Nuit et Brouillard
NUIT ET BROUILLARD
(Night and Fog)
Director: Alain Resnais
Production: Argos-Como-Cocinor (Paris); Eastmancolor, some sequences in black and white, 35mm; running time: 32 minutes. Filmed near Auschwitz. Released 1955.
Text: Jean Cayrol; photography: Ghislain Cloquet; editor: Alain Resnais; music: Hans Eisler; historical consultants: André Michel and Olga Wormser.
Cast: Michel Bouquet (Narrator).
Award: Prix Jean Vigo, France, 1956.
Cayrol, Jean, Nuit et brouillard, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), February 1961; also in Film: Book 2—Films of Peace and War, edited by Robert Hughes, New York, 1962.
Cordier, Stéphane, editor, Alain Resnais; ou, La Création au cinéma, Paris, 1961.
Pinguad, Bernard, Alain Resnais, Lyons, 1961.
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Cowie, Peter, Antonioni, Bergman, Resnais, London, 1963.
Armes, Roy, French Cinema Since 1946: The Personal Style, New York, 1966.
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Callev, Haim, Stream of Consciousness in the Films of Alain Resnais, New York, 1997.
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Michael, R., in Cineaste (New York), 1984.
Krantz, C., "Teaching Night and Fog: History and Historiography," in Film and History (Newark, New Jersey), February 1985.
Moses, John W., "Vision Denied in Night and Fog and Hiroshimamon amour," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 15, no. 3, 1987.
Arnold, Gordon B., "From Big Screen to Small Screen: Night andFog (Nuit et brouillard) Directed by Alain Resnais," in LibraryJournal (New York), vol. 114, no. 9, 15 May 1989.
Donova, F., "Nuit et brouillard : Hiroshima mon amour," in Cinema89 (Paris), no. 459, September 1989.
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Dümling, Albrecht, "Eisler's Music for Resnais' Night and Fog (1955): A Musical Counterpoint to the Cinematic Portrayal of Terror," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (Abingdon), vol. 18, no. 4, October 1998.
* * *
Two closely related problems: How does one make a film about the concentration camps? and how does one write a reference book entry about a film about the concentration camps? The facts are too appalling to be aesthetically encompassed; any attempt to encompass them seems almost beyond criticism. The word that rises automatically to one's lips to describe what was done in the camps is "inhuman"; yet it was human beings who performed those acts. For both the film-maker and the critic, it is one's own "humanity" that is in question.
In making Night and Fog director Alain Resnais and his writer Cayrol confronted a problem that is simultaneously aesthetic and moral: how does one adequately represent the enormity of the camps without so overwhelming the spectator that the only possible response is a despairing impotence?—how to achieve and sustain a contemplative distance without softening or trivializing the material? Their solution, curiously seductive (and the strangeness of that word in such a context is deliberate), is ultimately unsatisfying. The failure lies in the fact that the kind of distance achieved is aesthetic rather than analytical; we find ourselves invited to contemplate, not the historical/material realities, but an art-object.
The film is built on a systematic pattern of related oppositions: present/past, colour/black-and-white, tranquility/horror, natural environment/buildings, footage shot for the film/archive material. Particularly stressed is the recurrent Resnais theme: importance of memory/difficulty of remembering. Nothing can mitigate the appalling impact of the newsreel material incorporated in the film, with the horrors carefully built up to, yet introduced almost casually, so that we at once expect them and are taken unawares. The problem arises from the attitude to the horror that the film, overall, constructs.
One omission—startling today, though no one seems to have commented on it at the time—is symptomatic in more than one way of the film's failure. One sequence carefully specifies the various coloured triangles that identified different groups of victims, distinguishing the Jews from other ethnic groups, political prisoners, etc. Presumably Resnais and Cayrol had very thorough documentation at their disposal, yet no reference is made to the pink triangle: the filmmakers surround the deaths of the (approximately) 300,000 homosexuals who died in the camps with their own "night and fog" of silence. A sinister enough comment on the "liberal" conscience in itself, this omission has implications that lead much further. The fact that the Nazis attempted to exterminate gays as well as Jews points to certain fundamental traits of Fascism that our culture generally prefers to gloss over for its own comfort. Alongside the demand for racial purity went the insistence on extreme sexual division: "masculinity" and "femininity" must be strictly differentiated, women relegated to the subordinate position of the mothers who would produce future generations of "pure" aryans. The reason why patriarchal capitalist society is so reluctant to confront this aspect of Nazism is clearly that it has its own stake in the same assumptions.
The problem, however, is not simply that Resnais and Cayrol cannot make that analysis (though it is a fundamental one); they really offer no analysis at all (with the result that they tend to repress the possibility of really understanding the camps). The final moments of the film are extremely moving: at the post-war trials, we are led through the whole hierarchy of camp authority; everyone denies responsibility; we are left with the question, "Then who is responsible?" Yet the implication is something like: "These things have always happened; they have happened again; they will always happen." Denied concrete material/historical analysis, we are thrown back on "the human condition." The answer the film (without much hope) proposes is eternal vigilance. Yet no "liberal" vigilance is going to prevent the recurrence of the camps (or related phenomena) until the fundamental premises and structures of our culture are radically transformed.
This account of Night and Fog is perhaps ungenerous, the problems inherent in the undertaking being so daunting. The film is intensely moving. Yet to confront the human monstrousness of the camps demands the utmost rigour from both the film-maker and the critic. Ultimately, the kind of "distance" constructed by Resnais and Cayrol seems less honourable, as a response, than the direct emotional assault of work like Schönberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw."