footage into a short film of about 400-450 metres (14-16 minutes) long.25When it was finished, the film was screened before Günther and Rahm – and rejected at the first showing. According to Frič, the SS men were not satisfied with the film because they thought it conveyed the atmosphere of Theresienstadt – the fear, the uncertainty, the oppressiveness – too realistically: “It contained too many real, unstaged situations.”

Also, the winter-day cold, accentuated by the condensing breath of the benumbed deportees and the steam of the soup cauldrons, seemed to aggravate the bleak, dreary image of Theresienstadt. The footage simply “proved inadequate to produce the desired effect.” As Frič remembered it, “the way things had been recorded in the film was unacceptable to the Nazis”.26

That was the end of the “Dutch transport film”. The finished copy was handed over to the Germans and probably destroyed by them. Nothing was heard of it again. There is no evidence that it was ever used.27

Back at Theresienstadt, the one day of filming had left the Jewish inmates wondering why the camera team did not return. Those prisoners who were aware of the film plans and of Jindřich Weil's script had fully expected that this first film day would be followed by others. But there was no sequel. After January 20, nothing else was filmed at Theresienstadt. As no more was heard of it, Murmelstein suspected that perhaps the Nazis had decided to complete the film by adding “scenes purporting to show the ghetto, but actually filmed in some movie studio”.28

The 26-Page Script

However, this was not the end of Weil's film work at Theresienstadt. He was yet to write one more script.

All Weil's film papers discussed so far had been written before January 20, before actual shooting took place at Theresienstadt. His last piece of work, the 26-page script, was the exception.

“In April 1943, the first group of Jews from Holland arrived”, reads this script's commentary text, “followed by others in January and February.”29As only one Dutch transport arrived in Theresienstadt in the latter month, on the 26th30, this by necessity dates the script to sometime after that date, February 26, 1944. It is less easy to pinpoint a “before” date, but it seems safe to assume that it was finished before the end of March.31

But much more can be gleaned from a close analysis of this document. Just as the 12-page script was a direct descendant of the speech text, so the 26-page script was a faithful elaboration of the 8-page treatment. It has exactly the same 20 sequences as listed in the latter. As prescribed by the treatment, its story begins with a historical introduction, showing Theresienstadt as a star-shaped town with scenes illustrating the build-up period; and with an arriving transport being welcomed by the Judenälteste. Then follow the same 16 sequences of “life in Theresienstadt” as proposed by the treatment, albeit in a slightly different order.32And, to round off the story, there is the end montage too. Like in the treatment, the story unfolds logically and sequences are linked together smoothly (the fade-out/fade-in transition is needed only twice33).

However, there are differences too. The script has dropped the two-part structure of the treatment which, indeed somewhat arbitrarily, divided the story into a “building up” part and a “daily life” part. But far more important, perhaps even vital, is another change: it does not follow the clear suggestion of the treatment to use the Judenälteste speech as the narration for the whole film. In fact, the commentary is what distinguishes the 26-page script most from all the other Weil papers discussed so far. All the others had had in common – implicitly or explicitly – the idea to use a Judenälteste speech as the carrier of the story, as its “red thread”. The 26-page script not only dropped this idea but, what is more, the way in which it did, strongly suggests that the change was not the work of Jindřich Weil; even stronger, as if someone had suddenly interfered with Weil's work. So far, all film papers had had the stamp of professionalism. Anyone who notices the confident story-moulding of the treatment, the to-the-point adaptations of the speech, the factuality and compactness of the 12-page script, can see that they were the products of a professional scriptwriter, someone who knew the do's and don’ts of the craft. The same can still be said of the way in which the 20 sequences of the treatment were “translated” into the 312 shots34of the 26-page script.

But it can certainly not be upheld for the commentary text as included in the right-hand (sound) column of that script. The person who wrote this either was a layman without much previous experience in writing film commentary, or – if not, and indeed a seasoned scriptwriter – he made a very poor job of it. A good film commentary should always observe four rules: it must be 1) concise, 2) simple, 3) captivating and 4) not fill more than about one third of the film. The commentary of the 26-page script sinned against all four of these rules: its sentences are too long, its information too detailed, its wording too official, it is enumerative to the point of boredom and it leaves speaker and listener gasping for breath and longing for a spate of wordless background music. Consider a passage like:

Determining for the composition of the division of the population according to sexes is the fact that, from the areas of origin from which the transports to Theresienstadt were despatched, a great number of males had emigrated to create the condition for the later emigration of the families. It is for that reason that, only in the first weeks, as predominantly forces qualified for construction labour came to Theresienstadt, a preponderance of men can be observed. Since March 1942 and the arrival of transports from the area of the Altreich [Germany proper] and the Ostmark [former Austria], in which the Jewish emigration had already assumed a particularly large volume, a preponderance of women developed.

