Night and Fog – Resnais asks who is to blame and reminds us we have to know. (Film Review)
Night and Fog holds the illustrious place of being one of the most brilliant films I have ever seen and one of the most horrific. Resnais attempt to speak about the horrors of the Holocaust is a profound triumph of every aspect of film making, from the editing which Resnais is so brilliant at executing through to the script written by concentration camp (Mauthausen-Gusen) survivor Jean Cayrol through the matter-of-fact and indeed at times cynical voice over of Michel Bouquet to the incredibly light but also deep and moving score by Hanns Eisler, this is one of the most thought-provoking moving and perfectly executed pieces of cinema you will ever see.
It is regularly called a documentary, but this film is far more an essay, as it dwells on questions to be asked rather than simply relay and show footage of what occurred. The film begins with the premise that there are some things that are so horrific we can’t – we dare not – remember them, and yet we also cannot forget them. Because of the problem of “documenting” (Resnais himself stated the editing was so difficult because he was aware of manipulating the audiences sympathies) within the context of film making, Resnais and Cayrol choose to ask a circular question about who is to blame and does remembering ensure this can’t happen again, or is its reoccurrence inevitable? The film never asserts to ‘reveal’ anything that went on in the camps, but rather appeals perpetually to the viewers incredulity, to the shifting moods when confronted with image after image of this level of devastating inhumanity. The voice over at times sounds almost skeptical as it relates in a dry tone what went on behind the walls. As Phillip Lopate notes in his Criterion eassy on the film, the language is constantly appealing to the viewers interpretation of the events in front of them:
“Useless to describe what went on in these cells,” and “Words are insufficient,” we are told again and again in the voiceover narration. “No description, no picture can reveal their true dimension.” And: “Is it in vain that we try to remember?” Meanwhile, the viewer is calmly given information about the Nazis’ extermination procedures. Thus the dialectic is set up between the necessity of remembering, and the impossibility of doing so.
The film takes chooses color to move the viewer through to the past. The film was made in 1955, just ten years after the gates of the concentration camps were oped and the horrors inside were revealed. Shots of the concentration camps “today” are done in color and are for the most part distant and panning. One moving shot follows the train tracks that lead to the doors of the camp, now overgrown with lush green grass as the voice over says “We go slowly among them, looking for what?” The film starts with the matter-of-fact discussion among urban planners about the camps and the going about the business of building them. Plans, photographs, images of men building the camps are almost as devastating as the horrific shots of skeletal people lining up for food or the bodies being bulldozed into mass graves.
Past and present finally converge in a chilling pan shot of a ceiling, over which the narrative voice tells us: “The only sign—but you have to know—is this ceiling, dug into by fingernails. Even the concrete was torn.” This “but you have to know” (mais il faut savoir, in the original French) has a double meaning: a) you wouldn’t see it unless tipped off to what it meant and; b) you must take this in now, you can no longer escape knowing it.
Towards the end, the film is searching for a person, a regime or a belief system to blame, but since man’s inhumanity to man has continued (even to this day) the film asks us can we point the finger at anyone but ourselves. BY depicting the images that are taken directly from the camps themselves, Resnais avoids the melodrama that war films always contain which end up making them seem so glamorous. As is to be expected a film this graphic (and make no mistake, this film is extremely graphic and very disturbing) met with many attempts to censor it, including removing an image of a French policeman standing guard over the camps. We are lucky to be watching the film i this current day, because copies are all restored now. Everything Resnais intended us to feel remains.
This is a disturbing film, that shocked me deeply. But it is one that everyone should see.