Night and Fog (1955)

Directed by Alain Resnais


Night and Fog was one of the first documentaries to touch on the Holocaust.  Released in 1955, this 31 minute film forces us to re-examine the Holocaust at a time when, so fresh in our memory, we may have done anything to forget it.  Through very sharp cinematography, filmed in color (to my surprise), Resnais shows us the Nazi prison camps in incredible detail.

The locations look almost surreal shown in such clarity, and he combines this with archival footage of the prison camps during the war as well as the cleanup effort after the war.  The film then ends with the camera slowly pulling away from one of the prison camps as a voice discusses the importance of not forgetting the atrocities that have occurred here.

Resnais’ intention with this film was to remind us the horrors of the Holocaust in order to avoid repeating similar mistakes going forward.  He made this with the Algerian War very much in mind.  That war, which began the previous year in 1954, would last until 1962.  For this reason, Resnais didn’t mention the word “Jew” when he accounted for the persecuted, and his final tally of the dead rested at 9 million, to include the millions who weren’t Jewish but faced the same fate.

Night and Fog is appropriately haunting.  The subject matter was more shocking at the time, considering the lack of media made about the genocide, but it still leaves quite an impact now.  Even after everything we know, everything we’ve seen about the Holocaust, Night and Fog manages to disturb and enlighten you.

Resnais focuses on the details, and the since overgrown environment that has taken over the prison camps.  The silent, slow tracking shots through the prison grounds make the location look serene.  Resnais uses these moments to contrast with the grimy footage of what took place there.  This provokes the question of how something so horrible could happen in such a pristine place or at all.

There’s something so eerie about looking at the real setting where so many people died.  It doesn’t make sense, in some ways, like when you look up and see the construction of an enormous skyscraper.  Sure, I understand logically how it was done, but something about it just doesn’t make sense.

9 million is too high of a number to really resonate with people.  We’ve heard the figures before, and we know it was awful, but it’s so big it can’t properly be felt.

To make those deaths mean something to you, Resnais focuses on the images, whether the faces of the dead themselves, or the environmental scars leftover at the time the film was made.  This was not just a nightmare to wake up from, he might as well be saying, just look at what’s left behind.

In such a short documentary, it’s at first a little odd to see the film focus on such details as the architectural differences between the concentration camps.  This strange minutia helps make the almost unbelievable aspects of the Holocaust feel more real.  These places of horror had to be designed and built by contractors.  They didn’t just pop up when the Nazis came to power.  Like everything, it’s a process, and the thoroughness to the Holocaust makes it all the more frightening, that such a horrid thing took so long to develop, with so many opportunities for one or more people to come to their senses, and yet it still happened.  Not everything that becomes sinister appears so right away.  It’s like a warning, for us to be on the look out for the next thing that might go awry.

Resnais’ first narrative feature film would come four years later, with 1959’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a story about love, suffering and the bombs dropped by the U.S. to end World War II.  It’s a story about people who are unable to forget, and this is a documentary about the dangers of forgetting.

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