The Production File Tells the Story: How “Death Mills” Came to U.S. Audiences

This post was written by Criss Austin. Criss is the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab.

On April 29th, 1945 the United States Army liberated the Dachau concentration camp. The 42nd and 45th Divisions and 20th Armored Division, along with Signal Corps photographers and cameramen, assisted the survivors and documented the atrocities they found.

Signal Corps cameramen recorded the conditions, the dead, and the survivors at Dachau and other liberated camps as a record of events, for troop education, use in war crimes trials, and for other educational purposes. In all, the National Archives holds 228 reels of this film, comprising 200,000 feet, or more than 37 hours of footage. This post documents the creation and dissemination of the edited film, Death Mills (1946). This story chronicles how the film was translated, approved for various audiences, and the importance of authenticating the atrocities in the future.  

The German version of the film, Die Todesmühlen (1945), was originally made by the War Department to educate German citizens about the cruelty perpetrated by the Nazis.  Written and directed by Hanuš Burger, it was shown across Austria and Germany, and in 1946 there was interest from the War Department’s Information and Education (I&E) Division to have it approved for release in English. 

Stills from Death Mills (111-OF-19). This edited film was used at the end of World War II to show ordinary Germans the atrocities that were committed by their nation. Note: This film contains images that may be disturbing to some viewers.

On February 27, 1946 Lt. Col. Bertram Kalisch, Chief of the Morale Films Branch, requested a duplicate negative of “Todes Muhlen” from the Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) stating, “With the film we would like to get a translation of the German narration now on the picture. This is important as we wish to transmit the work print with sound and a copy of the narration to I&E in Washington.” The I&E Division was planning on reviewing the film at the Pentagon for release in May, and CIC Chief Samual Besner wrote on March 7th that, “It is understood that these materials are being manufactured for use by the Information and Education Branch only. This office has obtained no rights for the theatrical or non-theatrical release of the subject to civilian audiences either at home or abroad.”

On March 8th Capt. G.T. Gilmour, Director of the Signal Corps Production Division sent a work request to Col. Kalisch to, “arrange with Mr. Kosarin, CIC, Foreign Adaptations Section, to procure the services of a qualified German-American translator” to translate the narration of Die Todesmühlen. On March 18th the two reels of Die Todesmühlen and the English translation of the German commentary were taken to show to I&E on March 20th. The film was reviewed and considered acceptable for general distribution when “re-scoring is accomplished.” Rescoring, in this case, meant new intertitles and an English translation soundtrack.

On March 21, 1946 the film was assigned project #11928 and it is at this point that the title of the film becomes “Lest We Forget!” in a memo stating,

“Upon the request and with the approval of I&E, the State Department film called “Todes Muhlen” will be retitled and translated into English for the use of replacement troops… The title “Lest We Forget!” and the subtitle were approved verbally… I checked the use of this title with Captain Blauvelt to make sure no other project we are working on has it. It is clear in his files because the subject that originally bore this title became Here is Germany.”   

On March 27th, 1946 the narration was given on Sound Stage C at the Signal Corps Photographic Center, Long Island City NY, also known as the APC. Notes in the production file list the original sources as: 

  1. “Captured German Footage – secured from Alien Property Custodian Washington DC
  2. Signal corps overseas footage sent to Western Division of SCPC (Los Angeles) to be made into a picture titled “Lest We Forget”  
  3. Rough cut loaned to OWI to make “Todes Muhlen”. This was taken back by us and rescored to make the present Death Mills”

It is at this point that the title moves away from Lest We Forget! (the title was later reused for a nine reel film covering World War II in Germany) and regained the English title Death Mills. On April 17th, it was requested  

“by Col. David E. Liston to change [the] title to Death Mills (literal translation of original title) – ‘This is a translation of a film called “Death Mills” which our State Department is showing to the German people. It is a reminder that behind the curtain of Nazi pageants and parades, millions of men, women, and children were tortured to death – the worst mass murder in human history.’”

