The first and most powerful Holocaust reassessment extends the horror with the assertion that, in 1955, its reality is already fading from the world memory. Alain Resnais uses the form of the art movie and his own essay-film innovations to communicate the yawning wound in the human consciousness.
Night and Fog
The Criterion Collection 197
1955 / Color & B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 32 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date July 19, 2016 / 39.95
Narrator Michel Bouquet
Cinematography Ghislain Cloquet, Sacha Vierny
Assistant Directors André Heinreich, Jean-Charles Lauthe, Chris Marker
Film Editor Alain Resnais
Original Music Hanns Eisler
Written by Jean Cayrol
Produced by Anatole Dauman, Samy Halfon, Philippe Lifchitz
Directed by Alain Resnais
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Although I review more than my share of grim shows about the Holocaust, I don’t think I have an unusually morbid curiosity; subjects like the Shoah and The Bomb are important problems difficult to fully understand. That’s why I’m curious to see the approaches of different filmmakers. I think that Polanski’s The Pianist remains the best dramatic treatment of what happened in Poland, although I do respect Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, all but the last scene. The docus vary in quality. A friend edited one that had been produced, he felt, mainly for Academy consideration; he soon formed some strong opinions about ‘the genre.’ Amazingly, the key docu about concentration camps is still Alain Resnais’ 1955 Night and Fog. A picture made inside a political pressure cooker, it nevertheless has integrity to spare. Resnais pioneers a remarkable approach and style. I reviewed Criterion’s old DVD way back in 2003; this new edition has an impressive new restoration and a recent, feature-length documentary about the creation of the film.
Barely a half-hour in duration, Night and Fog makes an indelible impression. I know people who cannot, or will not, watch films that show unpleasant images. French filmmaker Georges Franju’s The Blood of Beasts shows the workings of a slaughterhouse. It’s strong enough on its own merits, but many viewers relate its images to activities in a Nazi killing camp. If honest, hard-working butchers can sing “La Mer” while sharpening their knives, couldn’t the killing of humans also be made into an assembly line routine, a workaday banality?
Alain Resnais was an unexpectedly brilliant choice to direct a government sponsored movie to ‘explain’ the death camps. Night and Fog accompanied an exhibition of relics of an era of horror that then was very recent, yet already seemed far way. The underlying subject of many of Resnais’ subsequent films is the very idea of memory, the way we relate to past events and selectively forget and remember things. Just ten years down the line, Night and Fog challenges the viewer to realize the danger of forgetting the horror, of denying what happened. Earlier official docu records were produced and then not widely shown. All simply showed the horrifying film as proof of a crime, as evidence. The soundtrack was usually a voiceover of indignant outrage. Night and Fog takes a different, calmer approach. The horrid events are situated not in some other dimension but in the world we all know, with the crimes committed not by monsters but by people not all that different from ourselves. It’s a shattering experience.
The film is easy to synopsize. Two Nazi death camps are toured, ten years after they were closed. Color footage of their now-peaceful grounds motivate the presentation of British, American and German B&W footage documenting the horrors of organized genocide. Speaking in semi-poetic cadence, narrator (Michel Bouquet) leads us calmly through the cruelty, the abominations and suffering on a scale too vast to be measured. At the end, the voiceover asks who is responsible, referring to the many Germans that have dodged culpability. It reminds us that in just a few years the camps are no longer an immediate experience, that not that many people think about what happened in them or why. What would stop it all from happening again?
Alain Resnais waited until he was promised creative control, which included enlisting a survivor of the camps (Jean Cayrol) to write the narration. Night and Fog had the daunting responsibility of making an informative film from the appalling footage. Telling the truth was not enough: anybody could edit something shocking from the material.Both Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock basically assembled raw accounts for trial evidence. Resnais instead fashioned a film that ordinary citizens could watch, absorb, and retain something constructive from. In 1955, documentary realism wasn’t exactly a common experience; nobody had seen Oswald shot, or footage of people being slaughtered in the Congo, Saigon, Budapest or Prague. Newsfilm about the atrocities spared the public many grisly details. Without too much effort, it was not difficult to remain blissfully ignorant of the truth of the Holocaust.
Propaganda seeks to enforce a single prejudicial reaction to a subject, as Frank Capra did in his Why We Fight series when he used images of dead Chinese children to instill rage against the Japanese. That kind of propaganda has a place when trying to bolster a population for a fight to the death. In Night and Fog the crime has already been committed, the graves have long since been overgrown. Resnais wisely saw that his task was to create an aid to collective memory. Going for cheap shocks — it would be simple to punctuate the narration with disturbing images, and jarring blasts of music — would short-circuit the filmmaker’s greater message. Night and Fog is not an accusation, or a challenge to authority, but simply a record of things that happened, laid down in the attempt to seed a social consciousness that might prevent them from happening again.