– all this to be spoken within less than four shots.35


The transformer mains were raised to 580 KW by the setting-up of new stations. The connection capacity reaches a total of 1,280 KW. The electricity works, which are fitted with the required installation, feed the outdoor systems as well as the assembly of engines, transformers, switch and heating installations, measuring instruments, electro-medical equipment, and weak-current installations.

– to be edited over just four shots.36


Of the two operating rooms in the general hospital, one is meant for aseptic, the other for septic surgery. The aseptic operating room is connected to a sterilisation room, in which a modern high-pressure steam sterilizer with electrical fittings, an installation for producing sterilised water, glass instrument cases and three washbasins with hot water for cleansing the surgeons' hands are available.

– again only four shots to illustrate this avalanche of words.37

And so on and on, page after page, shot after shot, in that untranslatable German officialese, which we knew so well from Nazi bureaucrats, but which equally typifies so much of the paperwork produced at the Theresienstadt ghetto. In short: if Weil did indeed write this commentary himself, he fell far below the standards of his earlier work.

Weil, like Irena Dodalová and Peter Kien (the makers of the 1942 film) before him and like Gerron later, worked under close supervision of the Jewish Council of Elders and, through it, of the SS. What is more, we know that on February 8, 1944 Theresienstadt began to be ruled by a new commandant, SS-Obersturmführer Karl Rahm. Since the script dates from shortly after that, is it not more than likely that it was Rahm's interference that caused the sudden change of tune; that it was Rahm's order that made Weil write a commentary that no scriptwriter would ever compose on his own accord?

The Film Project is Temporarily Halted

The 26-page script was probably completed sometime in March 1944. By then, the second film project had been in progress for over two months. A treatment and scripts for two different films had been written; a start had even been made with shooting the first script. Now, after all this work, the project disappeared from view. No written documents exist to explain its abrupt demise. But it seems more than likely that it was Rahm who called the whole thing off. If so, what were his reasons? And, connected to that, why was the work done on January 20 not followed up by more shooting? For lack of direct evidence, the answer to these questions can only be hypothetical.

The overriding factor was that the film productions of January-February took place at a time when Theresienstadt had only just embarked on its Beautification programme. Much that was to figure so prominently on the day of the Red Cross visit in June and then again as film set in August and September, was not yet ready or, in some cases, had not even been started: the Sokolovna “community building” with its planned theatre halls and its outdoor terrace complete with tables and parasols, was still undergoing extensive reconstruction; the children's pavilion and playground in the town park had just begun to be built; the benches in the town square had not nearly all been placed; the flower beds there had already been laid out, but were yet to blossom; the wooden signboards still had to be put up; the “Prominente-Wohnungen” (VIP dwellings) and shops still had to be furnished to live up to their names; many streets awaited to be cleaned, many façades were still on the list to be painted.

Also, the population, which was to provide the “actors” and “extras” for visit and film alike, still needed to be “prepared”: with 50,000 prisoners, the town was still far too overflowing to be able to hide its overpopulation and the abundance of aged, sick and crippled people from an observant visitor or a recording camera. Rahm's order, in May, to send 7,500 inmates off to Auschwitz in order to make Theresienstadt less crowded, was still in the offing; also, the football teams, theatre groups, music band and orchestra that were to perform before the commission and the camera, still lacked proper clothing, equipment, musical instruments and other props.

Any attempt to make a “positive” film about Theresienstadt at this stage was bound to fail. In early 1944, the town was simply not yet ready to serve as film set. Coupled to that, the season was wrong. A film aiming to show the sunny sides of life at Theresienstadt should be made in summer, not in the middle of a bleak and cold winter. That had been all too clearly shown by the scenes shot on January 20.

