Alain Resnais's NIGHT AND FOG is a landmark documentary that is arguably the foremost film ever made about the Holocaust. Intercutting black-and-white archival material of Nazi concentration camps with new color footage of the deserted camps as they existed in 1955, the result is an
incredibly powerful and horrifying experience that no fiction film could ever possibly hope to achieve.
Color footage shot in 1955 that depicts birds flying over the peaceful landscape of what was once a Nazi concentration camp is intercut with black-and-white photographs and newsreel footage of the camps in the 1940s. Other archival footage depicts Hitler giving speeches; smiling Nazi officers
rounding-up children and old men and women and herding them onto trains that carry them to the camps. They're then stripped, showered, shaved, numbered, and tattooed. Color shots show the now empty wooden bunks and latrines they once used; prisoners who try to escape are trapped in barbed-wire;
letters and toys lie on the camp grounds; human guinea pigs are taken to the hospital and used for experiments by Nazi doctors. The prisoners's quarters are contrasted with the luxury of the Commandant's villa, where the officers's wives gather for chess and card games.
Himmler visits the camp in 1942 to inspect the incinerators, which the narrator notes are later used by tourists to take pictures in; piles of dead bodies are loaded onto a train; naked men and women are led into the "shower room," where they're gassed; color footage of the room shows fingernail
scrapes on the concrete ceiling from the prisoners trying to escape; charred bodies are dumped into a pit; heads are chopped off and put into baskets; human hair is used to make cloth; bones are used for fertilizer; bodies are turned into soap and paper is made out of skin. When the Allies arrive
in 1945 and open the doors of the concentration camps, they use bulldozers to push the thousands of corpses into giant mass burial pits. Nazi officers are captured, but when they're put on trial, one after another claims that none of them are responsible for the atrocities.
Before his brilliant career as a feature-film director, Resnais was an editor and director of numerous shorts, the best and most famous of which is NIGHT AND FOG. The themes of memory and how the past haunts the present, as well as the virtuoso crosscutting and use of interlocking tracking shots,
which would later become trademarks of Resnais's features, are key components of NIGHT AND FOG, and they're as important to the film's overall greatness as the subject matter. The film illustrates perfectly one of the primary differences between American films about the Holocaust, which are
invariably fictional, and the European documentary approach (which reached epic proportions in Claude Lanzmann's 1984 film SHOAH). Perhaps it's because the camps themselves were on European soil, but there is no question that a staged depiction, no matter how artistically rendered, can never
communicate the true dimension of fear and horror that archival footage can. And even with Resnais's masterly treatment, the film is also a statement about the inadequacy of art to record human suffering.
The last third of NIGHT AND FOG is a relentless series of nightmarish images, depicting the incomprehensible savagery of the "Final Solution" in the most graphic possible way, which caused the film to be banned in certain countries when it was first released. Even today, the footage burns an
indelible stamp on one's brain and is absolutely impossible to forget, even as the mind tries to reject it. This alone would qualify the film for greatness, but it takes on extra dimension through the narration, which refuses to allow the viewer to pretend that all of this happened only once and
in a certain place, and can never happen again. The cycle of man's cruelty to man continues, the narration implies, reinforced by Resnais's poetic intercutting, and history will repeat itself if we don't learn from it. NIGHT AND FOG is that rare film that is more than just poignant and superbly
made; it's one of the very few works of art that can actually be called important, forcing us to confront the human evil that exists in all us, while questioning what is responsible for it. (Graphic violence, nudity, adult situations.)
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- Review: Alain Resnais's NIGHT AND FOG is a landmark documentary that is arguably the foremost film ever made about the Holocaust. Intercutting black-and-white archival material of Nazi concentration camps with new color footage of the deserted camps as they existe… (more)