Death Mills (Billy Wilder, 1946)

I talked previously about my interest in the upcoming release of the film Concentration Camps: A Factual Survey (on limited release at the moment across the UK, though no sign of a Blu-ray/DVD release as yet). Whilst this BFI restoration has been receiving plenty of attention, it isn’t the only film of its type that exists. One other such film is Death Mills, directed by Billy Wilder. In truth, the film is actually a truncated version of the longer Factual Surveys, with Wilder selecting only 22 minutes of footage to create a short film.

The films in question had a very particular purpose: to capture the first looks inside the concentration camps that had been in operation during World War II; to ensure that the atrocities inside the camps were filmed for the whole world to see and could never be forgotten, despite the Nazi Party’s best attempts to cover them up. Another important purpose was to ensure they were shown to all Germans to show them exactly what was happening at the camps, to avoid any shadow of doubt for denial.

The contents of the film are visually shocking and not for the faint-hearted. It is a wholly distressing watch. The impact of the images, which speak for themselves, is heightened by an effective score and a doom-laden voiceover. It’s one thing to see the camps being portrayed in a fictionalised film, but something else completely to see the reality first-hand. The images, quite simply, are the darkest I have ever seen committed to film.

At the time this was made, Billy Wilder was one of the hottest directorial talents in the world. He had won the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for The Lost Weekend in 1945, a year after the release of critically acclaimed Double Indemnity (which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and still regularly appears on greatest films lists). Despite his Western-sounding name, he had in fact been born Samuel Wilder in Austria-Hungary (in a region now part of Poland) and later escaped in the early 1930s to Paris in light of the rise of the Nazi Party. He eventually made his way to Hollywood in 1933, though his family remained in Poland and were murdered during the Holocaust. It is for this reason that Wilder would have felt so passionately about taking part in the project, making his visit to the camp in Auschwitz all-the-more poignant as at the time he believed this to be the place of death for his mother, grandmother and stepfather (though in fact this was later disproved by Wilder biographer Andreas Hutter). Interestingly, the film doesn’t make a particular point of detailing quite how many Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust, perhaps because the exact figures weren’t quite understood at the time.

This is a deliberately distressing film but one of such importance as a historical document that it deserves to be watched. It is important it is made available now so that those who lost their lives so needlessly are never forgotten.

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