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.
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 music score.
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: