“At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?”
“Where was man?”
― William Styron, Sophie’s Choice
“I am not responsible!” The cry of a condemned criminal refusing to acknowledge guilt. “Who is responsible?” The question asked in Alain Resnais’ documentary, Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956). It’s been over seven decades since the Holocaust ended and the camps were liberated. In that time, we’ve attempted to comprehend the full scale of the largest atrocity to have taken place in the 20th century. Many films have documented the subject over the years with varying results. Shoah (1985), spanning over nine hours and containing the testimonies of those who survived the unthinkable, is quite possibly the most in depth. Genocide (1982), which featured narration from both Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor, and a soundtrack from Elmer Bernstein is effective in its simplicity. Archival footage plays out with Welles’ describing the historical events. In contrast, Taylor recounts the personal experiences, fusing the storytelling with unrestrained emotion that elicits a powerful response.
Night and Fog is something else entirely. No other film has explored its subject matter in such a thought-provoking way. Serving as a requiem for those who died and a warning to future generations, it still resonates with us years later. Filmed just 10 years after the camps had been liberated and the guilty brought to justice, the wounds inflicted upon many were still healing. Resnais’ cameras travel to the locations that witnessed the very worst of human nature. Narration from actor Michel Bouquet accentuates every moment as we travel into a world sometimes forgotten. The juxtaposition of newly recorded color footage with archival material creates a chilling contrast. The very beginning sets the tone for much of what’s to follow. A lush field appears before us, fertile and sprawling, almost like something out of a Van Goh painting. Then, this moment is shattered before our very eyes. As the camera pans downward, we see the rows of barbed wire on a fence. Bouquet’s narration of a “Even a peaceful landscape…even a road for cars and peasants and couples…can lead to a concentration camp” forces the feeling of being imprisoned upon us.
“The machine gets underway.” This introduces the rise of the Third Reich. More importantly, it takes the actions of the Nazi’s beyond genocide and transforms them into a product of industry. To describe the many camps as factories of death would be more than accurate. Viewing them long after the events took place is a harrowing experience. The abandoned buildings presented in color project a somber feeling like that of a funeral. Night and Fog possesses complete objectivity with the material it examines. The brief image of French policeman overseeing deportations of prisoners shows Resnais’ willingness to depict the truth, even at the expense of his own countrymen. Naturally, this scene was edited out by French censors, but has been restored in recent versions.
As with any genocide, humanity is reduced to a commodity. This is illustrated with archival footage of prisoners being loaded onto trains similar to cattle. No narration is made during this sequence. Instead, the imagery reverberates the feelings of tragedy, desperation, and hopelessness. As the doors close and the cars slowly move towards their destination, there’s only sorrow. This also signifies the journey that we as an audience are embarking on. Much like Dante, we descend into the pit where hope is abandoned. Archival footage of the train arriving at the camp is presented, and the definition of Night and Fog is revealed. Known as ‘Nacht und Nebel’ in German, it refers to enemies of the state who disappear without a trace and their fate being obscured from their families. This stems from a direct order issued from Adolf Hitler in 1941, in regards to political activists and resistance fighters. As a film, Night and Fog stands against this in utter defiance—not allowing these people to be forgotten, nor the crimes of their oppressors fading away from memory.
The color footage shot at Auschwitz and Majdanek is where the film is at its most provocative. Going far beyond describing the day to day events of life in a concentration camp, the images, along with Bouquet’s narration force the audience to form a mental picture. “We try in vain to capture what remains of it.” The outside of a barracks, a shell in which many resided. The camera ventures inside, slowly moving down the middle, examining the bunks that became storehouses of human life. At one point in particular, prisoners cease being described as human. As the camera slowly pans over a row of latrines, Bouquet describes skeletons sitting upon them with bloated stomachs. Those familiar with Eli Wiesel’s Night, may recall the author looking into a mirror, and not recognizing the “corpse in front of him.” While both of these descriptions slightly differ from one another, the prisoner becoming dehumanized and unrecognizable, even to themselves, is at their core.
While Resnais takes us to the absolute limit, he also displays a certain level of restraint. At a prison located within the camp, Bouquet remarks “There is no need to describe what happened here.” As the journey continues, attention is focused on the crematorium, now destroyed, and the gas chambers, now emptied. These abandoned structures still emanate a disturbing aura that the film captures perfectly. Again, the slow tracking shots and Bouquet’s descriptions give the images a provocative atmosphere and make them take on a life of their own. As the ceiling of a gas chamber is closely examined, the scraping of fingernails against concrete in a desperate attempt to escape is described, forcing a mental image of someone’s final moments.
What Resnais has touched upon previously prepares us for the end of our descent. Like the adept crossing the abyss, we reach the liberation of the camps and the possible end to a living nightmare. “The allies open the doors…all of them.” Not only do the gates open to free the wrongly imprisoned, but no more secrets are kept, and the world at last sees what was up to that point only assumed. For now, the colored footage disappears, and this marks an abrupt tonal shift. The images recorded after liberation are seen, and we’re confronted with the harshest content of the film. Emaciated corpses with eyes wide open look towards the sky. The charred remains littered along the decimated crematoriums tell a vivid story without the assistance of Bouquet. Storehouses packed with never ending piles of shoes and sheared women’s’ hair allow us to partially fathom the never-ending line of victims.
The beginning of Night and Fog placed us in confinement and illustrated the degeneration of mankind. While our journey into the depths of inhumanity has ended, an important message for ALL humanity is the note Resnais decides to convey. A common expression used when discussing tragedies such as this is “Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Bouquet’s concluding narration goes far beyond this. A Camera slowly tracks along the ground, then the barracks of a camp are seen in the distance, clashing against freshly grown grass. A reaffirming moment showing life returning to where death once occurred. “As I speak to you now…” Bouquet strips down the fourth wall between the audience and film. What he delivers isn’t a group generalized platitudes, but a message of urgency in these final moments. The tracking shot moves on to the battered and broken remains of a crematorium. “Who among us keeps watch from this strange watchtower, to warn of the arrival of our new executioners? Are their faces really different from our own?” We would like to pretend that actions such as these come from an inhuman monster. The most disturbing aspect of genocide is this—they’re the actions of ordinary people. “We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.” This final passage from Night and Fog reminds us of how easily it is to forget. A decade removed from the Holocaust, and even then, it was a message of the utmost importance. After everything that we as an audience have witnessed, Resnais reminds us that our apathy could lead to these events happening again.
With a duration that lasts a little longer than thirty minutes, there isn’t an excuse why someone shouldn’t watch Night and Fog. I’m well aware of the tired expression of “everyone should see this.” I’m also aware that the events that happened in those bleak years grow farther and farther away from public consciousness. Now more than ever, we have to not just be familiar the past, but embrace it as a part of ourselves. Alain Resnais knew all too well the importance of this. He knew that we should never forget. We owe it to those who had their lives taken from them and subjected to the worst treatment imaginable not to.