Newsreel footage of the Nazi concentration camps were “generally received by audiences in silence or with muttered expressions of outrage,” according to the New York Times May 2, 1945. It was the first time these films were shown, and the first time the most of public had become aware of the mass exterminations.
The film was shot by Army Signal Corps cameramen accompanying the Allied armies now pouring over the Rhine and liberating these camps at Nordhausen, Buchenwald, Ohrdruf, and Hadamar as they went.
“…Piles of the dead, pitiful specimens of the ‘living dead,’ the crematoriums in which victims were disposed of and other bodies exhumed from graves for identification…”
Some of the reels were preceded by warnings to the audience not to look “if you are susceptible to gruesome sights.” Most people, thankfully, are sensitive to cruelty, but many in these audiences still had the courage and the determination to look.
“There were no indications that many persons took refuge in shutting their eyes, and the response apparent in theaters indicated that the patrons were determined to see.”
Radio City Music Hall opted out of showing the newsreels, where the manager explained that he did not want to shock or sicken the large proportion of women and children among his patrons.
Adolf Hitler, who evidently feared criminal punishment worse than he feared hell, committed suicide only a couple days before, and what was left of the Nazi military government would surrender in another five days. V-E day followed next, a wild day of celebration over much of the world, but these newsreels of the death camps put perhaps even the celebrations into perspective.
For many after seeing these newsreels, as for the astonished and disgusted Allied soldiers who stumbled horror-stricken upon the extermination camps, it was not so much “hurray for us, we’re number one!” like fans of champion sports teams who overturn cars in a “Bizarro World” simulation of V-E Day. For these liberators of the camps, and the sensitive audiences in the movie theaters watching the newsreel, it would always be a spine tingling, sweat-soaked realization of what the world would have been like if we had lost.
“They are probably the most frightful pictures of death and woe ever exhibited in American newsreels.”
Before television, before the Internet, movie theaters were more than just a place of escapism. They were the spirit of their communities, and a gathering place for shared human experience, and sometimes even the conscience of the neighborhood that led the blood drives and the bond rallies and the Red Cross donations.
And the feature films that followed the newsreels and the B-movie, and the cartoon ever after this would have a bit more realistic viewpoint to them, a grittiness borne of wretched experience, a cynicism the result of innocence lost. Even the old movie monsters like Dracula and the Wolf Man seemed like foolish creatures from fairy tales.
We had seen real monsters now. There was no comparison.