Resnais’ method is to keep Night and Fog moving at a calm pace, and to avoid editorial hyping that would add to a viewer’s potential trauma. The scope of the crime gets full due. Hitler, Heydrich, Himmler and even Nazi theorist Julius Streicher are established in brief stock shots, and the film proceeds to concentrate on the industrial organization mounted to build the vast killing camps. Contracts were awarded to Germany’s most powerful companies. A close-up of hair shaved from a victim pulls back to reveal a vast warehouse piled high with this hair. We see buckets of wedding rings, thousands of shoes. Legions of clerk-marketers tried to find ways of profiting from the victims’ possessions, and even their bodies: the nitrates in their bones, the fat in their tissues. ‘Human Resources.’ Photos of clean surgeries raise the idea of people being mutilated with ‘medical’ methods, for sometimes little more than idle amusement. One disturbing detail is a selection of pieces of human skin, some of them decorated with obscene drawings.
The film begins with a soothing calm. Hanns Eisler’s music and the tone of the narration encourage thought about what we are seeing. Although a commonplace thing now, the cutting together of color and B&W footage was a very new idea in 1955. I’d guess that it not only alerted viewers to ‘old’ and ‘new’ scenes, but also made them pay closer attention.The final reel presents some of the strongest images of murderous horror I’ve seen, yet encourages us to realize a deeper meaning: people did this, not devils or demons.
The ending makes a plea for some kind of reckoning. The film knows the Nazi horror was a massive crime that was largely unprosecuted, despite the overwhelming evidence of the complicity of tens of thousands of individuals. Resnais manages, beautifully, to present an objective picture that gets the facts across, while making it possible for us to consider the morbid details. As Stan Brakhage might say, there’s no substitute for the act of seeing with one’s own eyes. Here we get a good sober look, and can weigh the evidence for what it is.
The film’s title, by the way, comes from “Nacht und Nebel”, a phrase coined by the planners of the Holocaust. The Nazis specifically stated that the enemies of the Reich and undesirables were to be made to disappear in a way that their relatives would never know what happened to them. They were to vanish without a trace, into ‘the night and fog.’
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Night and Fog is an exemplary disc of a film that in other hands might be desired viewing for the wrong reasons. Newly restored, it has a fine appearance and doesn’t attempt to ‘fix’ a few flawed German news film clips that were always so. The color on the new footage is excellent; the film quality, sharpness and stability are improved greatly over the older disc. In some scenes, seeing ‘more’ is almost an unwelcome prospect.
Holders of Criterion’s original disc that want its isolated audio track of the music score of Hanns Eisler (Hangmen Also Die!) might want to hang onto it; it’s not listed as one of the extras here.
Repeated from the older disc is an audio interview with Alain Resnais from 1994, where he explains the one censorship problem he encountered. The authorities insisted that he alter a scene to obscure the sight of a French policeman aiding in the roundup of Jews being sent East to the camps, and therefore downplay the terrible complicity of the French in aiding the German ‘Final Solution. This keys directly into Face aux fantomes, a remarkable 2009 docu by Sylvie Lindeperg. It’s three times as long as Night and Fog and almost as eye-opening; it shows that the Holocaust crime was too unwieldy for the French politicians to deal with. Through Ms. Lindeperg’s lecture we learn that the postwar PR spin sought to lump all the deportee prisoners into one group, championing the return of captured prisoners of war and ‘resistance heroes’ while largely ignoring surviving Jewish camp prisoners. As Night and Fog was part of this evasion, it does not emphasize the fact that the extermination camps were created primarily to destroy Jews. Yet the film still has integrity. The narration is profound in its view of the horrors, and the show doesn’t flinch from showing examples of the worst atrocities. Many years later, we’re very aware of what the camps were built to do. The damning thing is that the docu proves that the French government were perfectly happy covering it up.
Docu filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer contributes an interview essay piece in which he compares and contrasts Resnais’ approach with that of his own — as seen in his film about the Indonesian ‘holocaust’ of the 1960s, The Look of Silence. An essay by Colin McCabe completes the package.
We humans have flawed memories, as Resnais shows, and we also are good at avoiding unpleasantness. We spend our lives in distractions to avoid thinking about the fact that we’re all going to die, sooner or later. Confronted by something truly horrible, the natural impulse is to ‘not dwell on the past’ but look to an optimistic future. Opportunistic (or guilty) politicians make use of this urge all the time. In his Night and Fog, Alain Resnais makes the case that not reaching for a reckoning with things like the Holocaust or The Bomb prolongs the crime, making us accomplices. The ‘Nazi spirit’ is alive and well, under different management.
An old liberal outrage film cried, “Where is the conscience of the world?” Alain Resnais tells us that mankind seemingly has no conscience for its crimes — the same ‘human’ horrors have been perpetrated forever, and only the scale increases. Not only do we humans not have a conscience, but we have a marked tendency to Blame the Victims, if it will help us avoid discomfort. Editor Steven Nielson once told me that, in his opinion, average Holocaust films are counterproductive because viewers will do everything they can to avoid identifying with the victims. We see human beings starved, tortured and mutilated, followed by the spectacle of their corpses — in the thousands — being bulldozed like dead livestock. The horror is that, on film, the Nazis don’t disturb us. They look orderly and wear clean uniforms. The victims are the horrible nightmares that we’d like to avoid. The victims are the monsters.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night and Fog Blu-ray
Supplements: Excerpt from a 1994 audio interview with director Alain Resnais; New interview with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer; Face aux fantomes, a ninety-nine-minute 2009 documentary featuring historian Sylvie Lindeperg; insert essay by film scholar Colin MacCabe
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 11, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson