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Night and Fog (edited by julian reboratti)

("Nuit et brouillard" in its original French release) is a moving account of the Nazi concentration
camps. Though just thirty-one minutes in length and non-fictional, it was described by Franois
Truffaut as the greatest film ever made. Not merely the greatest "documentary," or the greatest
"short" simply "the greatest film ever made." I don't know that I'd want to defend it as "the greatest
film ever made," but I also wouldn't want to have to make a case that any other film ever made is
more important. Night and Fog is more a contemplative film essay than a documentary. It is less
concerned with facts or statistics than in analysis. Other Holocaust films have either overwhelmed
viewers with the enormity of this greatest of all examples of man's inhumanity to man or have
sought to personalize the story by focusing on one or a few individuals tragically devastated by the
event. Night and Fog does neither. It openly acknowledges the futility of trying to comprehend the
magnitude of the horror. It doesn't play on our sentiments. Instead, it asks us challenging questions
about memory vs. denial, about responsibility vs. denial, and, finally, how denial relates to the risk of
present and future recurrences.
Historical Background: Back in 1955, when Night and Fog was made, Alain Resnais was not so
well known or highly regarded as he is today. He had yet to make his first feature-length fictional
film and the French New Wave did not yet exist. Born in 1922, in Vannes, France, Resnais served
during the tail end of World War II. He was not drafted until 1945 and was demobilized about a year
later. He began making short and medium-length documentaries, some of which were shown on
French television. His first truly noteworthy work was a documentary about Van Gogh (1948), which
won an Academy Award. He had early run-ins with the French censors with such works as the
documentary Les Statues meurent aussi (1953), which detailed the looting of traditional art works
during colonial occupation and the resultant ethnographic collections in museums of France. The
film was banned for its anti-colonial stance and earned Resnais the enmity of French military
The idea for Night and Fog grew out of an exhibition hosted by the Institut Pdagogique National in
November of 1954, organized by the Comit d'Histoire de la Deuxime Guerre Mondiale. The head
of the Comit and film producer Anatole Dauman together agreed that a film should be made to
preserve the record of the Holocaust for future generations. Dauman asked Resnais to direct the
film. After viewing the source material and discussing the project, Resnais initially refused. He was
convinced that his lack of first-hand experience with the death camps would call into question the
authenticity of whatever he might create. When Dauman persisted, Resnais struck a bargain. He
would relent, if and only if Jean Cayrol could be enticed into writing the script for the film.
Cayrol, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthusen, had credibility to spare. His 1946
collection of poems entitled Pomes de la nuit et du brouillard had provided a powerful evocation of
the horrors of the Holocaust. Cayrol, however, was also reluctant to get involved with the project.
The prospect was too painful. He was finally persuaded to take a look at the material in Resnais'
first cut. Even then, it took the intervention of a mutual friend of Cayrol and Resnais, Chris Marker
(who had previously collaborated with Resnais on Les Statues meurent aussi), to gain Cayrol's
commitment. Cayrol found the images so distressing, given his own personal history, that he could
not work in the normal manner of providing text, segment by segment, as Resnais edited the
images. Instead, he wrote an initial text based on his recollections of the screening of Resnais' first
cut. Marker reordered the script to match the sequence of shots and returned the restructured script
to Cayrol. Cayrol then rewrote the script into the final version to give it poetic continuity. The result
was a Holocaust lamentation with a lucidity and poignancy that was unparalleled and which

remains, thus far, unmatched.