There is another aspect of the Beautification which affected the January-February film and that is that the SS did not right from the beginning have a clear notion of what the town's face-lift should entail. Their ideas only developed in the course of it. Furthermore, Burger was not the right man to carry out such a scheme. He not only missed the imagination that was needed to make it a success, he was also too incompetent, or too lazy, to give anything more than general orders or to closely oversee and judge whether they were carried out properly.

Things changed completely when Rahm succeeded Burger in February. Rahm not only markedly speeded up the programme, but also unleashed a torrent of new plans, new ideas, new orders. And much more than his predecessor, he kept a tight reign on everything, paying attention to even the minutest details.

All this is reflected in the January-February film, which, after all, was an offspring of the embellishment scheme. What goes for the Beautification as a whole, holds even more true for the film. From a content analysis of the Weil papers, it can be deduced that Burger's instructions to Weil must have primarily been negative ones; that is, limited to a listing of those aspects of Theresienstadt that might not be shown or mentioned in the film: the starvation, the distress, the overcrowding, the high mortality, the transports to the East. But Burger seems not to have grasped that, with film propaganda, it was not enough to hand out a list of “forbidden topics”, but that all other aspects of the filmmaking process have to be controlled too. Instead Weil was left more or less free in the way he presented the remaining aspects of Theresienstadt – the ones that he could show – in his film stories. Burger appears to have given him little prescription as to the amount of time and attention he was to spend on a given subject or the relative weight he was to attribute to different subjects. The basic structure of each of the film designs was Weil's brainchild, not Burger's.

Rahm was an altogether different person. Although his experience with film-making was as non-existent as Burger's, he had a far better developed sense of propaganda. In fact, he had been chosen to replace Burger for the specific reason that he was considered a better man to oversee the Beautification and to exploit to the utmost the propaganda possibilities of Theresienstadt. There is no doubt that he realised from the start that a prerequisite for effective film propaganda – like with all propaganda – was to keep a close watch on the filmmakers, much closer than Burger had kept.

It is very likely that when Rahm inherited the film project from Burger, he – perhaps after seeing the rushes of the January 20 shooting – fathomed that something was wrong with the work done so far and tried to put things right by ordering Weil to drop the 12-page script, go back to the original 8-page treatment and write a new script based on that – and this time he would be there to supervise the work. However, Rahm had overestimated his talent for scriptwriting. His interference – if it was his – with the commentary of the new script was, to say the least, no improvement. And his understanding of film propaganda was still not large enough (he would do much better later on) to see that a precise advance stipulation of how to treat “allowed topics” in the film was equally vital: for there is little to suggest that Rahm interfered in any way with the basic structure of the story. In this respect, the 26-page script differs little from the treatment and 12-page script produced under Burger's aegis.

To sum up, there are many plausible reasons why Rahm ordered all work on the film to be stopped in March 1944.

Firstly, his top priority – the reason for his appointment as camp commander – was not the film, but to get the camp ready for inspection by the Danes and the Red Cross – which Eichmann, through Günther, had made clear could not be postponed much longer. Completing the Town Beautification was far more pressing than making the film – in fact its sine qua non. (The plan to have the film ready in time for the inspection visit and screen it to the members of the commission during their tour of the town – the reason behind the search for a suitable cinema accommodation in the ghetto – was seen to be not really vital and thus went by the boards, too.)

Secondly, from his introduction to filming on January 20, Rahm had learned that shooting on location needed a much more thorough preparation and should only start when everything (sets, clothing, props) and everyone (crew, actors, extra's) was ready.

Thirdly, filming had to wait until the summer because of the need for better weather – something which had also been brought home by the footage shot on January 20.

Fourthly, Rahm may finally have come to realise the shortcomings of both Weil scripts to produce the desired propaganda image of Theresienstadt, and his own inability to do anything about it.

And so work on the film was stopped. But the idea was not forgotten. The project was not cancelled, only shelved temporarily. It would be revived in the summer – after the International Red Cross had carried out its inspection visit on June 23 (and let itself be fooled by it). By then, Rahm had found another film professional among the ghetto inmates – the famous Kurt Gerron (who had arrived with a transport from Westerbork on February 26) – and had ordered him to set up a production team and write a new script for the proposed film. Jindřich Weil was not invited to join and there is no evidence that he was in any way involved in the Gerron film.38

Content Analysis

One final matter remains to be discussed. We have just noted Jindřich Weil's relative freedom – made possible by the inexperience with film on the part of his SS masters – to shape those aspects of Theresienstadt that he was allowed to show in a film story. The question is: what would the films have looked like had his designs been completed? What image of Theresienstadt would they have given? Would it have been a totally false image, one great lie, or would a grain of reality still have been discernible in them? What degree of authenticity would they have possessed?

