In February 1956, François Truffaut wrote in Cahiers du cinéma of “the most noble and necessary film ever made.” It was only thirty minutes long, featured no stars, and was directed by a young film editor whose name was little known outside the intellectual circles of the Left Bank of Paris. Sixty years later, that work, Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, is generally acknowledged as one of the great classics of cinema, and its restoration now allows us to appreciate fully this remarkable encounter between film and history. As one of its crucial aesthetic devices is the contrast between color and black and white, such a restoration is particularly valuable.
The defeat of Germany in 1945 by the Allied powers confronted the world with a horror that has not diminished in the intervening years. A European nation, benefiting from all the culture and learning of that geographic advantage, had deliberately engineered a prison system designed to exterminate its inmates. Unfortunately, another European power, Great Britain, had produced a prototype for these camps, along with the term concentration camp, at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Herbert Kitchener unleashed his scorched-earth policies against the Boer population in South Africa. Those camps, however, had finally been closed after their appalling conditions and consequent death rate were made public and future prime minister David Lloyd George accused the government of following a “policy of extermination” against the Boers. When the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, concentration camps immediately became an instrument of state policy for dealing with political opponents, but from the beginning, Hitler was determined that there would be no public outcry about the malnutrition, overwork, and poor sanitation that meant that death was the inevitable end for the inmates of these living hells. The concentration camps were covered in elaborate veils of secrecy so that there could be no public scrutiny of their hideous operations. Indeed, this secrecy was considered one of the main weapons in the terrorizing of opponents, and when the Keitel decree of 1941 ordered that all Resistance fighters captured in other European countries be brought back to Germany to disappear into these camps, one of the policy’s explicit aims was for the prisoners to vanish into “night and fog” (“Nacht und Nebel”) and for this to be an extra punishment for the loved ones they left behind, unable to learn anything about their fate.
The idea of a film on the concentration camps was first mooted in conjunction with the museum exhibition Resistance, Liberation, Deportation, which opened on November 10, 1954, in Paris as part of a series of events to mark the tenth anniversary of the discovery of the camps. The exhibition was the product of a decade of government-sponsored historical research, and the film then envisaged would have featured the exhibition itself prominently, with a heavily historical narration. The organizers of the show remained deeply involved in the making of the film, but once Anatole Dauman agreed to be the producer, the nature of the project changed drastically. Dauman, then at the beginning of his legendary career, was a man with a fierce belief in cinema and a commitment to the importance of the director. His decision to choose Resnais—though only thirty-two years old and with a mere handful of documentaries to his credit—over the many well-known names that were suggested is an indication of this. Dauman had perceived in Resnais’s documentaries, particularly 1953’s Statues Also Die, made with Chris Marker, a major cinematic intelligence.
Resnais had hesitated about accepting Dauman’s offer because he felt that the film had to be made by someone who had experienced the camps. But Dauman persuaded him by suggesting that they use poet Jean Cayrol, who had spent two years in the concentration camps at Mauthausen-Gusen for his Resistance activity, to write the script. Resnais had two more demands for his producer, both of which emphasized that this was to be both a real film and expensive. Early on, Resnais told Dauman that he had decided that the structure of the film should balance contemporary footage of the camps and their countryside, ten years after they had finished their deadly work, with the black-and-white archival footage that the production had managed to find. The contemporary footage would be in color, which meant that the whole film, including the black-and-white footage, would have to be printed on color stock. Many a producer would have blanched at such a huge hike in the budget, but Dauman immediately agreed to find the extra money himself. Resnais also wanted a real score, and he had in mind Hanns Eisler, one of Bertolt Brecht’s great collaborators. Once again, Dauman agreed to find the extra money.
The historians had imagined that the soundtrack would feature the song “Peat Bog Soldiers,” which had been composed by German Communists, the first group of people to be sent to the concentration camps, in 1933 and had become the unofficial anthem of the prisoners. This choice was in line with the whole official historical apparatus that had been constructed by the French government after the war, in which the investigation of the concentration camps came under the rubric of the memory of the Resistance. This emphasis was part of an elaborate and still continuing effort to deny the reality of or to disavow the French government’s capitulation to the Germans in June 1940. Other countries occupied by the Germans, like the Netherlands and Denmark, set up governments in exile, an option that would have been very easy for France, with its North African colonies as an obvious base. Instead, the French civilian and military leaders opted to make peace with the Germans. It was only a very junior general, Charles de Gaulle, defying both his elected government and his military superiors, who fled to London to incarnate a French opposition. And it was only in 1943 and 1944 that this opposition achieved any significant reality. When de Gaulle came to power in 1944, however, everything was done to pretend that the whole of France had from the beginning opposed the Germans. The reality of the Resistance was turned into a national myth of a country at war, and the Resistance fighters who had suffered in the concentration camps became martyrs.
