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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Night and Fog: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Night and Fog: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // July 19, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted July 13, 2016 | E-mail the Author

There's no shortage of dramatized films and documentaries concerning The Holocaust: mainstream productions such as Schindler's List, the courtroom theatrics of Judgment at Nuremberg, and the extensive firsthand accounts of Shoah. Yet few have done it better than Night and Fog (1955); directed by Alain Resnais years before his feature-length debut Hiroshima mon amour, it does in just 30 minutes what most documentaries can't do in triple that time. The film's tone is extremely restrained, rarely resorting to the grotesque footage and shock scares that populate most examinations of tragedy, and the unvarnished narration by Michel Bouquet favors objective reasoning over moral outrage.

That's not to say that Night and Fog keeps viewers at a distance or doesn't allow us to become emotionally invested; not by a long shot. Filmed and produced less than a decade after most of the horrific tragedies took place, the film's "ghost town" tour of barren concentration camps and overgrown landscapes is a valuable time capsule, while its mixture of color and black-and-white footage---a radical approach at the time---offers a distinct contrast while maintaining a steady, effective rhythm (not surprising, given Resnais' experience as an editor). In today's landscape of graphic media saturation, it's difficult to imagine how jarring it must have been for some audiences to experience a front-row seat to one of the 20th century's most barbaric and inhumane events a full ten years after the fact. Yet Night and Fog is just as potent and unforgettable now, especially since Resnais' film dares to imply that the revolting actions depicted on-screen happened before and, on a smaller scale, are still taking place regularly.

I'll admit that, during my first viewing of Night and Fog more than ten years ago, the original score by Hanns Eisler was more than a little off-putting. A mixture of dramatic swells, playfully upbeat moments, and unsettling string plucks, it didn't seem to suit the material at all. Since then, I've grown to appreciate it and couldn't imagine Night and Fog with any other musical accompaniment: it's almost sarcastic at times and consistently keeps first-time viewers on their toes, forcing them to examine how they feel about the cold, brutal imagery. Less subjective is Michel Bouquet's effective narration of writer Jean Cayrol's words: alternating between stoic, staccato statistics and poetic descriptions of unspeakable horror, it's a perfect fit and remains accessible despite the language barrier.

Many people (myself included) were first introduced to Night and Fog via Criterion's excellent 2003 DVD, a low-priced disc that paired the film with minimal bonus features and a decent A/V presentation. More than a decade later, the film's been given a striking new 1080p transfer sourced from a recent 4K restoration by Argos Films and, though its extras run a lot longer this time around, it's also priced in line with "regular" Criterion discs. But the main feature's the selling point, so Night and Fog obviously comes recommended to new and old fans alike.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Criterion's 1080p transfer of Night and Fog looks much stronger and more stable than their own 2003 DVD. A new 4K restoration was used for this release...and combined with the obvious benefits of high definition and better encoding, everything about these visuals is more impressive overall. Black levels are consistent, image detail and textures are strong, and the film's grain structure is represented very well from start to finish, which results in an extremely natural, clean, and crisp appearance that's head-and-shoulders above the older disc. No obvious digital imperfections or manipulation (compression artifacts, interlacing, excessive noise reduction, etc.) could be spotted along the way, either. I simply can't imagine Night and Fog looking much better on Blu-ray than it does here, even though a handful of unavoidable source flaws (mild flickering, occasional softness, missing frames) are still present at times. Overall, fans and newcomers alike should be pleased.

My only mild complaint here is an ever-so-slight cyan tint that's noticeable on the color footage; it's almost impossible to confirm Night and Fog's "true appearance" at this point, but the warmer tones of previous DVD releases (even the original Criterion disc) suggest a bit of revisionism here...especially considering the state of Criterion's Fantastic Planet Blu-ray, which also uses source material supplied by Argos Films. Regardless, it's not flagrant (and obviously only applies to 10-15 minutes of footage), but it's definitely there and keeps this from earning a perfect score.

DISCLAIMER: The screens caps featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.

The French LPCM 1.0 mono track is perfectly acceptable overall; there's little monologue to critique (Michel Bouquet's narration), while Hanns Eisler's original score is mixed well and usually gets to shine by itself. The high end definitely feels a bit cramped on many occasions; this is obviously a source material issue and, considering the film's age and budget, it's entirely forgivable and barely a distraction in the first place. Optional English subtitles have been included during the main feature and supplements (French language and partial text translation only).

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As expected, Criterion's menu interface is smooth, descriptive, and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is packaged in Criterion's usual "stocky" Blu-Ray keepcase, adorned with suitably minimalist cover artwork. The included Booklet features vintage photos, technical specs, and a lengthy essay by film scholar Colin MacCabe.

Bonus Features

New to this release is the feature-length Face aux fantômes (99 minutes), in which historian Sylvie Lindeperg explores The Holocaust from a French perspective and the firestorm of controversy that surrounded Night and Fog during its release window. Produced by Argos Films, it's an informative but extremely dry production that should appeal to seasoned history buffs but will most likely alienate most others. Like Laloux sauvage, a profile of director René Laloux included on Criterion's recent Fantastic Planet Blu-ray, it also looks about 10-15 years older than it really is.

Also new is a 2016 Interview with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (16 minutes); he has some valuable observations and insight about the film and its production, but the multiple plugs for his own work is definitely a little off-putting.

Carried over from the 2003 DVD is a 1994 Interview Excerpt with director Alain Resnais, taken from the French radio program "Les Étoiles du cinéma". It's a bit outdated, as the brief editing done to preserve the film's last 10 minutes no longer applies to Criterion's cut of the film...but it's still nice to have, since this is the only first-hand input.

Missing in action are crew profiles by film historian Peter Cowie, two essays by Phillip Lopate and Russell Lack, and an optional music-only track (no narration). I'll miss some of these more than others, but their absence is unfortunate; given the bargain-basement price of Criterion's 2003 DVD, die-hand fans might want to keep both discs.

Final Thoughts

Alain Resnais' Night and Fog is an essential documentary that remains extremely impressive more than 60 years after its debut. Never mind that it barely cracks the 30-minute mark; this is a tightly-constructed production that packs more than its fair share of emotional weight and unforgettable visuals. Criterion's low-priced 2003 DVD was a welcome release that introduced Night and Fog to a new generation, and this Blu-ray follows suit with more (or at least mostly different) extras and a new transfer taken from Argos' recent 4K restoration. The "regular" retail price is a turn-off...especially if, like me, you're not exactly won over by the new extras. But die-hard fans will definitely want to indulge, as the main feature's obvious strength and staying power have never been more evident. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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