Friday, October 16, 2015

Night and Fog (1956)

Nuit et brouillard, France, 32 minutes, documentary
Director/editor: Alain Resnais
Writers: Jean Cayrol, Chris Marker
Photography: Ghislain Cloquet, Sacha Vierny
Music: Hanns Eisler

Made in the mid-'50s, Alain Resnais's documentary often feels strangely inhibited, as if 10 years were still not time enough to think about, or talk about, or show, the evils of Germany's concentration camp system. Even the abbreviated length, just over half an hour, suggests the delicacy, the unwillingness to engage—the sense it is somehow sacrilege even to acknowledge the terrible reality. The visible signs of evil are limited, if blunt, which is part of its point. The footage from the '50s, shot on color film, has the bland look of road trip home movies. The camp sites that it visits have been abandoned to nature. The buildings of the camps still stand but they are crumbling and unused. Grassy nature is reclaiming them, softening the sharp lines. But the memories are still searing. They always will be. Documentary film and photos in black and white alternate with these inoffensive scenes, offering up images of the horrors and humiliations we know, or think we know: corpses in railroad boxcars, lines of naked prisoners standing in roll call formation, mountains of sorted personal effects, decapitated heads in baskets, corpses bulldozed into the ground. Written and narrated by Jean Cayrol, a survivor, the film is at pains to imply more than it says. It's a matter of decorum—what it implies, after all, is unspeakable. It struggles every second to walk the line between dignity and the impulse to pule at atrocity. It is dense with information and allusion, the images playing off the narration and the facts disclosed or shown, reminiscent in that way of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (Marker a cowriter on Night and Fog), Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle (where the ideas are abstracted), and of course Marcel Ophuls's Sorrow and the Pity. By 1969, when The Sorrow and the Pity came out, the dams were bursting. There was more willingness to consider at length the monstrous events—that documentary is over four hours long. In another 15 years, Shoah would more than double that. Less than 10 years more, Steven Spielberg was up for Oscars for a four-hour narrative treatment, Schindler's List. The enormity of that part of Nazi history, the so-called Final Solution (die Endlösung), has sunk in slowly. Some even deny it altogether. Night and Fog is only incidentally informational—it's intended for people who already know the basic outlines, whose lives were directly affected, whose trauma is evidenced most by the mute countenance. It lives on as an evocative symbol of the difficulty of responding to great wrong: with barbarous yawps of rage, yet restrained down to seething fury by the survivor's impulse not to talk about it at all, not to become the ranting thing they already hate. Civilized man is rational man—we cling to that. The images, particularly toward the end, grow more horrifying, as the world discovers the camps after World War II. Everything in this documentary passes, is soon over, except the unease it produces, which lasts a long time—hopefully, long enough. But frankly I'm as dubious about that as the filmmakers themselves, who are clear in the end. Brutalizing anxiety, and unending skepticism for human capacity to do the right thing, are the legacy of the Nazi regime, and thus necessarily of this short documentary.


  1. What's the Debord connection? Very little to no exposition-- everything is conveyed by way of example or symbol? Curious.

  2. Just the density of the two streams of information -- the images and the narration, which complement each other but are complex and simultaneous. Probably should have mentioned Godard too, as in Masculin Feminin.