Production Values: Cayrol took a brilliantly somber and unimpassioned approach. He posed
questions rather than stirring emotions through the text. The images of the film are so disturbing
they required no trumpeting. The seductively calm and matter-of-fact tone of the script, read clearly
but dispassionately by the actor Michel Bouquet, permits viewers to drink in the full magnitude of
the terrible circumstances. A pastoral soundtrack, featuring lithe flutes among other instruments,
adds to the incongruity between style and substance. Resnais and Cayrol saw their task as creating
a collective memory of the Holocaust and recognized that too much shock leads only to denial and
In the course of just thirty-one minutes, Resnais reflects on the entire cycle of the history of the
death camps their construction, the systematic genocide and inhumanity, the liberation of
survivors, and the decaying and abandoned camps ten years later. We learn about the bidding
process by which major German companies competed for the contracts, drafted designs, and
profited off the building of the internment camps. We learn about the "ingenuity" that went into
improving the efficiency of the extermination process, through the building of the gas chambers,
their disguise as hygiene facilities, and the addition of crematoriums. We see the image of a man of
indeterminate age as he wastes away, dying with open eyes. We see frames depicting the efforts to
make practical uses out of the bodies: the use of skin as parchment for obscene drawings, fat tissue
turned into soap, women's hair stored in immense piles, and bones turned to fertilizer. We see the
evidence of medical experimentation involving phosphorus burns, castration, and experimental
operations. Warehouses are built to hold the shoes, glasses, and other belongings of murdered
prisoners. There's a gruesome shot of a basket full of severed heads and another of bulldozers
pushing partly decomposed bodies of every size and shape into a mass burial pit. There are the
emaciated survivors starring in confusion as their liberators arrive, uncertain as to what it might
mean. All of these bits of footage, acquired from British, French, and German sources, are
juxtaposed against new footage shot in 1955 of the empty camps, quiet empty places, where "a
strange grass now covers the land where the inmates once trod." Resnais films the camps in 1955
in soft pale colors and in long, graceful tracking shots, which contrast sharply with the black-andwhite war era images. Viewers can't help but be overwhelmed by the contrast between what once
was and the quite, peaceful settings ten years later, as though nothing had ever happened there.
Weeds and grass have risen, electric current no longer runs through the fences, and the
crematorium smoke stacks gradually turn to rubble, all too much like the decay of memories, as
events recede into history.
Themes: Resnais understood his duty well. It is not enough, in a film about the Holocaust, to reflect
the horrors of the event. The duty of Holocaust films is to evoke remembrance, lest we be
forever doomed to repeat the cycle. "We pretend to take up hope again," says Cayrol, "as the
image recedes into the past, as if we were cured once and for all of the scourge of the camps. We
pretend it all happened only once at a given time and place." And as we allow ourselves that
comfort, genocidal conflicts occur in such places as Yugoslavia, Gwanda, Iraq, and Sudan. "War
nods off to sleep," says Cayrol, "but keeps one eye always open." Remembering the Holocaust is
remembering mankind's darkest impulses. It is not only about honoring the dead (though that is a
worthy enough ambition), it is about the future and due vigilance. "Who among us keeps watch from
this strange watchtower to warn of the arrival of our new executioners? Are their faces really
different from our own?"

Near the end of the film, Resnais inserts clips from the Nuhrenberg trials between the gruesome
images of the death camps. We see the camp guards, who operated brothels with better-fed young
women, denying responsibility they only followed orders, they say. Later, we watch the camp
commanders denying responsibility they didn't know what was happening; they, too, were only
following orders. "Who, then," wonders Cayrol, "is responsible." All the excuses are thoroughly
eviscerated and we realize that it is, in fact, all of us who are responsible. It's you, it's me, it's all
of humanity.
One great irony in relation to this film is the frightful contrast between its message and how the film
was received. The film is a plea to each and every one of us to take responsibility. The French
censors took a look at the film, prior to its release, and were incensed because one scene in which
French Jews and Resistance Fighters are being herded onto trains at the Pithiviers Internment
camp shows a French gendarme standing guard. It is clear that he is French because he's wearing
a kpi, which was a kind of cap worn only by the French. The censors demanded that Resnais
remove the sequence and threatened to cut the entire last ten minutes of the film unless he did.
Resnais compromised to the extent of painting in a beam to mask the guard's cap. He then
informed the censors that there would be no change in the final segment, which included the
gruesome mounds of corpses, unless they requested the change in writing. The censors didn't want
their request made public and backed down. To the French censors, a film about the Holocaust
detailing German guilt was fine, but not if it included any hint of French complicity.
In early 1956, Night and Fog won the Prix Jean Vigo on the first ballot a high honor indeed.
France entered the film in the Cannes competition or tried to but the German government of the
Federal German Republic (FGR) demanded that the film be withdrawn under an article of the
Cannes Festival regulations that provided for objection to films deemed offensive to the sensibilities
of any participating nation. The previous year, the FGR had similarly suppressed a Yugoslavian film
about deportation of Yugoslavian partisans. In the same year that Night and Fog was withdrawn, the
British had to withdrawn a film due to an objection by the Japanese. So, once again, denial of
responsibility was the order of the day. On the other hand, the Director of the Berlin Film Festival, a
Dr. Bauer, expressly requested that War and Fog be entered at the Berlin Film Festival and asked
the Bonn government to prepare a German-language version for the benefit of German citizens.
Now and then, there are glimmers of hope for mankind.
Bottom-Line: The film's name comes from Cayrol's poetry volume, which in turn drew its name
from an order by Hitler, called Nacht und Nebel, which instructed Nazi officials to be ruthless in
ensuring that dissidents and opposition agents were made to quietly disappear into the night and
fog. Many times, trains loaded with deportees arrived at the concentration camps at night and in the
fog and, symbolically, the passengers disappeared into the night of death and the fog of obscurity
from human recollection. So, it's an apt title with multileveled meanings

Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1955)

