Night And Fog

narrator: Michel Bouquet

director: Alain Resnais

32 minutes (15) 1955
Optimum DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Night And Fog

Alain Resnais is one of the founding fathers of art house cinema. Ask someone who is not all that familiar with art film what the term brings to mind and, chances are, they will disgorge a distorted variation on the themes and methods laid down in Resnais’ second feature film Last Year At Marienbad (1961). Indeed, Marienbad’s geometric landscapes, non-linear structure, and privileging of theme and atmosphere over plot and character, proved so influential that they not only helped to forge a new cinematic aesthetic, they also changed forever what most cinema-goers think of when they hear words such as ‘subtitles’, ‘foreign language’, and ‘art film’.

As someone who has never particularly enjoyed Marienbad’s manicured externality and who is becoming increasingly frustrated with contemporary art film’s tendency to return again and again to the themes and techniques laid down by directors of Resnais’ generation, my feelings about Resnais’ influence are decidedly ambivalent… but there is no denying that the influence is real or that Night And Fog (aka: Nuit et brouillard) is an unaccountably brilliant piece of short documentary filmmaking.

Like many of Resnais’ feature films including Marienbad, Muriel (1963), and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Night And Fog is a film that is fundamentally concerned with memory, in this case, memory of the Holocaust. Indeed, in order to understand Night And Fog you need to understand the historical context in which it was made.

In the wake of its capitulation to Germany and its liberation at British and American hands, France needed to discover a new postwar identity that reconciled both its abject military failure and its pre-war status as a great power. This need for cultural redefinition prompted France’s political and cultural elites to construct the myth of the citizen resistant. According to this view of history, France had always been fervently anti-Nazi. Given that the French population loathed their German masters, it follows that any misdeeds committed by France during the war must either have been the act of ‘rogue elements’ or the result of direct German coercion. Those French not being coerced by Germans were involved in the resistance.

As German banners were taken down and junior members of the Vichy regime were elevated to positions of power in the new government, the myth of the citizen resistant quickly took hold and the French people simply forgot. They forgot the anti-Semitism that had made them welcome Nazi rule, they forgot the Anglophobia that had made them welcome an alliance with Germany, and they forgot the fact that most French people seldom saw actual German soldiers. During the war, millions of French people collaborated with the Germans not because they were forced to do so but because they thought it was the right thing to do. For years, this myth endured because the French would rather think of themselves as a nation of sensualists ill suited to war than as a nation only too happy to follow Germany and Italy into out and out fascism. This vision of the citizen resistant was immortalised at the cinema in such films as Marcel Carne’s Les Portes de la Nuit (1946), and Henri Calef’s Jericho (1946), as well as films made after de Gaulle’s return to power such as Gerard Oury’s La grande vadrouille (1966).

When the postwar generation found its political voice in the late 1960s, one of its favoured targets was this myth of French blamelessness. The idea that French people had actively collaborated not only in the German occupation but also the mass deportation of Jews and the execution of political prisoners inspired such timeless classics as Marcel Ophüls’ epic documentary The Sorrow And The Pity (1969), and Jean-Pierre Melville’s merciless hymn to the real price of resistance, Army Of Shadows (1969). This cinematic tradition of forcing the French population to acknowledge its involvement in the Holocaust continues today with films such as Claude Miller’s A Secret (2007), and Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s forthcoming Sarah’s Key (2010). However, the idea to use cinema as a means of attacking the myth of French blamelessness is not solely the product of the May 1968 riots and the radicalisation of French youth. There are films made much earlier… films such as Night And Fog.

Only 32 minutes long, Night And Fog is made up of colour footage shot by Resnais on a visit to Auschwitz and the sort of hideous archival footage that make up Billy Wilder’s military propaganda film Death Mills (1945). However, while Death Mills aims to bludgeon people into awareness with harrowing imagery tales of human soap, Night And Fog sets out to construct an argument that is both more universal and more powerful. The film’s argument for collective responsibility is constructed atop two sets of foundations: one inside the camps and the other outside.

