A concentration camp is built like a stadium, a grand hotel. You need contractors, estimates, competitive offers, and no doubt friends in high places.
Many films have spotlighted the horrors of the Holocaust in powerful ways, but none get under my skin to the degree that Alain Resnais' brief-but-harrowing documentary Night and Fog does. Rather than focusing on the moral outrage and emotional anguish of the Holocaust, the film spotlights the ruthless efficiency of the Holocaust (which in turn makes the moral outrage and emotional anguish feel sharper). What happened during that dark chapter of history is shocking, but it's just as shocking to consider how quickly it happened... and how quickly it became a distant memory.
Grass flourishes on the inspection ground around the blocks. An abandoned village, still heavy with peril. The crematoria are no longer used. The Nazi's cunning is but child's play today. Nine million dead haunt this countryside.
The documentary was made in 1955, and opens with present-day footage of various concentration camps. A mere decade after the end of WWII, they look like old historical sites: completely abandoned, covered by weeds, showing serious signs of wear and tear. With jarring abruptness, the almost-serene color photography of this footage gives way to harsh black-and-white imagery of the recent past, as the narrator (actor Michel Bouquet) briskly outlines a series of increasingly horrifying events: Jewish people being oppressed by the German government, being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, being stripped naked and humiliated, being starved to death, being sent to gas chambers, being turned into soap. Every so often, we cut back to the present, where things look so different, so quiet, so normal. Night and Fog is merciless in the way it attempts to cut through the comfort of distance.
“I am not responsible,” says the kapo. “I am not responsible,” says the officer. “I am not responsible.” Who is responsible, then?
The documentary itself moves with ruthless efficiency, too. At a mere 32 minutes, it never pauses to linger for more than a few seconds on a horrifying image, never pauses to give us a moment to reflect, never gives us an opportunity to breathe. It wants us to feel as if we are right there with these people; shoving us into the disorienting hell of the concentration camps. The film never turns melodramatic or sensationalistic, but takes us on a dark emotional journey that marches from misery to horror to death without blinking. We're never given specific information on precisely where the footage we're looking at was shot, and that lack of specificity adds to the film's nightmarish tone. Hanns Eisler's music further accentuates Night and Fog's creative approach: bustling, pizzicato-heavy material that's neither light-hearted nor tormented, but merely... efficient. It's chilling on a level that something more nakedly emotional couldn't have been.
With our sincere gaze we survey these ruins, as if the old monster lay crushed forever beneath the rubble. We pretend to take up hope again as the image recedes into the past, as if we were cured once and for all of the scourge of these camps. We pretend it happened all at once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity's never-ending cry.
This is an important film: yes, essential viewing. It was urgent in 1955, and it is urgent now. This happened before. It can happen again. We must never forget.
Night and Fog
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 32 minutes
Release Year: 1955