Night and Fog Review
Those lucky enough to have survived the Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust have throughout the years told of their traumatic experiences. Night and Fog was written by Jean Cayrol (1911-2005) - a French resistance fighter who was later sent to prison camps, his longest duration of captivity being at Mauthausen in Austria. His musings, questions about morality and so forth are put to use for Alain Resnais’ haunting look ten years on from the atrocities that are almost impossible to believe had their reality not been captured on film. And this is what Resnais addresses. The reality is that such a place in time can and had been largely overlooked in that there were refusals to acknowledge that anything so tragic could have happened. People had blocked it out, truths hadn’t been documented despite thousands of people dying; there was very little detail until 1955.
Alain Resnais’ approach to his subject matter is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The Second World War wasn’t without its cinematic propaganda, which is likely why Resnais had chosen not to take any sides, pointing out the bad guys and telling us things that we could decipher for ourselves. Instead he takes us back in time and documents the events that simply occurred. Here, with Cayrol’s musings we are asked so many questions about man and his sins toward his fellows. We ponder upon actions and try to find justification, but there is none. At a single moment in time madness fell upon the world and man became corrupted. Resnais dares not to even mention the word Nazi or Jew; these are common benefactors already. What he does do is poetically and philosophically takes us on a journey of discovery. He highlights man at his worst and he warns us of a possible repeat of history. Forward to present day and he’s right. Can we ever learn to stop the madness? That’s the age old question and the most difficult one to answer. It’s an awful cliché but it’s funny how we take so much in life for granted. One doesn’t really appreciate life until they’ve witnessed true horror, even if it‘s just through a television screen. Only when we understand suffering do we learn to be thankful. One can’t even begin to imagine the fear and pain that each and every person forced into slave labour faced all those years ago. The pictures say it all, but even so it’s still just a fraction of our understanding.
Resnais introduces us with colour film depicting the empty grounds of Auschwitz and Majdanek, of which fields are now green and the walls are silent; interspersed with this is black and white stock footage. As Resnais discusses in 1994 this wasn’t a particularly normal method of filming back then but it did work in his favour, as his crew were rushed during production. Looking at it this way shows it to be a very successful choice; a way of separating the past and present and giving us easy access to each passing moment along the tour. Along the way Resnais even tries to avoid name dropping as often as possible. For all intents this is about the construction of the camps, later chartering the journey that thousands of victims took to get there at the hands of their captors, which then led to their eventual suffering. It’s inevitable that Hitler and Himmler make a brief appearance; after all they did show up at said camps to get off on their plan, but otherwise this is focused on telling it like it is. No matter who was there doing what it happened, and rather than simply laying constant blame on the Germans for 30-minutes, which he so easily could have done, the director makes the most of his time to show us things that we couldn't imagine or would wish upon anyone, which in turn highlights the darkest nature of man.
There’s only so much that narrator, Michel Bouquet can convey before Resnais makes the move to show us the real horrors of what went on. It’s harrowing to say the least and no amount of preparation beforehand will deny you of its shocking and affecting visuals. From the beginning we watch as thousands of Jewish men, women and children are gathered and put on a train with no idea as to their fate. Packed in tight boxes, those lucky enough would have died before the train reached its destination. Harsh words perhaps but when you see the sickening scenes later on you would gladly wish for a simpler demise. When they reach the camp the prisoners are shaved and tattooed before being placed in camps where three share a bunk. Their days are tough as they’re forced into slave labour. Food is scarce, so much so that they would go so far as to eat pieces of their own clothing or bandages and even steal from others in the same situation. The desperation sets in and still there’s no clue as to whether or not they will be released. Soon we are taken to the hospital and then the surgery - the stuff that nightmares are made of. Not content enough the captors throw in some additional torture by amputating limbs for no reason, experimenting needlessly. Back outside if they got bored they would shoot a few people. But it doesn’t end there. Next we see the gas chambers - quick and efficient ways of killing hundreds of people in one go, thus saving on bullets and precious manpower. Ten years on and now we see the insides of these concrete walls, as well as the ceilings that are scarred by the clawing and fingernails of the desperate. Many of the dead were buried in mass graves, while others were used for other purposes. We come to the most sadistic thing of all when the twisted captors grind bones to make soap and cut skin into A4 sized pieces before decorating them with pornographic material. There are no excuses to be made. Only visuals will reveal the truth and by now the gut feels uneasy. Is it necessary to show? By all means yes it is. We have to learn from our mistakes as do our children and the film helps that without preaching. Resnais’ film needs to be seen by everyone. We must understand in detail and we must heed to these questions, facts and warnings.
Criterion go budget for this release, understandably so but as usual their high standards are maintained. Inside the amaray is a collectable booklet that features an essay by Phillip Lopate.
Night and Fog is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and has been taken from a 35mm interpositive which has been put through a Spirit Dacacine and digitally transferred in high-definition. As such a lot of dirt has been removed and the film is presented in as much detail as possible. The transfer holds up well but it’s worth pointing out that there are many different sources involved. Stock footage and present photography are edited together which results in an uneven display that is obviously unavoidable. In terms of clarity there are no complaints. Edge Enhancement seems to be present but with very minor use. There is also consistent grain for which the transfer cannot be blamed. I find little to fault and although it is difficult to score it gets high marks for being a well authored disc.
For sound we get the original mono French track that has been mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm optical positive. There’s only one thing about this that really stands out and that is Hanns Eisler’s compelling score. It is carried across extremely well and adds so much poignancy, coming over crystal clear. As an extra option you can also view the film with this isolated score. Even this way is just as effective as the narration. The visuals alone can provide everything and with the score by itself the experience is just as emotionally challenging.
Optional English subtitles are also included. These aren’t quite so impressive. Although being well placed and free from error they are a shade of light grey with a very thin border, making them a little difficult to see at times on lighter backgrounds.
Interview with Alain Resnais (5:20)
This is a short excerpt taken from the radio programme Les Etoiles du Cinema from 1994 that featured Alain Resnais as a guest talking about Night and Fog. Resnais talks about how he had to come up with a compromise in order to save the last ten minutes of the film from being excised. Although they weren’t aware at the time and made no deliberate attempt to showcase it, it turned out that a French police officer was helping to usher French victims onboard the trains destined for the camps. The director was ordered to obscure his identity.
Film historian, Peter Cowie provides some brief but informative biographical sketches for Alain Resnais (director), Anatole Dauman (producer), Jean Cayrol (writer), Ghislain Cloquet (cinematographer), Sacha Vierny (assistant cinematographer), Hanns Eisler (composer), Olga Wormser (historical consultant), Henri Michel (historical consultant) and Chris Marker (assistant director).
While the Holocaust has been documented considerably over the years, Night and Fog remains a very important piece of cinema; painful, insightful, poignant, disgusting and challenging. As graphic as several scenes are it deserves to be seen by all as a disturbing reminder of a past that still haunts to this day.
In the end I’ve decided to give this full marks in terms of importance. While it is a must see it isn’t entertaining and its direction depends upon a series of stock footage and location shots that have been brilliantly edited together. It would be an injustice to give it any less as it is a well written and thought out piece of work.