Features and Columns · Movies

‘Night and Fog’ Makes the Atrocities of the Past Devastatingly Present

Screen Shot At Pm Png
The Criterion Collection
By  · Published on September 29th, 2011

Welcome to the Criterion Files, an early FSR column in which Landon Palmer went through the Criterion Collection catalog disc by disc. This entry looks at release #197, Night and Fog.

One major aspect of the Nazi propaganda machine that gained their support from the German people was their promotion of nostalgia. And like any form of nostalgia (and especially in nostalgia’s frequent political function), this was a selective nostalgia, decidedly exploiting certain tropes and icons of German history and heritage. A major component of this nostalgia was the promotion of nature as the means of returning to pure German identity. Nature provided a convenient contrast to the values that the Nazi party wanted to work against, and its opposite — the urban center — was the focal point of all the problems they perceived Germany as having been misguided by, most explicitly centralized in the supposed decadence of 1920s Berlin. The political, aesthetic, and sexual aspirations (not to mention the diversity) of the Weimar period posed a threat to the ideals of tradition, uniformity, and the assumed hierarchy of specific social roles.

This nostalgic and romantic preoccupation with nature is readily available in German cultural products of the 1920s and 30s. Anybody who has seen Inglourious Basterds (2009) is familiar with the “mountain film,” or “bergfilme” genre that had peaked by this point. This genre was popular years before the Third Reich took power, and its prevalence speaks volumes to the German peoples’ preoccupation with nature leading up to Hitler’s rise to power. Leni Riefenstahl, perhaps the most famous of Nazi-era filmmakers, starred in mountain films and went onto make Olympia (1938) and Triumph of the Will (1935), a film that opens with overhead shots of the natural German landscape as Hitler’s plane descends onto Nuremberg, as if signaling the need to bring nature back into the metropolis. Hitler himself, after all, started as a painter whose work often depicted the natural in its various picaresque states of being.

Why then, did the Nazi’s greatest atrocity – the Jewish death camps – take place on that landscape which the Nazis supposedly loved most, nature? Were they unable to see the cruel, hypocritical irony of bringing this coldly efficient apparatus of death to nature, just as they were seemingly unable to see the calculated evil of their own actions?

“Even a peaceful landscape…can lead to a concentration camp.”

“The machine goes into action.”

Of course, these death camps were in the countryside and forests of Poland, not Germany, and the Nazis clearly had little respect for Polish land be it in town or country. But in the color sequences of Alain Resnais’s devastating Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1955), the beautiful forests and lush green grass that intersect with the looming architecture of Auschwitz is one of the film’s initial striking moments: here is a terrible and incomprehensible discrepancy between the bricks of the concentration camp and the meaning that echoes between them standing on the lush natural grounds of the Polish countryside.

Turn any one direction and you can see only trees, grass, and sun reflecting on leaves. Turn the other and you see remnants of a cold industry of death, where the ending of a human life was performed with the same assembly line efficiency and logic of manufacturing an automobile. Perhaps this is, in part, what Theodor Adorno meant when he said there could be “no poetry after Auschwitz” (one of Adorno’s publishing partners and fellow music-lovers, Hanns Eisler, scored Night and Fog). Rather than preserve or reinvigorate the supposed grand slopes and mountains of Europe, the Nazi regime forever perverted it. For centuries, writers and artists tried to capture the supposedly inherent profundity of the natural. Spiritual leaders mandated immersion in it, perceiving an inherent link between nature and enlightenment. But with the building of concentration camps, man has overcome nature – and anything we formerly believed it to be or mean – in the most devastating and destructive of ways.

Black-and-white is one of the predominant means by which the Holocaust is remembered. From archival footage of the concentration camps and ghettos themselves to mainstream films like Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1966) and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), black-and-white is assumed to be the way such an event should be depicted, perhaps to delineate the clear lines of morality within such an explicitly atrocious act, or because seeing an event so inhuman is unconscionable in the varieties of color and their many associations with identifiable aspects of human life. Even “color” fiction films about the Holocaust, like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1998) or Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), are often muted or in sepia tone, as if this were an event simply lodged in the past and can thus only be recounted in the past modes of image representation.

“Those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not hear the cry to the end of time.”

Resnais’s use of both black-and-white (archival footage) and color (contemporary footage of the now-empty and crumbling locales where these events took place) provides a rather complex, more confrontational, and ultimately more devastating understanding of these awful events of the past in relation to the present. To see the difficult-to-stomach but admittedly (by this point, at least) familiar images of concentration camps juxtaposed with full-color contemporary images of those camps provides a shocking dialectic that conveys the relationship between the past and the present.

The past here is perpetually present. Resnais seems to be speaking to an urgency, not only in the face of a “never forget” mantra that always incurs whenever tragedy becomes history, but to remember and recount in a way that the past doesn’t get subsumed under the distancing and abstracting trappings of “pastness.” To learn from history is to see its connective, consequential thread to the present. If these events were once possible, then no passage of time will make them impossible.

Resnais was working here in 1955, only a decade after the end of the war. While America prospered, Europe was still in a state of post-traumatic recovery and reconstruction. Cinema still had no means of responding to these events with any sort of perspective, which is why Night and Fog is often credited as a breakthrough. It may not have been the first of its kind in historical terms (I seriously doubt Night and Fog is the first postwar Holocaust documentary), but it did instantiate a fork in the road for the ways in which such an important event can be recounted cinematically, explicitly delineated here in the film’s doubled positioning of two formal modes, two means of address, two colors: one of the present, the other the recent past.

And we’ve since seen where the fork Resnais placed in the cinematic road has led. The Holocaust has become something of a genre in of itself, and documentaries about it lean more to the black-and-white category than the color category. Admittedly a subject worthy of endless inquiry, the Holocaust is often treated as an event particular to the past, and its resonances with the present are rarely considered to the same exhaustive degree, with the notable exception of Claude Lanzmann’s mammoth documentary Shoah (1985). But then again, Night and Fog is also about the impossibility of representing such a difficult history in an adequately meaningful way through cinema.

“What hope do we have of truly capturing this reality?…no images, no description can reveal their true dimension.”

It’s strange watching Night and Fog more than fifty years after its original release because the archival footage seems ingrained and overwhelmed by the signifiers of a past event, especially as the iconography of these images grew throughout the following decades. It’s difficult to believe that barely more than a decade separates these sections of footage. We still interpret Resnais’s 1955 footage as “the present” and the archival footage as “the past,” when in fact both belong to the latter category. History forges ahead.

Click here for more history-making editions of Criterion Files

Related Topics: ,