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'Night and Fog' Continues to Haunt

Alain Resnais' documentary remains a landmark depiction of the Holocaust, having lost none of its power six decades on.

Night and Fog

Director: Alain Resnais
Distributor: Criterion
Length: 32 minutes
Year: 1955
Release date: 2016-07-19

Hannah Arendt, the German born Jewish American political theorist, introduced the phrase the banality of evil in relation to Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. It’s become an oft-repeated, controversial and subtly misunderstood explanation of great wrongs, one that’s remained enduringly resonant.

Working a little over half a decade before Eichmann’s trial, French filmmaker Alain Resnais explored similar ground in Night and Fog. A landmark documentary, his focus is not so much the banality as the mundanity of evil. Not for a second does he downplay the sheer horror of the Holocaust, but in a brisk 32 minutes he makes the point that the actions of the Nazis were not an isolated one-off, never to be repeated. Their methods and infrastructure, even the people doing it, were scarily commonplace. To build them into uniquely inhuman monsters is to turn away and thus, allow it to happen again.

That Night and Fog ended up this way proved something of a surprise to many. The original aim was to make a film lauding the bravery and suffering of the French Resistance a decade after the end of World War II. Resnais had yet to make his move into feature films where, as a contemporary of the cinematic explosion that was the French New Wave, he would have great success with the likes of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961). He’d worked on a few documentaries and that was about it.

He’d clearly won some admirers but with no personal experience of the camps, he was unsurprisingly reluctant to take on the project. It was only when French poet and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp survivor Jean Cayrol came on board that he changed his mind. With Cayrol’s devastating narration, carefully underplayed in delivery by Michel Bouquet, and a startling mix of black and white archive footage and new color photography, Night and Fog has left a lasting impact as one of the most potent screen depictions of the Holocaust.

The lack of obvious emotion is one of the first things to strike home. There's none of Claude Lanzmann’s potent silences or Steven Spielberg’s heightened pathos. With little over half an hour to play with, there isn’t time for either even if Resnais had wanted to include it. Night and Fog doesn’t dwell, nor does it rush. The format is simple. Archive footage works through the rise to power of the Nazis, the creation of the camps, and subsequent life within them. Camp society is sketched out from the hierarchies amongst prisoners to the distant brutality of the SS, killing and humiliating out of sheer boredom.

The archive footage from various sources is cut together quickly, refusing to allow too much time for pause. Resnais’ own color footage from Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek in the present a decade on is different. Consisting mostly of a series of long tracking shots, his camera floats down rail tracks to the entrance, glides around abandoned buildings and ventures inside sites of mass murder. It could be any disused farm, bland buildings separated only by overgrown weeds. If it wasn’t for rusting barbed wire and guard towers there would be little to reveal the sinister past.

Cayrol’s narration comments on this. The camera on these unremarkable buildings, Bouquet muses that they could be barns or workshops. The gas chamber could be any other building, though to step inside is to find the ceiling ridden with scratch marks from desperate fingernails. An SS mini-town in the middle of it all emerges complete with a brothel staffed by prisoners. The emotionless cruelty of major corporations that use the camps to test chemical weapons, or the backbreaking labor they’re forced into, with mixed efficiency given the poor health detainees are in, are all part of an escalating build-up

It culminates with the launch in the final ten minutes into out and out horror. Archive footage shows piles of corpses lying around until bulldozers to sweep them into pits. The camera rests near one heap, the motionless face of a dead prisoner, an eye missing, looks back. By refusing to sensationalize, Night and Fog leaves the footage to speak for itself. The only addition, a disconcertingly incongruous one, is a score that would feel more at home in a light-hearted romance. It’s jarring and distracting, and ultimately successful in shaking attention enough to stop the footage drifting by unnoticed.

The last ten minutes, the most powerful minutes, were almost lost. Resnais got into trouble with the French censors, discussed in the extras included on this release, over the brief image of a French police officer in one shot. Referencing French complicity in the round-up and execution of so many was unacceptable. It’s a touchy subject even today, another 60 years on. As the filmmakers hadn’t noticed the police officer, they agreed to obscure him. Had they refused, the final third of this film would have been cut.

It’s this third that includes the most horrific footage, it’s this third that delivers the message Resnais wanted to leave audiences with. Looking at the empty camps the narration ends on a powerful note with a plea not to think this kind of atrocity was unique to a time and place. Eternal vigilance is urged lest the same happens again, a plea that could apply to any period of human history, though in Resnais’ own context was also partly directed at the escalating situation in then French held Algeria.

Night and Fog is not without critics, negative reaction arising in particular from Israel. In order to deliver a message of universality, mentions of the final solution and the systematic identification and eradication of Jews are left out. Careful distinctions are made between Nazis and Germans, and the camp hierarchy is broken down without detailed categorization. Resnais didn’t want the blame to hinge on specific historical context, or even on any one group. He didn’t want his present generation, or any in the future, to brush it off as the actions of mad men from the past. Given the right circumstances, atrocities can happen anywhere. To paint it as uniquely Nazi or anti-Semitic would fall short of his aims.

Others disagreed, and will continue to do so, but for Resnais that would have been a mistake, one he wouldn’t let Night and Fog make. Sixty years later his film has lost none of its power, though humanity’s ability to brutalize itself remains undiminished.

The Criterion Blu-ray release includes a new 4K digital transfer, a 1994 radio interview with Alain Resnais, a new interview with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, a 2009 documentary exploring French memory of the Holocaust, and a written essay by film scholar Colin MacCabe.


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