Movies Reviews

Why Night and Fog Is the Quintessential War Documentary About the Holocaust

One decade after the horrors of World War II, Europe was looking back retrospectively trying to make sense of the madness, pain and bloodshed that had ensued. By 1956, many films about the war had already been released, exploring the conflict in many different ways, but few made the point to present rather than represent the war. In 2016 Austrian director Michael Haneke heavily criticized films like Schindler’s List and Downfall for taking a subjective approach to WWII and presenting a totalitarian view of events, rather than allowing audiences to make up their own mind through a nuanced and objective lens. To him, the only film that articulates the war properly, and has respect for its audience as conscious and smart beings capable of seeing it and making their own understanding of what it means, is Night and Fog by Alain Resnais.

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The 1954 exhibition Resistance, Liberation, Deportation, made for the anniversary of the French liberation and end of the concentration camps, would lead up to the commissioning of a documentary. The exhibition’s curators, Henri Michel and Olga Wormser, resisted initial pressure from war veterans to do a film honoring the French Resistance fighters, in favor of doing a more academic approach that would deal with the concentration camps as part of the German war economy. When Resnais was approached for the film, he declined for over a week as he felt the director should be someone who spent time in the camps. Producer Anatole Dauman finally managed to get him to do the project, accepting his petition to have poet and novelist Jean Cayrol, who had been a prisoner at the camps, to participate in the film.

The end result would be a 32-minute documentary using stock footage combined with contemporary shots of the camp, and a film that French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, writing for Cahiers du cinéma, called “the most noble and necessary film ever made.” It was a film that would transcend its initial purpose, becoming a chilling, poetic and critical look at the Holocaust as a continuation of humanity’s historical self-destruction.


Past Is Present in Night and Fog

Argos Films

For a little more than half an hour, Jean Cayrol narrates a 12-section account of how concentration camps worked, Nazism’s history, and what the world is left with, a decade after these places are no longer holding prisoners.

After the curators’ visit to Auschwitz, they felt the need for the current state of the camps to be portrayed in the film. Thus, the present is in color, while the past is presented in black and white. The average length of the color footage was five times of the black-and-white, meaning that the film only presented what was necessary of the past, a fast glimpse that would suddenly go on to scenes of the present, connecting both moments in time. The editing rhythm does not allow for an easy contemplation of the material; what brings these two moments in time together is for the audience to make up for themselves, but it certainly questions the viewer — has the war truly ended? Or does it forever live in the hearts, minds, and bodies that had to endure it?

Related: The Most Powerful Documentaries About the Holocaust

For Resnais, who also explored the ramifications of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima mon Amour, the link between present and past was very important, as he felt the Holocaust to be something that could happen again. After all, this was not the first time a group of people had felt others to be inferior to the point their existence should be eradicated from the face of the Earth.

Historical Consciousness and Criticism

Night And Fog Holocaust documentary film
Argos Films

The film’s release found a lot of hesitance from various fronts. In the first place, French censors were very displeased with a scene which involved a French officer overseeing the deportation of Jews. For the French, their official story for a long time was that their role in the war was of resistance and struggle, never putting their arms down against the German invasion. This is partly true, but there is another side to this story.

In 1940, the French government capitulated to the Germans and established the Vichy government; Charles de Gaulle, a fairly junior general by then, defied his superiors’ orders, and established the Resistance from London. When he eventually got to power by the end of the war, the official story was that the whole country had been resisting the invasion. Though the Resistance fighters were valiant, their efforts became a national myth and the government’s peace treaty with the Germans was soon forgotten, or more precisely, it was chosen that it would not be remembered.

Related: 8 Haunting Films About the Holocaust

Secondly, the German embassy attempted to halt the film’s release. This could partly be in part for Resnais changing the name from Resistance, Liberation, Deportation to Night and Fog. The new title referenced the Keitel decree, which ordered that all resistance fighters, political targets and overall “undesirables” found in Europe be taken to camps to disappear. The decree explicitly stated that one of its aims was for the prisoners to vanish into “night and fog” so that it would be an extra punishment for their loved ones back home, who would never know what happened to them.

The film is then one that not only shows the evils of Nazism as a fact, but of the complicity of part of France and other governments in the happening and continuation of these evils through a large portion of the war.

A Holocaust Documentary with Universality

Night And Fog Holocaust documentary film
Argos Films

One notable detail is that the film never mentions explicitly the Nazis’ hatred and direct action upon Jewish people. This could be because of the rush in getting the film done as the scheduling wa particularly tight, but a more plausible explanation can come from the notion that maybe the filmmakers did not want to limit the film to Jewish or French victims, but for the film to be about cruelty and genocide beyond its contextual setting.

This fact is what makes Night and Fog the quintessential film about the Holocaust. By not anchoring to its particularities, Resnais makes a powerful statement: the inhumanity is not over yet. At the time of the film’s premiere, France was waging war on Algeria, and as the years went by, it was clear they committed their own share of atrocities against Algerians. It’s quite possible this was on the filmmaker’s mind at time, and the decision to not focus on the Jewish victims is a conscious effort to make the film have a universal and atemporal message. The last words uttered by Cayrol seem to hint at his notion, and remain haunting to this day:

We survey these ruins with a heart-felt gaze, certain the old monster lies crushed beneath the rubble. We pretend to regain hope as the image recedes, as though we’ve been cured of the plague of the camps. We pretend it was all confined to one country, one point in time. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to the never-ending cries.

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