Of course, by leaving out the essential aspects of Theresienstadt – the fact that it was a prison camp under despotic SS rule; the hunger, the misery of the sick and old, the appalling death rate, the deadly transports to the East – Weil's designs totally disqualified themselves as honest film reports. By doing so, they lost any claim to being an objective “documentary” record and would have resulted in a gross distortion of the truth, serving only the evil propaganda of the Nazis – much the same as with the later Gerron film.

But what about the things that Weil’s films were allowed and did plan to show? How reliable or unreliable were these? How much of it was deliberately fake or staged for the film? How much of it was irrelevant to the daily life of the prisoners?

Take for example the topic of work at the ghetto. With the immediate organisation of newcomers into labour parties of one hundred; with working times of over ten hours a day; with the ghetto's wide range of production and repair workshops seizing a large percentage of the inmates; with the ghetto desperately trying to provide food for its population by agricultural works; with all this, “work” can and must be classified an aspect of Theresienstadt that was very relevant to the daily life of the prisoners. It would have been a gross distortion to give “work” little attention, or less than for example “sports”. Or, to reverse the argument, what about the more grotesque procreations of the Jewish “Self-Administration”: the Ghetto Bank with its valueless currency, its fake saving accounts, its ridiculously prolific and complex administration; the Ghetto Police with its martial uniforms and pretence of power; the Ghetto Court with its mock authority to judge offences and impose fines? It would have been equally distorting to pay these topics more than just passing attention.

A close content analysis of Weil’s film designs shows that they would have allotted the most running time to work, provision of food, healthcare and housing, and far less to the ghetto administration (police, fire brigade, court of justice, bank), cultural and leisure activities, spiritual life and youth care. There are slight differences between the 12-page script/speech and the 8-page treatment/26-page script but on the whole it can be said that the subject categories that may be considered to deal with the first requirements of life in the ghetto (housing, work, provision, health care) take up the majority of the story (55,5% in the treatment, 60% in the 12-page script, 65% in the 26-page script). This in stark contrast to the film shot later: both the treatment, script and editing proposal written by Gerron in June-August 1944 and the film actually completed by Aktualita in March 1945 tended to over-accentuate cultural and leisure-time activities in the ghetto.

In detail, the various topics were represented as follows:

Not surprisingly, since the one is based on the other, the similarity between the 8-page treatment and the 26-page script is striking: the division of topics closely mirror each other. The 12-page script, based as it is on the speech, has some strikingly different accents: it pays far less attention to health care and youth, and completely disregards spiritual life and history.

Discovery of the Weil Papers

One day in January 1960, František R. Kraus, a Prague journalist and survivor of Theresienstadt, was invited by another ex-inmate, Otto Weil, to come and see some papers which Weil had kept since 1945. When Kraus called in, Weil took him to the loft, opened an old suitcase and produced a pink-coloured carton folder. Inside was a pack of closely-written paper sheets, partly typescript, partly handwritten, partly in faultless Gabelsberger shorthand. A superficial glance sufficed to realise that these were papers related to a film: there was a synopsis of 8 pages, a script of 12 pages, another one of 26 pages, three versions of what looked like a film speech or narrator's text, various loose documents – in all 58 typed sheets – plus a dozen pages of handwritten notes, half of them in shorthand (Kraus 1960a: 6).39

Weil explained that they were not his own, but had belonged to a namesake and ghetto roommate of his, Jindřich Weil. In late October 1944, when Jindřich had been called up for what would be the last of the autumn transports to Auschwitz, he had given Otto a suitcase with things that he could not take with him. After liberation, Otto had taken the suitcase back with him to Prague, put it in his loft and forgotten all about it. Only recently, he had again come across it, opened it for the first time, and found the papers.

