Resnais's previous documentaries had dealt mainly with art and culture, and he hadn't yet directed the brilliant pictures - Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) - that launched his long feature-filmmaking career. Yet by the middle 1950s he was fascinated with subjects he would explore for decades to come, including the unreliability of memory, the mutability of time and the enigmatic nature of historical understanding. All of these are central to Night and Fog, still rightly regarded as one of cinema's most penetrating and insightful studies of Nazi genocide.
Although that is certainly true, the filmmakers do make the Holocaust human and comprehensible when they emphasize blunt historical facts. "A concentration camp is built like a grand hotel," the voiceover says near the beginning. "You need contractors, estimates, competitive offers. And no doubt friends in high places....The leisurely architects plan the gates that no one will enter more than once." And while construction proceeds, future prisoners all over Europe go on with their everyday lives until "those caught in the act, wrongly arrested, or simply unlucky" are suddenly rounded up, packed into cattle cars and locked up to await their doom. As for life within the camps, some people dwell in relatively ordinary circumstances: "The kapo has his own room where he can...receive his favorites in the evening," and the commandant's wife lives in a nearby villa, where she "is fond of her children and entertains as in any other garrison town," although she might be "a trifle more bored" because the war is stretching on so long. Not until 1963, when political philosopher Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, did the banal nature of some overwhelming crimes become a frequent subject of analysis. But this way of looking at the matter was present years earlier in Night and Fog.
Unlike some Holocaust documentaries produced in later years, such as Claude Lanzmann's monumental Shoah (1985) and Marcel Ophüls's exhaustive Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, the more concise but equally intense Night and Fog makes unsparing use of atrocity footage, alternating color shots of concentration-camp sites in the mid-1950s with black-and-white images of freakishly starved bodies, decapitated heads and torsos, corpses heaved into mass graves and more. This material is both difficult and essential to watch. Cayrol himself could bear to see the film only once, writing that its "unbearable images...drove [him] mad."
And he wasn't the only person who found the movie daunting. When a screening was scheduled for the Cannes festival in 1956, Germany's ambassador pressured the French government to have it cancelled on the grounds that its depiction of horrendous pain and suffering did not suit "the festive spirit" of the event. The screening was reinstated when hundreds of camp survivors threatened to protest by marching through Cannes in their prison garb. It's reassuring to know that this crucial historical film is readily available today.
Director: Alain Resnais
Producers: Anatole Dauman, Samy Halfon, Philippe Lifchitz
Screenplay: Jean Cayrol
Cinematographers: Ghislain Cloquet, Sacha Vierny
Film Editing: Alain Resnais
Music: Hanns Eisler
With: Michel Bouquet (narrator)
by David Sterritt