"First they came for the Socialists,
"I never attached the slightest importance to memory as such. I am not interested in memory, but in interpreting reality."—Alain Resnais
In the center of the camp at Buchenwald, the Nazis left standing an oak tree, where it was said the poet Goethe liked to sit on his walks from nearby Weimar. Over the gate was a sign that read, "Jedem Das Seine." To each his own.
Left to ourselves, each to his own, how to we have ethics? How are we responsible? When the leaders of the Nazi regime were sent to trial after World War II, most denied responsibility. I was following orders. I am only responsible to myself and my small corner of the world.
This is an old story, and it has happened many times before. Filmmaker Alain Resnais takes up the challenge to make this small chapter in the history of human misery—the Holocaust—into a powerful reminder that we must take responsibility for our actions. Whether you call it a documentary, or a cinematic essay, or perhaps even as Truffaut named it, the greatest film ever made, Night and Fog endures, a needle to sting our psyches numbed by war. This is the most powerful sort of film, the kind that is too unbearably intense to watch, yet is too riveting to turn away.
There is a corridor in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that is filled with shoes. When I walk through it, the thick odor of leather assaults my senses. It smells like flesh. Although the building is filled with photographs and documents and recordings, it is the things that I can touch or smell that have the greatest impact. When I run my hand along a bunk or the bricks lining a crematorium oven, my heart sinks every time. I want to forget these things, to no longer care. But there they are, and every time I see them, I wonder, where else is this happening right now? And whom is it happening to?
The Nazi obsession with chronicling every detail of their culture is the sort of behavior one might expect from idealists. If the better, truer world is the world of Spirit, then the faster we escape from materiality into image, the better. This has been both a blessing and a curse to historians who examine the Holocaust, what we now recognize are the deepest ethical crimes a culture can commit. To the Nazis, documenting genocide took no more effort than filming farmers or factory workers. To those looking from history's remove, such records can only give a surface impression of the suffering. The photographs and films have a distancing effect, even as they detail each individual monstrosity: a mound of eyeglasses, a room full of hair. Bones, endless bones. Naked bodies in heaps, pushed into graves by bulldozers. Skulls lined up like ripe melons in a field.
Alain Resnais' Night and Fog only runs 30 minutes, but each moment is a harrowing one. Made only a decade after the cruelties of the Holocaust were revealed to the world at large, and blame was still contested terrain, the film treats the wounds rightly as if they are still fresh. But Resnais' medium is film, and pain is something entirely tactile. He is caught in that bind, that is, how to draw us into a horror so overwhelming that it cannot be contained simply by the flatness of cinema. In other words, Resnais must discover how to make those shoes smell real.
He does this carefully, building momentum by a systematic and unsentimental account of what happened. His camera tracks through abandoned camps, views meadows through barbed wire—then Nazis (courtesy of their own archives) cut across our field of vision, marching precisely. Soon, the chosen victims are rounded up and shipped in boxcars to the camps. Here we see their daily lives: the corrupt kapos who supervise the workers, the guards who leave corpses to hang on the wire. Small details suggest how the prisoners viewed their world. For instance, to alleviate boredom, some made puppets, toy monsters, or boxes.
It is all quite orderly, in keeping with the Nazi work ethic. When Himmler announced in 1942 that the "Jewish problem" must finally be destroyed, he added, "but productively." Here we see fingernail scratches that still mar the concrete of the "showers" where the Zyklon B disposed of newcomers unfit for immediate work detail. Here, the neat rows of ovens.
Camp survivor and writer Jean Cayrol penned the spare and straightforward narration, poetic without pretension. As the camera surveys the contemporary ruins of a camp, narrator Michel Bouquet coolly intones, "Here is the setting: buildings that could pass for stables, garages, or workshops. Poor land, now turned into wasteland. An indifferent autumn sky." He never repeats what is obvious, only what lurks at the edges of our vision, letting the images tell their own tales. Curiously, the Nazis are rarely at the center; Resnais and Cayrol focus on the victims and not the aggressors. Jews are rarely mentioned specifically, as they were certainly not the only victims. These prisoners are merely people, and their murderers could spring from any place and at any time. Such an impression makes Night and Fog immediately relevant for all viewers. This is not a document of memory, but an impression of a continuing reality.
In an unusual move, Criterion has released Night and Fog on DVD at a surprisingly low price (around $15). You might thing that, this being a short film, they would package it with something else (another feature or more shorts). But I suspect that Criterion wants to make this important and moving film accessible to a wide audience. The restored print looks virtually new during Resnais' color footage of the ruined concentration camps, although the black and white archival footage still retains whatever grain and scratches it had when Resnais originally used it. Hanns Eisler's haunting score is offered on an isolated track, proving that the images retain their power even uncoupled from Jean Cayrol's words.
The only extra of note (apart from the characteristically excellent essays in the insert) is a five-minute excerpt from a radio interview with Resnais recorded in 1994. He describes the "strange atmosphere" that surrounded the film's production and notes the resistance of some French officials who insisted Resnais alter a scene incriminating a French policeman as a Nazi collaborator. Resnais is still alive and quite active. He could not spare 30 minutes for a commentary track? A new essay?
Certainly, Night and Fog is so complete unto itself that it may not need any additional comment. By the time Resnais shows us the leathery corpses, the charred stumps of limbs, we have been sucked in so far by this meticulously crafted undertow of sound and image that we cannot pull away. We want to do something—help those people, punish those criminals. But the pictures hold us at a distance from the victims, and at trial, the criminals deny their responsibility. And so we are left with our hands our, wondering what to do next. In this way, Night and Fog spills out from its frame, becoming not merely a chronicle of the Holocaust of World War II, but an account of all human violence. Resnais has done the impossible: in only 30 minutes, he has made a film that not only accounts concisely for a true and crucial moment in history, makes such an account strangely visceral even through the cinematic lens, and also addresses the deepest ethical questions we can grapple with about responsibility and our very human nature.
"We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place," the narrator reminds us. To Resnais, the Holocaust of World War II is just one example of a problem with history itself. In this sense, Night and Fog is perhaps the bleakest of Holocaust narratives. In other tales, the experiences of those (usually specifically Jews) persecuted by the Nazis fit into a neat box, restricted to a moment in history that we can isolate and reassuringly say "never again."
In Night and Fog however, the careful universalization of this story, coupled with the very real and specific horror of these images, reminds us that in spite of the abandoned camps, this sort of thing has happened before. And damn us all, it will happen again.
All prisoners are released. Criterion takes full responsibility for a moving and important edition of a crucial documentary work. Court is adjourned.
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