When George Stevens, director of the Special Motion Picture Coverage Unit (SPECOU), entered the gates of the Dachau concentration camp with his team on April 30, 1945, he didn’t know what he would encounter.
He was there to document evidence of war crimes and atrocities as his first priority, but what he saw and experienced was beyond comprehension. The 16mm Kodachrome footage he shot and his detailed documentation of the camp conditions are among the first recorded evidence of the massive genocide engineered by Nazi Germany.
His powerful work is a key component of Filming the Camps: John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens: From Hollywood to Nuremberg, at the Atlanta History Center through November 20.
Created by the Shoah Memorail (Mémorial de la Shoah) and curated by historian and filmmaker Christian Delage (Nuremberg, the Nazis Facing Their Crimes, 2007), the exhibition is an unflinching insider look at what the three directors experienced and felt as witnesses to the Holocaust.
Delage said his main goal for Filming the Camps was “to enable the audience to view the footage in its historical context and read the accompanying narratives written by the cameramen and writers, practically in real-time, as soon as they finished shooting for the day.”
This sense of immediacy is pervasive, from the films to the field photo log sheets, which methodically list everything that was photographed in addition to the audio recordings, interview clips and personal correspondence.
The experience profoundly affected the three men. Stevens was so disturbed by what he saw at Dachau (it would later become the basis for the 1994 documentary, George Stevens: From D-Day to Berlin) that when he returned to Hollywood, he could no longer make the frothy entertainment he was known for prior to joining the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Stevens, who had directed some of the most delightful romantic comedies and escapist entertainments of the 1930s and early ’40s — Alice Adams, Swing Time, Gunga Din, Woman of the Year, The More the Merrier — began to explore more serious themes. The dark side of the American dream (A Place in the Sun, 1951). Alcohol addiction (Something to Live For, 1952). Nazi persecution (The Diary of Anne Frank, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director).
Fuller was not yet a director when he joined the 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, which was also known as “The Big Red One.” When his battalion arrived at Falkenau, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, his commanding officer told him to document the camp using the Bell & Howell 16mm camera Fuller’s mother had sent him.
“I did not know that I was going to make my first film,” he would later say.
“The spectacle was heart-wrenching, leaving me numb,” he wrote in his memoir, A Third Face. “I’d recorded evidence of man’s indescribable cruelty, a reality that the perpetrators might try to deny. However, a motion-picture camera doesn’t lie.
“When I finally got home, in the fall of 1945, I put that footage away and never took it out again. It would be too painful to watch, bringing back all of the horrors of the war years.”
Some 35 years later, he made the World War II drama, The Big Red One.
Ford, a member of the Navy reserve, assembled what would become the Field Photographic Branch. Starting with 60 members — all enlisted men recruited from the Hollywood studios — the unit would eventually grow to a staff of approximately 200 who made documentaries, reconnaissance photography and the like.
Ford also contributed several landmark war documentaries, including two Oscar winners, The Battle of Midway (Best Documentary feature of 1942) and December 7th (Best Documentary short of 1943).
Several members from Ford’s unit accompanied Stevens to Dachau. Much of their footage would be used as evidence of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Under Ford’s supervision, Budd and Stuart Schulberg, the sons of former Paramount studio mogul B.P. Schulberg, compiled and edited all of the footage shot at the Nuremberg trials for the documentary, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1948). Though never released theatrically, it was rediscovered and restored in 2011, and shown at film festivals.
The exhibition also includes Georgians, among them Morton B. Waitzman, James Montgomery Burgess, John Glustrom and James Gibson Hull.
Glustrom said his “introduction to this inhuman place” was a reception room at Buchenwald — a concentration camp near Weimar, Germany — furnished with lamps whose shades were made from human skin.
Said Waitzman, who encountered thousands of dead bodies at Nordhausen, “We were trained to fight wars…we weren’t trained for what we saw there.”