The Nazis called their policy of ‘disappearing’ political opponents during the Second World War ‘Night and Fog’. These men and women were not given a trial, but simply vanished into ‘the night and the fog’. The term is also an apt title for a film about the holocaust. When trying to understand these horrors, our understanding can often seem shrouded in darkness.
Made in 1955 by Alain Resnais, Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) is a short documentary of only 30 minutes, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in depth. The film starts with colour footage of Auschwitz concentration camp filmed ten years after the end of the war. Already the place looks like a historical site, visited by tourists and distant to the present. Black and white archive footage shows the camps as they were during the holocaust. The voiceover seeks to somehow forge a link between the colour present with the black and white past.
Many of us will have seen film footage of concentration camps before, but Night and Fog uses voiceover and music to prevent its audience from becoming indifferent to seeing more familiar images. The voiceover was written by Jean Cayrol, an author and French resistance fighter who survived the Gusen concentration camp in Austria. Cayrol constantly reminds us that “of these tormented, we can only show you the outer shell”, and that “words are insufficient”. The music, by Austrian composer Hanns Eisler who had been exiled during the war to America, is sometimes perky as the images on the screen chill. The effect is disconcerting.
Resnais chose footage that both remind us of the ordinariness of some the events at the time and the stomach-turning nature of others. The building of the camps is likened to any modern building project, with companies bidding for the job and architects creating a different set of styles of guard tower. The round ups show old men doddering about, apparently more confused than scared. These events are shorn of drama. If this allow us to make tentative connections between our lives and the holocaust, this ability is more difficult when shown the horrors of the genocide. Here the images are sickening and shocking.
As in Hiroshima Mon Amour, in Night and Fog Resnais works with a supremely deft writer to address an event so horrible it can baffle. Both films make tentative steps to understanding the past and consciously stand short of doing so. Both films probably benefit from several viewings to enter into the fog of Resnais’ inability to do justice to reality.