Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) (1955)
Directed by: Alain Resnais
Written by: Jean Cayrol
Starring: Michel Bouquet (narrator)
(32 minutes, B&W/Color)
Night and Fog is thirty-two minutes long, and contains the most devastating imagery I've ever seen. To call it a documentary is an understatement: it's a testimonial, a condemnation, and a desperate plea for change. There has never been a similar film ever made, and there likely never will be again. Night and Fog has no narrative, no characters. It is told in blunt, simplistic terms. The narrator is unemotional. Three types of images are shown onscreen: photographs, archived video, and video taken at the time of the film's production. The juxtaposition of past and present (or at least, the present during the film's production) is breathtaking and heartrending. The audience is shown the gates of Auschwitz in color on a bright day in 1955, then is shown the same gates in use: helpless innocents, sentenced to death the moment they pass under the gates, shuffle through.
This movie presents the scourge of history bluntly. The camera passes over green fields and bright, cloudless skies. It runs past fences of barbed wire. "No current runs through the fences. No footstep is heard but our own." The concentration camp is dead. No one has resided there in years. "The crematoriums resemble postcard photographs, and tourists snap pictures outside of them." The horror of the Holocaust is held at arms length, even by those who visit the camps. Resnais plunges us back into it head first.
"1933. The machine goes into action." Nazis march at rallies. Germans crowd the sidewalks to cheer them on. Hitler, posed atop a motor car, raises his hand in violent passion. The crowd listens to him. They allow themselves to be deluded. "A concentration camp is built the way a stadium or a hotel is built," the narrator informs us. Resnais presents the different "styles" of camp. There are negotiations, bribes, budgets, and contracts involved. Those in charge pretend they have no knowledge of the camp's construction. Once living spaces are completed, inmates are deported to the camp's location. The progress of the rest of the camp doesn't matter at this point: the camp's prisoners can be forced to construct the rest.
The portrait of camp life given by Resnais is unflinching and matter-of-fact. He films empty camp latrines in 1955, while informing us that some prisoners, their stomachs bloated beyond all reason, would need to visit them eleven or twelve times a day. He shows us archived photos of a grand, stone path of stairs. "Three thousand Spainards died building these steps." The final stage of the documentary is the hardest to watch. It revolves around the construction of gas chambers and crematoriums in the camps, as well as the process of burning and burying bodies and their possessions. The footage is unspeakably graphic. No words can describe it.
Resnais' treatment of the Holocaust is the best ever put on film. He handles his material with a balance so indescribably delicate, it could be mistaken for cold detachment. Resnais respects the victims of the Holocaust by presenting their unimaginable tragedy plainly and in its own terms. There is no sentimentality, and certainly no exploitation, two unfortunate elements found frequently in films about the Holocaust. The disturbing footage in Night and Fog is graphic because there is no other way to present it. Night and Fog is such a powerful testimonial because Resnais never manipulates the footage to service a message. He does not need to put words into the mouths of the millions of victims. The evidence of their suffering speaks loudly enough. He functions as the audience's guide through the horrors of history. It's not easy, but he shows us what we need to see.
The fact that Resnais initially refused to make the movie further cements the fact that he was the only man for the job. Night and Fog was one of the first cinematic reflections on the Holocaust, and Resnais felt that only someone with first-hand experience of the tragedy should be allowed to create a film based on it. His concerns abated when poet and Holocaust survivor Jean Cayrol was hired to write the film's narration and advise Resnais during its production. Resnais had aid from French government commissions tracking down archived footage to use in the film, which was then paired with footage shot in 1955 of various abandoned camps, including Auschwitz and Majdanek.
Once completed, Night and Fog stirred up controversy with the French government. A shot early in the film shows a French officer, an instrument of Vichy France, guarding a deportation camp. The shot was deemed to be offensive to "present-day" French military, and censors called for it to be removed from the film. Resnais refused to cut the scene, but, when faced with the elimination of the film's most graphic imagery, agreed to obscure the shot so the officer's uniform is unidentifiable. When released to the public, Night and Fog received widespread acclaim, despite the censorship (which has been undone on subsequent home video releases). Francois Truffaut called Night and Fog the greatest film ever made.
It's most iconic and tragic shots have resonated with audiences of every generation, all across the globe. The camera glides along massive piles of shoes taken from imprisoned and murdered children, and hair shaved from the heads of women marched to the gas chambers. Piles of limp bodies, naked and shriveled, roll around each other and the ground as they are pushed into mass graves by bulldozers. A man dies with his eyes open. His corpse stares through the camera with a frozen expression of shock and fear. In 1955, the year Rasnais shot the film, and ten years after its liberation by Soviet troops, Auschwitz still showed scars of its travesty: fingernail scrapings, clawed into the ceilings of the gas chambers.
Rasnais shoots that scene from inside a closed chamber. The doors and barred windows are closed. The camera is trapped inside, much like the victims of the time. The camera follows the claw marks in the ceiling at a painfully slow pace. In my mind I could hear screams and gasps of terror.
Denial runs through the movie's blood. The SS officers and their families, who reside just beyond the borders of the camp, pretend to know nothing of the torture facilities as they function in normal lives. Bodies are hastily burned and buried before the Allies arrive. Resnais closes his film by showing the Kapos and SS guards of the camps denying knowledge of and participation in the concentration camps. "I am not responsible," they all say. "Who is responsible?" the narrator asks. This is the question Resnais poses outright, but does not answer. He lets us think for ourselves, and because of that, Night and Fog the most perfect historical movie ever made. It inspires its audience without telling them to be inspired. It changes something deep within you without telling you to change. Every image broke my heart.
"A frigid and murky water fills the mass graves, as murky as our memory."
People still refute the fact that the Holocaust even existed, let alone claim any responsibility for it. History has since repeated itself in tragic ways. Genocide comparable to the Shoah happens every decade. Allied countries refused to intervene in the Holocaust until they were at war with Germany. In 1994, America refused to acknowledge the Rwandan genocide until millions had died. President Clinton claimed not to know the scope of the situation. Today we watch films about and visit museums dedicated to the Holocaust and its victims. We lament the tragedy that occurred but confine it to a certain place and time in history. The extents that we go to avoid taking care of each other are appalling. Resnais makes it painfully obvious that genocide will continue to repeat itself as long as humanity exists. The roots for hate are ever present.
"Nine million dead haunt this countryside. War nods off to sleep, but keeps one eye always open."
The tragedy isn't going away. Someday people might have the courage to act.