Channel 4's major new drama documentary about the relieving of one of the most notorious concentration of world war II is truly compelling and heartbreaking.
Award-winning historical-drama director Justin Hardy doesn’t believe in the re-hashing of literary classics as a basis for television drama. He is a firm believer in the notion that truth really is stranger than fiction and that in all our collective pasts are stories that are rich enough to make us laugh and make us cry.
“I’ve always believed that history throws up fantastic stories and that they can be brought shockingly to life for television by paying close attention to original primary sources,” says Justin.
In this case, the original sources are the diaries, news footage, records and personal testimony of the key personnel behind the relief of Belsen.
“The Belsen story has been told hundreds of times but has never really focused on the unsung heroes behind the relief effort,” explains Justin.
“These were ordinary people, thrown into an extraordinary and horrific situation, who had to overcome enormous hurdles and dilemmas in order to save thousands of lives.
“I was fascinated by the accounts. They showed people doing their best to make a difference against the odds and being heroes before the rest of the world even knew there was an emergency unfolding”.
But what were the challenges of making a film about such an incredibly sensitive and emotive subject and featuring real people?
“I felt a huge burden of responsibility,” admits producer Sue Horth. “Not only to the facts of the story – which are controversial enough – but to the survivors and personnel whose experiences we’d be putting on screen. It was critical that we stay true to the spirit of the sources and their authors, and hat we defer to the original archive as often as we could.
“But our biggest problem was that we had eight boxes of primary sources to choose from and hundreds of potential characters to squeeze into a two hour film.”
“We knew Lt Col Johnston was at the centre of all the decision-making, but when we realised his five medical reports took us right through the critical month after liberation, climaxing with the burning of the huts and his exhausted units being relieved, we knew we had our structure, and our hero.”
The Relief of Belsen has a distinctly modern visual feel. What was the thinking behind this?
“The archive was really the key”, explains Justin. “Once we’d taken the decision to avoid recreating the horror camp itself, we knew we’d need a style that would complement the original footage. And I realised that we could apply the real cameramen’s observational style to our own film.
“We asked ourselves: What if one of those real-life cameramen had chosen to stay behind at camp 2, and follow the behind-the-scenes story instead? We gave our fictional cameraman a name – Aidan – and throughout the scripting process, kept asking ourselves, what would Aidan have seen?
“It gives the film an immediacy and authenticity that it deserves”, adds Sue Horth. “But we were only following the model set by those original army cameramen, whose rushes can still be viewed at the Imperial War Museum.”
The film goes into fascinating detail about the medical and nursing care. Were the Wellcome Trust involved in this aspect of the story?
“We couldn’t have made this film without the assistance of the Wellcome,” says Sue. “After our partnership on ‘Trafalgar Battle Surgeon’ we were keen to make another battlefield emergency film and they came on board immediately for Belsen. Not only are many of the primary sources held at the Wellcome archives, but many of the key scientific personnel, particularly the nutritionists, were connected with the Wellcome Trust.”
Dr Anthony Woods, Head of Medicine Society and History Grants at the Wellcome Trust adds: "We are delighted that this collaboration has proven such a huge success in telling the untold stories of those involved in groundbreaking events at Belsen. The Wellcome Trust remains committed to funding projects to encourage public interest in the history of medicine, this film is no exception."
Justin Hardy has carved an award-winning niche in the field of factual drama, combining an eye for dramatic story-telling with a passion for historical truth. His critically-acclaimed films include A Harlot’s Progress, Trafalgar Battle Surgeon, Invitation to a Hanging, The Peterloo Massacre, Princes in the Tower, Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, The Great Plague, Georgiana: The People’s Duchess and The Last Dragon.