Looking Through a Glass Darkly
As I speak to you now, the icy water of the ponds and rains Fills the hollows of the mass graves with a frigid and muddy water, as murky as our memory.
—Narrator, Night and Fog
The Holocaust Industry has been going strong for some time now. It relentlessly reinvents itself and too frequently reduces the horror of the Final Solution by using aesthetic conventions. It also makes significant money, and, if you’re Steven Spielberg, can reaffirm your career, vaulting you from the status of mere blockbuster-maker to serious auteur.
The Holocaust itself, of course, holds a central place in the post-20th-century Western consciousness. It was a period of near-apocalyptic insanity, in which the basest metaphysical prejudice (with all the ancillary rhetoric of racial purity and divine right which came with it) combined with the mechanical and logistical means to achieve extraordinary brutal ends.
And so, we tell and retell the story in order to remember it and to know it (and, yes, to profit from it). Yet, a peculiar paradox has arisen with the industry: the more we seem to represent it, the more its singularly vile reality seems to slip away. The various signifiers (the media) seem to supplant the event itself (9 million dead bodies), circulating and being consumed. Theodore Adorno, who said a few useful things about the culture industry, once famously commented, “To write poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric.” The barbarity, intentional and unintentional, of the Holocaust as numbing commodity is a sad eventuality indeed.
It’s in this context of commodification and exhaustion of meaning that the Criterion Collection releases one of the first documentary films dealing with the genocide, Alain Resnais’ short work, Night and Fog. Anyone familiar with Resnais’ later fictional works (particularly his masterworks, Hiroshima Mon Amour and the temporally disjointed Last Year at Marienbad), will know that questions of memory and the problematic process of “correctly” representing the past are central themes for him. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Night and Fog is formally structured along lines of past and present, intercutting color film sequences depicting a “present” day death camp (in this case, “present” means the moment of the film’s production, around 1954-1955) with historical black and white footage of Nazi Germany (ranging from as early as 1933 to the end of the war).
This intercutting breaks up the otherwise linear timeline of the black and white sequences, by regularly interjecting the present into the representation of the past. It works against the strong tendency of traditional narrative film to organize events into consistent wholes that mask through the techniques of continuity editing the inherently fragmented reality (both spatially and temporally) of film production. The film tells the story of the Holocaust in a particular way, one that makes the process and manner of recalling at least as important as the event being recalled.
This last point is subtle, reinforced throughout by the voiceover narration (written by the novelist Jean Cayrol, read by Michel Bouquet). As the black and white footage becomes increasingly grim (graphic scenes of piles of emaciated dead bodies, huge rooms filled with piles of shaved off hair, decapitated heads stacked neatly in large buckets), the narrative moves from concrete historical exposition to more ambiguous, philosophical concerns: Who is responsible? Why did this happen? Will we allow it to happen again?
In Resnais’ film, such questions serve not only as indictments of the past, but also of the present and future. The film is darkly ambivalent about the veracity of our memories (both individually and collectively). Recollection, the vehicle whereby we remember the past in the present, is also the vehicle that imperfectly prepares us for the possibility of other, perhaps more horrible, events. “Who among us,” the narrator asks in the film’s final moments, as the camera tracks across the ruins of a concentration camp, “keeps watch from this strange watch tower to warn of the arrival of our new executions?”
“Keeps watch.” This is a multiply determined phrase in Night and Fog, a combination of backward, present, and forward looking gazes, encompassing history and future all in the same gesture. The phrase is a mirror of the film’s form, articulating in words what the film speaks in structure, making Resnais’ documentary into a kind of primer for seeing the world dialectically.
But Resnais’ documentary is hardly optimistic about our abilities (individually and collectively) to master its pedagogy. “We pretend [the Holocaust] all happened once, at a given time and place,” says the narrator. “We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.” In other words, we treat the event as a reified moment, rather than the result of a number of complicated, intersecting historical trajectories.
And so we return to the Holocaust Industry, where reification is the norm. The Holocaust is here the signifier of Nazi insanity and malice, but rarely of global complicity in that insanity. It’s “why we fight,” to recall Frank Capra’s WWII documentaries, the warrant for violent opposition, but rarely a reason to contemplate the historical relations that allowed such an event to occur in the first place. The distillation of evil, in the Industry’s vision of the “Holocaust,” is all too often an abstraction, the evacuation of the reality of the event. Night and Fog sees this future history of abstraction as all too real a possibility and rails against it, a prescient observation, worth heeding today.