Kraus knew he had laid his hands on a sensational scoop and he hastened to publish his story in the German-language Prague Jewish weekly Aufbau und Frieden.40However, his article was marred by some very serious inaccuracies and ill-founded assumptions. He could hardly be blamed for the fact that he called the film a “Goebbels movie”. Many historians had made and were to make that same error. His major fault was that he linked the Weil papers directly to the Gerron film, presenting it as if these were the scripts from which Gerron had directed his film in August-September 1944. Apparently, Kraus did not know, or did not care to find out, that Gerron had written his own scripts, nor that they had been found and even partly published by H.G. Adler two years before (Adler 1958: 330-337). For only a superficial comparison with the extract in Adler's book would have shown him that the papers he had found were worded differently and therefore must be something else. Also, he does not appear to have taken the trouble to properly analyse the papers. Had he done so, he would have been able to date them to December 1943-February 1944 and that would have perhaps induced him to link the Weil papers to the film made in January 1944. But maybe Kraus never even realised that there had been an earlier try at making the film. To confuse matters even more, he attributed a prominent role in his account to an “SS-Obersturmführer von Ott” by whom he presumably meant SS-Obersturmführer Herbert Otto, the supervisor of the 1942 Theresienstadt film41, a man who had absolutely nothing to do with the 1944 film. By presenting the Weil papers as “the script for the Gerron film” and linking that film with (von) Ott(o), Kraus launched a fallacy that confused many historians and cluttered up historiography for years. Echoes of his misinformed claims could still be heard in the late 1980s (e.g. Herbert G. Luft 1983; Joza Karas 1985: 156; Alain Jaubert 1986: 74; Regine-Mihal Friedman 1988: 1703).

Two months after his first publication, Kraus had his story reprinted in the Czech film magazine Československý film. That same April, the bulletin of the Czech Jewish Community Věstník Židovské obce náboženské devoted two articles to the Theresienstadt film, an introductory piece by the editor Rudolf Iltis and a longer article by the historian Erich Kulka. Both were a lot more cautious in their claims: Iltis described the Weil papers as “the script of the propaganda film shot in the ghetto, or at least a part of, or a proposal for a script”; Kulka, in an admirably factual piece, strangely enough did not even mention Weil or his papers – his article appears to be a deliberate attempt to correct some of Kraus' wild claims and inaccuracies. Kulka did mention the filming of the arrival of the Dutch transport, but, unfortunately, himself exacerbated the confusion still further, by describing it not as a separate effort, but as part of the August-September shooting period.42

Both Kraus' and Kulka's articles were picked up by film journalists in the West; their subsequent stories faithfully reproduced the errors and misconceptions started by the original authors.43

There was only one historian who had it right. In London, Dr. Adler was then finalising the revised edition of his Theresienstadt 1941-1945. He had already read an East German news report about the new find and, just before his July deadline, he received additional information from Kulka. The latter had evidently studied the Weil papers and come to the correct conclusion that the papers belonged to an earlier film – his assumption, however, was that they had been written in 1943 and that the film had been shot in the autumn of that year. Adler, who had not seen the actual papers, but had only Kulka's content summary to go on, correctly guessed that the papers most probably had something to do with the film shot on January 20, 1944.44

After their discovery, the Weil papers were transferred to the archives of the Svaz protifašistických bojovníků (Czech Association of Anti-Fascist Resistance Fighters) in Prague. Today, they are in the Archiv bezpečnostních složek (Czech Security Services Archive), also in Prague.45

Still from film shot by Aktualita crew on January 20, 1944. Image: US Holocaust Memorial Museum 20255, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Frič.
Still from film shot by Aktualita crew on January 20, 1944. Image: US Holocaust Memorial Museum 20256, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Frič.
Still from film shot by Aktualita crew on January 20, 1944. Image: US Holocaust Memorial Museum 20270, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Frič.
Still from film shot by Aktualita crew on January 20, 1944. Image: US Holocaust Memorial Museum 20273, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Frič.
Still from film shot by Aktualita crew on January 20, 1944. Image: US Holocaust Memorial Museum 20271, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Frič.
Still from film shot by Aktualita crew on January 20, 1944. Image: US Holocaust Memorial Museum 20261, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Frič.
Still from film shot by Aktualita crew on January 20, 1944. Image: US Holocaust Memorial Museum 20276, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Frič.
Still from film shot by Aktualita crew on January 20, 1944. Image: US Holocaust Memorial Museum 20264, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Frič.
Still from film shot by Aktualita crew on January 20, 1944. Image: US Holocaust Memorial Museum 20267, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Frič.
Still from film shot by Aktualita crew on January 20, 1944. Image: US Holocaust Memorial Museum 20257, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Frič.