Night and Fog
B&W and color, 31 minutes, 1955
A great shadow-line falls across the 20th century that effects as well as implicates all human activities and strategies that came before it. Activities include Art, both high art and low, including the relatively young arts of photography and cinema. The shadow is the Second World War and the Holocaust.
We are more aware of a social and political uneasiness in a work of art such as Shakespeare’s ‘A Merchant of Venice’ and its elements of anti-Semitism than previous eras of human history. Anyone who engages with Art (or Science, Politics, and other fields) feels, even if the intellect manages to avoid, the difficulty of that play.
The brilliance of Shakespeare’s language as well as some important lines spoken by Shylock about his treatment and condition as a Jew in an anti-Semitic environment cannot contrast, compare, or overcome the horrific issues brought to light by the Holocaust. With the emergence of Modernism as an aesthetic school, all texts (as all artwork like music and painting can be viewed as ‘texts’ in extreme definitions of postmodernism and other aesthetic schools) are subjected to analysis using every other cultural elements in our history. Shakespeare’s play is not less problematic for having been written before the Holocaust.
The short film “Night and Fog,” directed by Alain Resnais, uses the Art of cinema as a means of indicting the Nazis and all of those who cooperated with the corporatocracy that is a distinguishing feature of the Holocaust.
Resnais’s film is a documentary that mixes both color and black and white, still photographs and moving pictures, images and words. The narrator is Jean Cayrol, who was deported to Mauthausen and wrote a book called “Poems de la Nuit et du brouillard”—Poems of Night and Fog, from which Resnais takes the title of his documentary. He brings a gravitas, authority, and a difficult beauty to the narrative of the film.
The film is unafraid to mix the beautiful (landscapes and luminescent black and white scenic photography) with the brutal (images of the concentration camps’ prisoners and their abandoned belongings). Color is not used simplistically as a scheme to simplify whether an image is “bad,” “good” or even “neutral.” The mixture of color film and black and white, the ‘old’ versus a potentially comfortingly—because distant—modern and removed sense of the ‘new.’
There are no simplistic approaches to this short film and Resnais is firmly in control of his medium to keep our focus on his film’s subject. Interestingly, Chris Marker, the creator of La Jetee, the next film I will review, was part of Resnais’ team, utilizing his strengths in handling still images—providing movement into and between stills that mimics motion so well that the viewer is taken into the film as a motion picture.
Resnais makes his material move, focusing deeply into a still photograph of women prisoners’ hair cut away by the Nazis, resizing and reframing images, cutting from the past to the present, all of it guided by the voice of Cayrol.
The French New Wave emerged after the Second World War and, as I have noted in Truffaut’s short “Les Mistons,” there is something problematic that needs to be addressed in all art after the Holocaust.
The French New Wave impetus is partly due to the horrors of mid-century history, but also the continuing innovations, inventions (such as, color film, faster film stock) and the gradual return of prosperity. Having passed through the fires of war and horror, it would have been tempting to create a more sumptuous and beautiful art; but Resnais’ “Night and Fog” makes it explicit that the New Wave directors weren’t interested in any such easy returns to an idyllic sensibility, or to try and forget the lessons—emblemized by Cayrol’s dirge-like narration—that war and horror and the so-called blessings of modernity.