Alain Resnais' documentary is only 30 minutes long, yet it explores many difficult topics like
comparing the time of the immediate postwar period and the 1950s (seeing how "easy" it was to
forget), who was responsible for such atrocities, and Holocaust denial. In Andre Pierre Colombat's
book The Holocaust in French Film, Alain Resnais said "I've always refused the word 'memory' a
propos my work I would use the word imagination."[1] Resnais weaves remembrance and
creativity in Night and Fog. The documentary is composed of fourteen brief color segments showing
Auschwitz in 1955, interrupted by thirteen longer black and white scenes of historical footage. It
begins with the most ordinary shots of Europe and then leads into the dreadful events of the
Holocaust. Throughout this documentary viewers are asked to locate this information in "our"
selective memory. Resnais does this to prod the audience into remembering the events of the
Holocaust, that France was a collaborator under the Vichy Regime, and the events going on during
the 1950s.
Different cinematic techniques were used to delve into the many layers of this memory. There were
three main types of techniques used in Resnais' Night and Fog: the use of color (or lack of it), the
soundtrack, and the chilling remoteness of Jean Cayrol's text paired with the narrator's voice. While
panning around Auschwitz and showing a scene of mountains of women's hair we hear
Today, on the same track there is sunlight. We run through it slowly. In search of what? Of traces of
corpses that collapsed as soon as the doors were open, or in search of the first unloaded
passengers pushed to the entrance of the camp among the barking of the dogs, the lighting of the
projectors. In the distance, the plumes of the crematorium.
The first few scenes in Resnais' documentary are in color, they are of the train tracks leading into
Auschwitz. But one does not know that right away. It is supposed to be tranquil and disarming at
first, but once you realize where you are you understand that the Holocaust concerned the killings
of over ten million individuals. The black and white footage of the camps comes into his film later.
Resnais used footage from Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 The Triumph of Will documentary, and he filmed
new footage to "balance" this tranquility in his short film. Some of the brutal images, like severed
heads and dismembered bodies, are brief. They serve to jolt the consciousness of the viewers.
The soundtrack of Night and Fog is one of stark contrasts. When a scene is very emotionally
charged (black and white), such as the footage of the severed heads, the music is light and barely
audible. When a scene is soft and tranquil (color scenes) like the landscape footage of the
"present," it is exactly the opposite.
such explosive oppositions are of course very frequent in Night and FogThe most
famous might be the documentary's presentations inside a camp of a symphonic orchestra,
a zoo, green houses, Goethe's oak, an orphanage, a hospital for invalidsSuch sequences
are immediately followed by the incredibly violent punishments, humiliations and executions
of the prisoners
Alain Resnais worked with the German composer Hanns Eisler to score Night and Fog. Resnais
said the following about Eisler's composition: "the more violent the images are the gentler is the
musicEisler wanted to show that the optimism and hope of man always existed in the
Just as with the music, the text and the narration of the text are characterized by contrasts as well.
Resnais wrote in 1966

I yearn for a cinema in which the text would play the role of true musicI dream of a great
film in which we would hear a language that would be like Shakespeare's or Giraudoux'sI
do not see why we should have the right to hear a text with true literary value, simply
because we are sitting in a dark room
An example of this is when Resnais pans around Auschwitz and uses black and white footage to
accompany it. The narration was is cold and so distant, the opposite of the provoking images. One
specific example is a scene of the crematorium ruins, twisted wires, deteriorating watchtowers and
chambers, worn down and cracked concrete of Auschwitz. With this scene is this text, read by the
narrator: "those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened only once, at a certain time and
in a certain place, and those who refuse to see who do not hear the cry to the end of time.
In both Jean Cayrol's text and in the narrator's voice, there is no emotion, only the facts of
misconceptions about the Holocaust held by people who lived close to the time of the actual event.
The tone of the narrator's voice is monotone, chosen exactly for those qualities. As Resnais said in
1966, it "creates in and of itself an atmosphere of threatening fate," and "[t]he voice supports the
text and insists on its meanings but creates no melody, leaving that to the musical series itself.7
This documentary is short and powerful. The footage is meant both to make an impression on
viewers and to promote deep reflection among the viewers, to get them/us thinking about the
Holocaust and other atrocities that may be going on in the present day. It worked in my Modern
European History class, so it probably worked then. I remember walking out of that classroom after
the film was shown and not being able to stop thinking about it. Francois Trauffaut wrote, about two
decades after the documentary was made, that he had a similar reaction to this film.
Night and Fog is a sublime film about which it is difficult to speak. Any adjective, any
aesthetic judgment would be out of place in speaking of this work, which is not an
"indictment or a "poem" but a "meditation" on the deportation. The film's impact lies entirely
in the tone adopted by the filmmakers: a terrifying mildness. You leave the theater feeling
"devastated" and not very happy with yourself.
Alain Resnais' documentary is meant to do that. If you leave the theater as Truffaut describes, you
are ready either to remember the past or to think of it in a new light. This thinking then leads to other
intellectual/scholarly work being produced; either agreeing and expounding on Holocaust
remembrance or refuting a point and arguing a different side. Intellectual debate was needed during
the 1950s and the 1960s, when France was engaged in two colonial wars, one with Indochina and
one with Algeria.

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