On May 8th Death Mills was screened at the Pentagon with further approval from the I&E Division for general distribution to troops at home and overseas. It was noted that the footage was originally property of the Signal Corps and adapted for State Department use in Germany.

Over a year later, in August of 1947, Vice President A.G. Rudd of Embassy Newsreel Theatre Inc submitted the first documented public request for the film. Embassy had five newsreel theaters in the greater New York City area and Rudd hoped it was available for screening. This spawned another flurry of activity beginning with a new request to the Army Pictorial Service at the Pentagon questioning, “whether the film is legally clear for showing where admission is charged and if so whether or not newsreel theaters can obtain… a print of the picture…. if we approve this particular screening we should arrange through some 16mm distributor to make it available generally.” Fortunately, Death Mills had been declared “obsolete (i.e. no longer needed for military/political purposes)” on December 16, 1946 and approved for public release on May 12, 1947 by Signal Corps Command Colonel R. E. Burns. On June 10th duplicate negatives were sent to the Deluxe Film Laboratory in Los Angeles for public access copies to be made and on September 8th, 1947, approval was granted for Death Mills to be released in commercial theaters by Edward L. Gibson, Chief of the Army Pictorial Service.

Billy Wilder is often credited as the director of the English version of Death Mills, but there’s nothing in the production file to suggest that he had any involvement with the Signal Corps English translation of the film. He was most likely involved in the editing of Die Todesmühlen with Hanuš Burger in 1945.

A final fascinating tidbit contained in the production file dates to spring of 1958, when the State Department requested an affidavit from the Army Pictorial Center certifying that the footage in the film was authentic. The request reads, “It would be appreciated if you would prepare an appropriate certification, suitable for use in court in Germany, concerning the origin and authenticity of the documentary film, “The Mills of Death.” Therein it might be well to point up the titles under which the same footage has appeared, since it would seem that “The Mills of Death”, ” Death Mills” and “Todes Muhlen” are one and the same.” 

Isidore Siegel, Chief of the US Army Pictorial Center Legal Office, provided the affidavit swearing that, 

“Footage utilized in said documentary was originally photographed by Armed Forces Cameramen in the European Theater of Operations and shipped directly to the U.S. Army Pictorial Center.  The footage was edited into a documentary film at the U.S. Army Pictorial Center.  Subsequently, the film was loaned to the Office of War Information which re-edited the same to produce the German language film, ‘Todes Muhlen.’ The said film without additional editing was rescored by the U.S. Army Pictorial center into the English language film entitled, ‘Death Mills,’ which is also known as ‘Mills of Death.’  All scenes in the film ‘Death Mills’ are from original camera footage photographed by cameramen of the United States Armed Forces.”

Signal Corps footage was previously used in the Nuremberg trials and the request indicates that they may have been considering using the Death Mills footage in another trial, although we have yet to find evidence of what court request this stemmed from.

As part of ongoing partnerships to digitize and provide access to records of the Holocaust NARA scanned our 16mm copy of Death Mills while working on the Visual History of the Holocaust Project and scanned our 35mm Fine Grain Master to provide to the Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum (DFF) in Frankfurt, Germany for their restoration of Die Todesmühlen in German, Yiddish, and English. Other copies of the film were provided by the Österreichisches Filmmuseum (Austrian Film Museum), the Bundesarchiv in Germany, Library of Congress and the Israeli Film Archive. DFF is using the highest quality segments from each film element to complete the restoration and produce better German and Yiddish sound versions.

For more information:

A longer presentation on the use of liberation films and the reuse of footage, particularly from Dachau, was presented at the 2021 Morgenthau Holocaust Collections Project (MHCP) Conference: “Examining American Responses to the Holocaust: Digital Possibilities.”

For more on the Visual History of the Holocaust project, see: A Framework for Remembrance: NARA Contributes Holocaust Films to EU Project

For more on Bertram Kalisch, see: http://www.indianamilitary.org/83RD/Surrender/Magill.htm

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