Through Night and Fog
My father and I visited Auschwitz for the first time this summer. It was toward the end of a long trip to Eastern Europe. We had already gone to the killing fields and forests of Lithuania, and to Warsaw, where my father broke down at the bunker—now mass grave—Ulica Miła 18. I wouldn’t say it was easier to visit Auschwitz after those experiences, only that it was different.
But Auschwitz was also different because of how familiar it was from feature films and documentaries, and particularly because of Alain Resnais’s 1955 film Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog). Night and Fog has become the quintessential documentary of the concentration camps, extensively shown at synagogues and by Jewish groups—despite barely mentioning Jews. Over the last ten years, a spate of new books about the film has significantly expanded our understanding of its production and international reception. The material is illuminating, and the history surrounding the film is as devastating as the movie itself. Whether knowing any of this history helps us answer the film’s questions, or resolve any of its captivating elusiveness, is a different question.
First shown “out of competition” at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival after the West German government demanded it be withdrawn, Night and Fog was not officially released in the United States until the next decade. In 1960, it was shown as “balance” alongside Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will at the New Yorker Theater. Two years later, it was paired with Resnais’s brilliant and mystifiyng Hiroshima mon amour.
But the American public’s first widespread contact with the film came from a 1962 New York Times Magazine article on Resnais by movie critic Eugene Archer. In summarizing Night and Fog, Archer made a striking imputation:
Night and Fog, a devastating documentary of Nazi concentration camps, intercut actual footage of the atrocities at Dachau and Auschwitz with beautiful color photography of the camps today, overgrown with flowers and foliage. By emphasizing the inherent animalism of human nature, the film stunned observers with the suggestion that they, not the Nazis, were actually responsible for the horrors.
While the film may depict the inherent animalism of human nature, its focus is less the bestial immorality of the guards than the economic logic of the camps as a source of slave labor, and as places where the government could make its enemies disappear into night and fog. More critical, however, is Archer’s claim that Resnais suggested to his audience that they were “responsible for the horrors.”
It is true that a hallmark of Resnais’s style—almost perfected in Night and Fog—is to use the camera as a substitute for the human eye. Long tracking shots simulate the effect of walking through the space and move us physically into the action. We, the audience, are there as observers of the camps; we become witnesses—but not to the horrors themselves. Our complicity lies elsewhere. The voiceover ends:
. . . we regard these ruins as if the old monster lay crushed forever beneath the rubble. We pretend to take up hope again as the image recedes into the past . . . We pretend it happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.
As the juxtaposition of beautiful overgrown foliage and collapsed industrial spaces attests, we are perpetrators of forgetting.
Whereas contemporary movie critics may have been too quick to judge the film, the current literature on the film treats it as a historical artifact. Uncovering the Holocaust, edited by Ewout van der Knaap (2006), uses the film’s international reception as a lens on the contested political legacy of the Holocaust in the 1950s and 1960s. In Israel, for example, Night and Fog was rated on its “faithfulness” to Zionism, and temporarily banned for being overly universalist. Concentrationary Cinema, edited by Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman (2011), on the other hand, uses the documentary evidence of Night and Fog’s production to make sense of the film’s focus not on the genocide, but on the “concentrationary” system, the “cynical, capitalist mentality in which remnants of the destroyed and the murdered were systematically harvested for varied uses.” But the historical data sheds little more light on Resnais’s intentions. Rather, it is Resnais’s earlier films that have the most bearing on Night and Fog and most illuminate how the director’s style—the tracking shots, the score, the poetic voiceover—forms a political argument.
Resnais once said that his films were “an attempt, still very crude and very tentative, to visualize the meaning of thought.” The key to realizing this effect, in Night and Fog as in his other films, is to push against the camera’s pretension of objectivity. In a short 1961 interview, the director calls attention to the selective nature of the camera. Resnais stands slightly askance, on the left side of the frame. He is smiling, clearly enjoying the questions. We see his reflection in a mirror on the right side of the frame, giving us a side-angle view of his reactions. The mirror expands what the viewer can see, but it also exposes a more nefarious truth: What we see is tightly controlled. There is always more going on outside the frame. The camera eye is a subjective view of the world, even a dishonest one: It withholds.
In Night and Fog, the clearest expression of subjectivity comes from the narration by the survivor and poet, Jean Cayrol. Cayrol had previously written a collection entitled Poems of Night and Fog and the film is partly Cayrol’s attempt to make sense of his experiences and to document his memories before their physical traces disappeared. If there is a reason that Night and Fog became the camp documentary, it is because Cayrol is a personal guide to these horrors and images.
The most revealing moment in the film comes when Cayrol goes silent, as Resnais’s camera forces him to confront what time had allowed to recede (the graphic moment occurs at about 6:14). The camera presents him—and us—with evidence of human corpses being turned into consumer products. “From the bodies they make soap. As for the skin . . .” his voice trails away. What exactly are we watching, what has made Cayrol go silent? Is this new information for Cayrol? Is the video archive supplementing his memory? As a political prisoner, is this his first real exposure to the genocide?
Knowing that Resnais chose to emphasize the brutal capitalist logic of the camps may explain why this footage is here, but it cannot explain Cayrol’s horror, nor the aesthetic effect of hearing your guide’s voice break down. The moment—like the film as a whole—transcends its origins. The scene moves us toward engagement. In watching Cayrol struggle, in forcing Cayrol to watch, Resnais suggests that we are obliged to observe and confront the past even when it is unbearable.
The year after Night and Fog, Resnais made a documentary about the French National Library called All the Memory of the World. Its basic point is that information—human knowledge—is an indifferent memory, and that only the researcher, combing through the archive, can give it meaning. It is hard to avoid inscribing this message onto Night and Fog. All the angles, the tracking shots, the mirrors, the play with colors, and the haunting score are ways to force us out of indifferent memory and into personal memory. Resnais wants to provoke us into asking what was left out of his film, what is taking place on the margins of his camera’s perception.
Walking through the bunkers of Birkenau, I couldn’t stop thinking how strange it was. I couldn’t shake the thought: it looks just like it does in the movies. I felt like I was retracing Resnais’s tracking shots. It made the place somehow unreal. It bothered me, and kept bothering me, and I’m still thinking about it now. Part of me unjustly thinks that Resnais’s film somehow ruined my experience of the camp. I couldn’t approach it with a clean slate, the camp couldn’t speak for itself.
But the rest of me knows that the camp can never speak for itself. Places are uniquely resistant to personal memory. For me and my father, the Ponary Forest outside Vilna was a burial ground and memorial; for the young family on bikes, it was a state park, a quiet place to take the kids. What does Birkenau mean to those who know little about the Holocaust? What do its ruins say about the past?
I can't answer that question. The most I can say is that the experience of re-enacting Resnais’s shots made Night and Fog all too real. The film’s contents—the brutal dehumanization of inmates, the experimentation—were no longer facts, but things that I knew.
Eitan Kensky is the preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard University. His research focuses on Jewish American literature and culture.