More than seventy years after the end of World War II, footage of the Nazi concentration camps remains hard to watch. Some of the footage was taken by the German soldiers, as a means to document their planned, methodical genocide. Other footage was taken as Allied forces liberated one Concentration Camp after another. In 1955, with memories of the war still fresh, Alain Resnais delivered Night and Fog, a realistic, absorbing, and informative documentary about the holocaust, that drives its point home in a scant 31 minutes.
Made in collaboration with scriptwriter Jean Cayrol, a survivor of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, Resnais filmed color footage of the abandoned concentration camps Auschwitz and Majdanek; grass was growing over the rubble, there were even some flowers. However, that tranquil setting gives way to narrator Michel Bouquet, who matter-of-factly describes the rise of Nazi ideology, and the construction of the camps. Almost as if to ease us into the horror of it all, the otherwise linear timeline of the footage shot in black and white, is interjected with the calmer, modern day color shots.
Initially, the camps are presented as a business enterprise; with businessman competitively bidding to take on the project. From there. Germany’s brightest, and strongest workers took on the physical task of completing the structures. As the story continues, the footage becomes increasingly disturbing. Soon we see individuals, treated like chattel; bodies literally stuffed on trains, often suffocating each other. Those who make it to the camps are separated into groups; some will work; others are immediately sent to gas chambers disguised as showers.
Indiscriminate stacks of emaciated, dead bodies liter the landscape. A mountain of woman’s hair fills a warehouse. It will be used to make rugs we are told. Though we also see a shot of countless rugs, clearly never used. This was the third time I’ve watched Night and Fog, and it never gets easier, serving as a prime example of man’s inhumanity to man. As Bouquet’s straight forward narration implies, to those involved, what happened in the camps was ordinary; good citizens doing their jobs. It’s only in the final segment that the language of the narration becomes emotional, even accusatory, as viewers are asked to look within themselves to ask what we are doing to prevent such an event from happening again. Or are we simply complacent that such things are in the past and can never happen again?
Thoughtful, insightful, and informative, Night and Fog is essential cinema. In just over thirty minutes, Alain Resnais lays out the essential points regarding one of the darkest events in our history. Offering nothing in the way of personal opinion, he allows viewers to ruminate on this vital history from our past that is vital to the decisions we make in the present.
Presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s new 4K digital transfer in 1080p, is infinitely superior to their previous DVD release. Contrast, Color, and details have all seen a significant improvement. While there are a few soft shots, sharpness is impressive given the age of the film. there are a few debris marks, and specks but all in all, this is a fine effort from Criterion.
The film’s LPCM monaural soundtrack in French, is solid for its age. Clean, and consistent throughout, there are no real complaints to be made. Hanns Eisler’s affecting score sounds a bit fuller than on the previous DVD release, likely due to the uncompressed transfer.
The extras are a combination of old and new material:
- Excerpt from a 1994 Audio Interview with Director Alain Resnais (5:21) Recorded for the radio show “Le Etoiles du cinema,” we hear a bit about how Resnais got involved with the film, and the controversy that surrounded it at release.
- Interview with Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (HD, 15:29) In this new interview, Oppenheimer offers his thoughts on the documentary film genre, as well as his feelings regarding the importance of Night and Fog.
- Face Aux Fantomes (HD, 138:51) This 2009 documentary features historian Sylvie Lindeperg as she reflects on French reactions to the Concentration Camps, and various aspects of Night and Fog. A conversation with historian Annette Wieviorka is also included. Though the information is invaluable, both subject’s dry delivery may make this hard to sit through for most. If you can though, try. There’s a lot of important information here.
- Booklet: Featuring an essay by film scholar Colin MacCabe.