Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This, the original Holocaust film, is rightly being given a separate release by Criterion.
This is one picture with the weight, and certainly the impact, of a feature, even at just
over a half-hour in length.
French filmmaker Georges Franju touched on taboo material when he filmed the daily work of
an abbatoir for The Blood of Beasts, that for many conjures thoughts of activities
in a Nazi killing camp. If honest, hard-working butchers can sing La Mer while sharpening
their knives, doesn't it seem easy that
killing humans on an assembly line could also be made into a routine, a workaday banality?
Franju eventually moved on to feature work, just as did the director of
Night and Fog, Alain Resnais. This kind of footage has
been seen many times since and hopefully has not lost its impact, but in 1955, with most exhibitors
probably convinced the material was too horrid to be shown publicly, Resnais' must have had
many a conflict while deciding how to best approach his subject.
Two Nazi death camps are toured, ten years after they were closed, and their
now-peaceful grounds motivate the presentation of British, American and German b&w footage
documenting the horrors of organized genocide. A narrator speaking in semi-poetic cadence
leads us calmly through the cruelty, abominations, and mass suffering on a scale too vast
to be measured. At the end, the voiceover asks who is responsible, referring to the many
who have dodged culpability. And what would stop it all from happening again?
PBS television periodically screens a numbing hour-long program called Memories of the Camps, a
compilation docu of the Army newsfilm taken as Allied forces liberated one after another of the
Concentration Camps. It was never completed. Alfred Hitchcock was assigned the job of finishing it shortly
after the war, but his involvement ended after screening a rough cut and proclaiming he wanted
nothing whatsoever to do with it. It sat dormant, and later its last, most extreme chapter in Auschwitz
was lifted for use in other films, such as Night and Fog, and for 'evidence' sequences in
Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremburg. At some later point, the original written voiceover
was recorded by Trevor Howard.
Night and Fog had the daunting responsibility of making an informative film from the appalling
footage. Telling the truth was not enough: anybody could edit something shocking from the material.
Resnais and writer Cayrol had to fashion a film that ordinary citizens could watch, absorb, and then
take away something constructive. In 1955, documentary realism wasn't exactly
a common experience; nobody had seen Oswald shot, or footage of people being slaughtered
in the Congo, Saigon, Budapest or Prague. Even news reports about the atrocities tried to 'spare' the
public many of the details.
Propaganda seeks to to enforce a single prejudicial reaction to a subject - as Frank Capra did in
his Why We Fight Series when he cut to dead Chinese children to instill rage against the
Japanese. That kind of propaganda has a place, perhaps, when trying to bolster a population for a
fight to the death.
In Night and Fog, the crime has already been committed, the graves have long since been
overgrown. Only ten years had passed, and man's blackest horrors were already fading. Resnais wisely
saw that his task was to create an aid to collective memory. Going for cheap shocks - it would be
simple to punctuate with disturbing images, and jarring blasts of music - would
short-circuit the filmmaker's greater message. Night and Fog is not an accusation, or a challenge
to authority, but simply a record of things that happened, laid down in the attempt to seed a social
consciousness that might prevent them from happening again.
Resnais' method is to keep Night and Fog moving at a calm pace, and to avoid editorial hyping
that would add to a viewer's potential trauma. The scope of the crime gets full due. Hitler, Heydrich, Himmler and
even Nazi theorist Julius Streicher are established in brief stockshots, and the film proceeds to
concentrate on the industrial organization mounted to build the vast killing camps. Contracts were
awarded to Germany's most powerful companies. A closeup of hair shaved from a victim pulls back to reveal
an endless warehouse piled high with hair. Buckets of personal items, thousands of shoes. There
must have been legions of clerk-marketers trying to find ways of profiting from the victims' possessions
and bodies: the nitrates in their bones, the fat in their tissues. Photos of clean surgeries raise
the idea of people being mutilated with 'medical' methods, for sometimes little more than idle
amusement. The single most disturbing detail is a selection of pieces of human skin, some of them
decorated with obscene drawings.
The ending makes a plea for some kind of reckoning. The film
knows the Nazi horror was a massive crime that was largely uninvestigated and/or unprosecuted, even
though evidence of the complicity of tens of thousands of individuals must have been overwhelming. Resnais
manages, beautifully, to present an objective picture that gets the facts across without dwelling
on morbid details. As Brakhage might say, there's no substitute for the act of seeing with one's own
eyes. Here we get a good sober look, and can weigh the evidence for what it is.
Criterion's DVD of Night and Fog is an exemplary disc that will enable the retirement of
thousands of worn-out 16mmm prints. The quality is excellent. Subtitles are removable, for those
who understand the softly-spoken French of the narration. A second track isolates a clear recording
of the moody music of Hanns Eisler
(Hangmen Also Die!). An audio
interview from 1994 with Resnais lets us hear his explanation of a compromise surrendered to get the
film a distribution permit - obscure the identity of a French policeman in a
stock shot as he rounded up French victims for the Germans. Phillip Lopate provides an insightful
essay, starting with Francois Truffaut's statement that Night and Fog is 'the greatest film
ever made.' Peter Cowie contributes another essay with the fascinating story of the film's
exhibition at Cannes, along with some concise Crew Profiles. Russell Lack critiques Hanns Eisler's
The transfer uses Criterion's careful digital cleanup processes. The disc does not look like the scratched
frame that serves as a cover illustration. After seeing the film, one realizes that the dots forming the
title resemble the crude patterns burned in human skin, for decorative purposes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night and Fog rates:
Supplements: essays, audio interview with director, isolated music
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 16, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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