When the Criterion rumor mill began speculating as to the eventual inclusion of films by Alain Resnais, I presumed that the "documentary" Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) would be included as an excellent extra feature for Hiroshima mon amour or Last Year at Marienbad. Ever full of surprises, Criterion commendably decided to release it as a stand-alone feature. Moreover, in an unprecedented move, they adjusted their otherwise fixed pricing scale to reflect its short duration of just over thirty minutes. Previously available on DVD in Short #3: Authority, Night and Fog's release by Criterion boasts an improvement in video and audio quality and features a few interesting and valuable extras.
The term "documentary" has always been a troublesome, amorphous one, and as Philip Lopate correctly asserts in the accompanying booklet, Night and Fog is more appropriately described as a film "essay" than straight "documentary." Its mode of analysis is more contemplative and abstract than factually based, searching and pensive rather than expository. Night and Fog sets a cool, reflective mood from its outset with graceful tracking shots of the now abandoned camps (Auschwitz and Majdanek). Narrated by Michel Bouquet in soothing, calm tones, the film knowingly acknowledges its own futility in adequately expressing the scope (or "true dimension") of the Holocaust ("...looking for what?" Bouquet wonders as Resnais' camera slowly treads a railroad track).
Written by Jean Cayrol, a survivor imprisoned at Mauthausen and whose Poéms de la nuit et brouillard supplied the film its title, Night and Fog proved controversial upon its release. Representatives of West Germany successfully challenged its inclusion at Cannes even though it was made a full decade after the war's end. The irony of such a position, of course, is that the spectre raised in Night and Fog is not particular, although its subject matter is. Humanity - from its most base nature to its highest modes of thought expressed through organization - is simply and thoroughly eviscerated. Whether noting the banality of construction (replete with "businessmen, estimates, and competitive bids") or the fact that the Kapos had brothels filled with better-fed women that would ultimately share the same fate as the others, Night and Fog employs a steely and somber perspective.
As Night and Fog continues its exploration, the footage included becomes increasingly troubling. We witness, through still photographs and archival film footage, individuals herded into trains like so much chattel; bodies and skin desecrated, such as with a basket containing human heads and skin used as papyrus, defiled further with pornographic sketches; indiscriminate stacks of wasted carcasses; a mountain of women's hair (a visual motif Resnais would return to in Hiroshima), and so on. To their credit, Resnais and company do not linger or revel unnecessarily in fatuousness – the duration of each inclusion feels exactly right. I cannot imagine what it must have been like sorting through those images and films in an attempt to determine what to include – the human, moral, and ethical costs being so unbearably high – but a wasted moment is not to be found in this film.
Night and Fog will forever remain essential. It accomplishes the miraculous in thirty-some minutes – a rumination on the past that remains as vital to the present and the future as likely we shall ever encounter from a work of art.
Video: Presented in its original full frame, Night and Fog has been digitally restored by Criterion. As with its release of Hiroshima mon amour, the archival footage used is at times severely damaged, dirty, and in one instance, quite blurry; the footage shot for the release proper (in color) appears remarkably clean. Other portions of the black and white footage are extremely sharp, with excellent detail and contrast. Succinctly put, the efforts of the video technicians are commendable, even if the end result is serviceable. This is not the backhanded compliment it may seem to be at first glance – a comparison with the Short edition demonstrates the vast improvement the Criterion edition offers.
Audio: Presented in its original French with DD 1.0 mono, this release also features an optional Isolated Music Track. Bouquet's lucid, somber narration is easy to hear throughout, and Eisler's score sounds good, if a little hollow. It is interesting to listen to the isolated track – it is an excellent component to the film that reminds just how crucial, and potentially troublesome, scores can be while commenting upon difficult visual subject matter. Removable English subtitles are included.
Extras: Included is an audio interview (5:20) with director Alain Resnais taken from the program Les Étoiles du cinéma in 1994. Resnais discusses his initial reluctance to shoulder the project, and his condition that he would only undertake it if Jean Cayrol were centrally involved, stating bluntly that he had no interest whatever in filming "a little excursion through the camps." He also relates the problems posed by the French Control Commission, who threatened to remove the last ten minutes of the film unless Resnais altered or removed a photo showing a French police officer guarding a depot that sent people to Germany. (Resnais painted a beam to cover the officer's identifiable hat and was thus able to facilitate the film's showing.) This brief featurette also includes portions of Bouquet's somber narration inserted throughout.
Included also is a series of brief Crew Profiles written by film historian Peter Cowie. Those included are:
Alain Resnais, director;
Jean Cayrol, writer;
Ghislain Cloquet, cinematographer;
Sacha Vierny, assistant cinematographer;
Hanns Eisler, composer;
Olga Wormser, historical consultant;
Henri Michel, historical consultant;
Chris Marker, assistant director.
Lastly, included in the eight page booklet are three essays: "Night and Fog," written by Philip Lopate; "Origins and Controversies," written by Peter Cowie; and "About the Composer" by Russell Lack.
Final Thoughts: Night and Fog's undeniable power is derived not merely from its subject matter, but also from its approach. As much a lamentation as it is a searing indictment, the discomfort afforded the viewer has as much to do with the horrific displays of cruelty as the sober recognition that all humanity is ultimately responsible. Cayrol wisely notes that responses to such overwhelming malfeasance can be reductive, almost dismissive: "We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place." Toward the conclusion of the film he states with a gentle, troubling portent:
"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?"
Criterion is to be commended for justifiably - and admirably - releasing Night and Fog as a stand-alone feature, and additional kudos is due for adjusting its traditional pricing structure to accommodate this unique film. This is simply one of the most important historical documents of the 20th century. Indispensable.