Resnais’ account of the brutality of the camps relies upon the elegant movement between images of severed heads and prissily exact accounts of how the camps were organised. For example, Resnais devotes quite a lot of time to the ways in which inmates would organise themselves into groups that would allow them to compete for better jobs, better treatment and access to such perks as the camp brothels. Here, Resnais is intriguingly ambiguous as, while he does make it quite clear that career criminals occupied most of these senior positions, he also suggests that many of the more blameless inmates would also form gangs in an effort to gain access to these positions of authority.

Between this and his continued insistence upon ‘denunciations’ and ‘thievery’, Resnais suggests that concentration camp inmates were far from blameless in the construction of some of the worst living conditions imaginable to man. While the film in no way lets the Nazis off the hook, it does suggest that the capacity for inhuman violence is present in all of us and that all the Nazis really did was create an environment in which man’s inhumanity to man could express itself fully. So detailed is Resnais’ accounting of social dynamics that one could almost watch Night And Fog as a sort of time and motion study. Given the film’s almost academic tone, the horrific imagery serves as a means of grounding the film and of reminding us what it is that we are discussing.

Resnais’ second foundation involves making it abundantly clear that the camps did not operate in a vacuum. As the narration explains in one of its more striking moments, the camps required contracts being tendered, building materials to be shipped and architects to be employed. Doubtless people even used bribery in order to capture such dubious honours as being the person who designed Buchenwald’s crematoria or Auschwitz’s iconic wrought iron railings. In another powerful gesture, Resnais shows us a country road and then pans along to show where it leads: country roads, the narrator explains, lead to death camps.

Night And Fog also makes quite explicit the involvement of French officials in the deportation of Jews by mentioning not only the French-organised Vel D’Hiv round up and the Pithiviers deportation camp, but also showing us an image of a French policeman looking out over a set of buildings surrounded by barbed wire. When Resnais submitted this film for distribution, the French government attempted to remove this image on the grounds that it might be deemed offensive to people serving in the military.

Taken together, these two foundations allow Resnais to construct a case for a universal involvement in the Holocaust. The Holocaust does not stop with the people who were killed or the people who did the killing, it reaches out through time and space to shape the lives of people who made the nails that went into the fences and who bought their houses after the Jews were rounded up and shipped off. The Holocaust touches all of our lives because we all have some kind of link to it and it touches our lives because it tells us what we are capable of as a species.

While Night And Fog is a historically important film as it was made at a time when French culture was trying to forget its momentary German dalliance, there is no escaping the fact that times have changed, and that films about the Holocaust are received differently to the way they might have been in the 1950s. In the 1950s, people did not know what had happened in the camps and they certainly did not appreciate being told that they were, in some way, complicit in what the Nazis had done. Because of this cultural context, films such as Night And Fog, and The Sorrow And The Pity would have been hugely shocking and challenging to the people who saw them at the time.

However, fast-forward a couple of generations and the Holocaust now forms a central part of how we think about human nature. Because of this shift, films such as Night And Fog not only lose a lot of their emotional impact, they also tend to receive something of a free pass. Indeed, it is difficult to make a film about the Holocaust without eager critics describing it as either ‘powerful’, ‘moving’ or ‘horrifying’. This is, needless to say, a good thing, as I can think of few things more deserving of sanctification than the fact that humans built a load of factories in order to murder other humans as efficiently as possible. However, this process of sanctification and internalisation does make it difficult to assess the real value of a film about the Holocaust.

On the whole, I would argue that Night And Fog is an excellent film despite its subject matter. The film has an elegance to its cinematography and a poetry to its narration that lend it a sense of precision and beauty that position it amidst the very best examples of documentary filmmaking. Had this film not been about the Holocaust then I would happily compare it to such classics of the form as Werner Herzog’s The White Diamond (2004), or Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo (2010) – films that not only lay bare their subject matter but do so with a sense of grace and poetry that makes them truly memorable.

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Night And Fog is being re-released as part of a concerted effort to address the fact that so much of Resnais’ back catalogue is currently unavailable on DVD in this country. However, while I applaud the decision to include his early documentary films in this process, I cannot help but wonder whether charging full price for a DVD containing a 32-minute film and no extras is really all that fair.