It is impossible to know what Resnais thought about this, because the myth of the martyred Resistance fighters was so strong that it would have been impossible to challenge publicly. There is also no doubt that whatever the motives of government patronage, these historians were completely dedicated to uncovering as much information as possible about the camps, and it is clear that Resnais worked closely with them throughout the making of the film. However, he did change his working title from Resistance and Deportation to Night and Fog. This is an allusion to the Keitel decree, so in one sense linked to the original focus on Resistance fighters, but Resnais must have known that the specific historical reference would mean little or nothing to an audience in 1955—and it shows that in one obvious respect he was ignoring the national nature of the original historical research, reporting on not a French but a European tragedy. More importantly, Resnais ignored many of the documents and other artifacts that the historians had wanted in the film; there are only two types of images: color photography of Auschwitz, Majdanek, and the surrounding countrysides in the glorious autumn of 1955, and black-and-white footage of the camps during the war.
Thus we have in some sense the very simple structure of the film: on the one hand, we have the present in buoyant Eastmancolor, Auschwitz with its ambiguous decaying ruins, captured in slow, deliberate tracking shots with no clear beginning or end; and on the other, in black and white, the camps, full beyond overcrowding, with their suffering human bodies. This structure embodies Night and Fog’s major theme, moving us between two worlds, one of normal society, the other of the inferno of the concentration camps. The opposition is reinforced by the rhythm of the editing. Sylvie Lindeperg’s full history of the film, titled simply Night and Fog, tells us, “The average length of a color shot is just under twenty seconds, and of a black-and-white shot, four-and-a-half seconds. This means that one color shot lasts on average as long as five black-and-white shots.” Contrasting Sun and Shadow—beauty that we contemplate at our ease—with Night and Fog, where one horrifying image is piled on another at a staccato speed that denies easeful contemplation, the film leaves us with the haunting question of what links those two worlds.
Short as it is, Night and Fog has major contradictions that might be advanced as criticisms but might also explain its extraordinary power. Its impetus had come from history and politics, a drive to record the evils of Nazism, and the film is determined to anchor the camps in that historical reality. But there is another level of reality that Cayrol’s poetic text aims to delineate: the veritable alternative world of the camps, a completely new form of existence on the edge of death. The text, spoken at Resnais’s insistence without emphasis or emotion, is undoubtedly one of the reasons that we are moved so directly. And much of the credit for this power may be due to Marker, a longtime friend and collaborator of Resnais’s. At the time, Marker worked at Éditions du Seuil, the company that published Cayrol, and when Cayrol delivered his first version of the commentary, far too long and almost unrelated to the images, it was to Marker that Resnais turned to produce a text that would play in counterpoint to the images. This text was then rewritten by Cayrol, but there is no doubt that the astonishing rhythm of words and images owes a lot to Marker’s intervention.
However, it may be the tension between history and poetry that led to the film’s extraordinary omission. Olga Wormser, the historian who was most involved with the production and who had researched the camps for ten years, had revealed that, as the Germans began to lose ground on the Russian front, the concentration camp system, already fully in operation for nearly a decade, was systematically harnessed to the German war effort, with the full and active participation of all the great giants of German industry. The film emphasizes this development over footage of Himmler’s visit to Auschwitz in 1942. Incredibly, though, it does not mention the other development of that period—the decision to exterminate an entire race, the Nazis’ final solution to the “Jewish question.”
Anti-Semitism had been the key feature of Hitler’s political ideology from the beginning. From the first moment that he took power, in 1933, Jews were systematically stripped of both rights and property, subjected to physical violence, and killed. It was also the case that Hitler’s aim had always been to rid not only Germany but all of Europe of Jews. However, the initial plans were geographical. Europe’s Jews were going to be deported to Madagascar and then, from 1940, to Siberia. But as the war turned against Germany and it became clear that it would last much longer than Hitler had expected, a new solution was elaborated: the Final Solution. Now, the entire Jewish population of Europe would be exterminated in special new death camps. The footage of Himmler in the film is of a visit
not only to the forced labor camp of Auschwitz but also to the neighboring new death camp of Birkenau. However, the commentary makes no mention of the Final Solution.
It might be tempting to think that the film is complicit in the astonishing reluctance of official French history to admit the shameful role France had played in the Final Solution—its enthusiastic support for the implementation of German policy. But although the full details of France’s role in the murder of French Jews was not fully known until decades after the release, Resnais did put in a still that showed Jewish deportees being guarded by a French policeman, an image that the censors ordered to be removed. It is also clear from his notes on the final script that Resnais was aware of the film’s exclusions: he comments in one spot that the shot of Himmler needs something more in the commentary.
This seeming blind spot may be attributable simply to the rush to get the film finished or, in part, to the fact that the one thing everybody did know about the camps in 1955 was that they had been used to kill millions of Jews. But there is also an explanation that would suggest a more deliberate intention: that the filmmakers did not want to limit the work either to the French victims or to the Jews, wishing to emphasize instead that the inhumanity it records—and it is clear about this—is not over. It is very likely that in Resnais’s mind was the French war in Algeria, which would soon bring forth its own litany of unspeakable horrors. Misguided as it may seem in retrospect, the filmmakers may have felt that to concentrate on what happened to the Jews would undercut the film’s universal lesson. Night and Fog’s chilling last words point to this: “We survey these ruins with a heartfelt gaze, certain the old monster lies crushed beneath the rubble. We pretend to regain hope as the image recedes, as though we’ve been cured of the plague of the camps. We pretend it was all confined to one country, one point in time. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to the never-ending cries . . .”