Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) [DVD]
Director : Alain Resnais
Screenplay : Jean Cayrol
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1955
Of all the films made about the Holocaust, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) is quite possibly the most moving and thought-provoking, which is all the more impressive given than it is barely more than a half an hour in length. As a visual document of the remnants of Nazi concentration camps, it makes an ironic statement about the inherent neutrality of physical objects until put into service by human agency for good or evil. As a historical portrait of the lowest depths of humanity, it universalizes a specific moment in history and opens it up for multiple readings, the most often overlooked being the connections between what the Nazis did to the Jews and what the French colonials did to the Algerians.
Structured around the fragility of memory, Resnais and cinematographers Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny contrast color footage of the Nazi concentration camps ten years after the end of World War II with scratchy black-and-white footage from the war years, resulting in a stark visual divide that makes ten years seem like a hundred … or a thousand. The crumbling, generally nondescript red brick buildings of the camps could be anything anywhere, but when put in contrast with the historical footage, they take on an air of impending doom—the bricks themselves seem poisoned with bad memories. Much of this is pointed out in the spare, often poetic narration written by Jean Cayrol, herself a survivor of the Holocaust, but it is the images themselves and the manner in which they are juxtaposed that speak the loudest.
Working with historical consultants Olga Wormser and Henri Michel, Resnais carefully selected and incorporated stock film footage and still images from the camps, some of which are immediately recognizable (the little boy holding up his arms at Nazi gunpoint) and others of which are not. Each image, though, has a profoundly disturbing effect, conveying in the starkest terms the horrifying nature of human atrocity. Again and again we are pummeled with images that simultaneously beg us to look away and taunt us to keep looking, all of which are set to Hanns Eisler’s sometimes ironic, sometimes momentous orchestral score. The film gets steadily more violent as it progresses, with images of arrested citizens in the streets giving way to images of starving prisoners giving way to images of charred bodies, dismembered heads, and footage of dozens of rag-doll bodies being bulldozed into a mass grave. Some of the images have an abstract, almost surreal quality, the most memorable being footage of a roomful of shaved human hair, the obviously enormous dimensions of which are impossible to discern.
As many have pointed out, Night and Fog consistently avoids equating the Holocaust with the Jews, instead turning it into a more universal atrocity that affected all of humankind. There have been various theories as to why this was the case, and Resnais himself has said in interviews that he wanted to make a connection between the Holocaust and the French treatment of Algerians without being explicit.
Some have seen this as a weakness in the film—a denial of sorts. While such arguments have merit, they ultimately boil down to the idea that the Holocaust should always be represented in a particular way, which is dangerously limiting. An event so earth-shattering can only exist in memory through multiple means of representation, some broad and others more narrow and specific in addressing the centrality of Jewishness. Resnais’ film obviously leans toward the broader form of representation, showing us that the mass murder of millions, regardless of religion or ethnicity, is a scar that everyone bears because, ultimately, we are all part of the human race. Footage of Nazis at the Nuremburg Trials denying their complicity becomes only one moment in the larger history of denial. For Resnais, the worst thing imaginable about the Holocaust was how it was being denied and forgotten, even as it shadow still loomed.
What Night and Fog most powerfully evokes is the importance of remembering that which we would be most comfortable forgetting. It’s a modern evocation of the well-worn adage “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Not surprisingly, near the end of Night and Fog, the narrator asks the most chilling question of all: “Could this happen again?”
|Night and FogCriterion Collection DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||June 24, 2003|
| 1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)|
The new high-definition transfer on this disc was taken from the 35mm interpositive and digitally restored using the MTI Digital Restoration System. The image looks strong throughout, with the clean, well-defined color images shot by Resnais contrasting well with the often scratchy and grainy footage from the war years. The color is particularly strong, with vibrant hues of green and red.
|French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural |
The soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm optical positive, sounds very good. Hanns Eisler’s memorable musical score has good depth despite being monaural. The disc also offers the musical score isolated on a separate track.
| Alain Resnais interview |
This five-minute interview with director Alain Resnais was excerpted from a 1994 French radio program. Resnais speaks largely about editing the film and the controversy surrounding a photograph included in the film in which a French policeman was clearly visible, thus showing French complicity with the Holocaust (it was subsequently altered before French censors would pass the film).
New essays by Phillip Lopate, Peter Cowie, and Russell Lack
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick