Night and Fog: The Holocaust in Film

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The documentary, Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais, was produced in 1955 as a short historical documentary about concentration camps used during the Holocaust. The film’s original language is French and the original title is “Nuit et brouillard.” I watched the film using English subtitles. Night and Fog doesn’t attempt to explain how the Holocaust happened. Rather, it is a short film that attempts to explain what happened using a combination of historical footage and contemporary images and video of several concentration camps in Poland. Night and Fog is full of juxtapositions of contradictions: contemporary scenes vs. historical scenes, idyllic music vs. dramatic music, the normal or mundane vs. the absurd reality of the camps.

Night and Fog mixes scenes of contemporary color footage with historical black and white footage. This is done in a way that contrasts the almost pastoral scenes of the period of filming with the reality of what happened in those places in the past. As the narrator says, almost any place, even a resort village with a county fair, could lead to a concentration camp. In the contemporary footage, the narrator reinforces this contradiction by describing how new grass is growing, how a person might mistake a building for an actual clinic, and how the only thing left to see is a shell, devoid of the actions, emotions and experiences of the people that lived there. To go beyond that faҫade of normalcy, the historical footage is used, showing what actually went on inside those buildings and on those grounds. It’s a powerful way to remind the viewer to not dismiss the intensity of the events that happened in concentration camps just because they do not look that dangerous anymore.

Music also played an important role in defining different scenes in the film. From nearly the beginning of the documentary, it became obvious that the music seemed to be intentionally off, playful when it should have been somber, dramatic when it should have been idyllic, and almost graceful when it should have been attempting to express the inexpressible sadness of the scene. One of the most obvious examples of misplaced music is the scene depicting what happens to those who are sent “right” (rather than left, to work) to mass extermination after arriving in the concentration camps. In a scene where the music should be dark and brooding, the tone is soft, graceful, and almost dreamy. Another example is the scene showing the latrine. The music in this scene is probably the most forceful of the whole film, but it comes in at a point where one of those most normal and mundane actions in human life occurs. Why is the music misplaced? Perhaps it is to more closely hold the attention of the viewer by intentionally being jarring and discordant.  And perhaps the fact that the most idyllic music is shown at moments of death is meant to emphasize the peace that death brought compared to those who suffered the horrors of life in the concentration camp, which also touches on the next point.

The juxtaposition of the mundane and normal with the horrific events going on in the camps seems to have been purposely done to both emphasize the unnaturalness of life in the camps and to show the scale of the atrocity. “Normal” life is shown in the home of the commandant, with his bored wife acting in much the same way as she would in “any garrison town.” Just beyond the fences were scenes of “normal” life in nearby villages and towns. These scenes are juxtaposed with the scenes of the “town” the SS had actually built, where every aspect of life is a struggle to survive, even the toilets, where every act of relieving oneself became a litmus test for life expectancy. Normal life for inmates before being brought to the concentration camps is expressed in the film through showing the images of people in their passports. The scale in terms of numbers of people is added by flipping through dozens and dozens of pages of a leger showing camp inmates. The scale of the violence is shown through the casual litter of bodies found by liberating forces and in the way they were disposed of, almost as if they were sacks of garbage. The absurdity of their living situation is shown through their sleeping accommodations coupled with images of the presence of a green house, a brothel and even a zoo on camp grounds. Why add these conflicting images? To continue to break down the idea that anything normal or regular was happening in the camps, to express that it was a break with the natural progress of humanity?

The imagery used in the film is graphic and shocking. The purpose seems to be to force the viewer to observe the real result and purpose of the camps. Close-ups are regularly used. The camera seems to continually focus on the eyes, both in still images and on the eyes of the dead. This might just be for shock value, but it might also be meant to remind the viewer of the images of living, happy people shown in the entry visa photos, before their lives were altered by being in the concentration camps.

Night and Fog uses many techniques to aid in the narration of what happened in the concentration camps, to add impact and express ideas that cannot necessarily be verbalized. The film’s biggest tool is that of juxtaposing imagery to deliver the messages of scale, violence, and absurdity, and the necessity of not forgetting what happened just because things seem to be ok ‘now’. The narrator expresses this need to not forget, to go beyond the apparent faҫade, and watch out for the return of “monsters” that would plunge the world back into the absurdity epitomized by the concentration camps.

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