It’s a tribute to the clarity and cogency of Night and Fog that Resnais’ masterpiece has not been diminished by time, or displaced by longer and more ambitious films on the Holocaust, such as Shoah and Schindler’s List.
In 1954, Hachette published a book of eyewitness accounts of the deportation of the Jews. Selected by Olga Wormser and Henri Michel, these texts described daily life in the camps, the categorization of prisoners, and the extermination process. In November of that year, an exhibition on the same theme opened at the Institut Pédagogique National in Paris. Prompted by Olga Wormser, three film producers––Anatole Dauman, Samy Halfon, and Philippe Lifchitz––visited the exhibition and decided that a film should be made on the subject. Approached by Dauman to direct the documentary, Alain Resnais at first demurred, as he felt that only somebody with first-hand experience of the concentration camps could tackle the job. Finally he agreed, providing that Jean Cayrol (a novelist who would go on to write Resnais’ Muriel) collaborate on the project. Cayrol had been a prisoner at Mauthausen, and in 1946 had written about his experience in Poèmes de la nuit et brouillard (hence the title of Resnais’ documentary).
After shooting on location at Auschwitz and Majdanek, Resnais assembled an initial version of the film in the late autumn of 1955. Cayrol, helped by another mutual friend Chris Marker, wrote a commentary (spoken in a deliberately matter-of-fact manner by Michel Bouquet), and Hanns Eisler came to Paris to compose the music.
Night and Fog was passed by the French board of censors, although one or two shots of corpses had to be cut. A shot of an officer, obviously French because he is wearing a “kepi,” also had to be doctored somewhat to assuage national sensibilities about France being involved in the Holocaust.
Night and Fog won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo, and was selected for the Cannes Festival. But after officials from the West German embassy saw the film at a private screening (authorized in all innocence by Dauman), a letter was sent to the French foreign minister, Christian Pineau, demanding that the film be withdrawn from the French lineup at Cannes. Despite protests, Night and Fog was abruptly replaced by an innocuous documentary on French châteaux. The decision was made by Maurice Lemaire, who as secretary of state for industry and commerce enjoyed ––mysteriously––the ultimate control of the official French selection for festivals.
The papers resounded with accusation and counter-accusation. The foreign minister refused to attend Cannes to open the festival, the eighteen members of the selection committee threatened to resign en masse, and finally Night and Fog was given a slot at the festival, “out of competition,” to coincide with the National Day of the Deportees. Thanks to its overwhelmingly favorable reception by critics and delegates alike on April 29, 1956, Night and Fog found itself selected by the Berlin Festival for an official screening in July the same year.
Peter Cowie is the author of more than twenty books on cinema, including biographies of Ingmar Bergman and Francis Ford Coppola. His latest, Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties (Faber and Faber), will be published in 2004.