Let me get this out of the way. I am not an anti-Semite. And Night And Fog is not a good documentary, assuming it can even be called a documentary.
I say this because the near universal praise for Alain Resnais’s 1955 black and white, and color, film is ill-founded. Most of it has to do with a) the seeming impolitic nature of criticizing anything that displays Nazi butchery, and b) the fact that the 31-minute long film was the first "real" attempt at categorizing the Nazi horrors of World War Two to the world at large. This was long before canonical terms and figures like "The Holocaust" or "six million" dead Jews were prevalent in pop culture. This film, however, is more agitprop than documentary, from the almost facile way it treats its subject matter, with quick edits to the ponderous, and badly written attempts at poetic narration, voiced by Michel Bouquet.
It would be another few decades before the detailed savagery of the Nazis would get its filmic due, with Marcel Ophüls’ 1972 four-plus hour long The Sorrow And The Pity, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 nine-plus hour Shoah, and the BBC’s 1974 landmark 26-hour long documentary, The World At War. All three of these films, plus many others, have made Resnais’s film look quaint, to be kind.
That’s not to say that Night And Fog is an outright bad film. It’s not. It’s just not that good, both stylistically, and more so, factually. If the style were brilliant, the mangling of history would not be so bad, and if the reverse were true, the same would apply. But, here, a mere ten years after the war, Resnais makes a definitive claim of nine million dead in the death camps. In the years since, Nazi and Holocaust deniers have denied everything, while Nazi fetishists – is there any other word to call those so obsessed with such degradation? – have claimed thirty million or more. Jews have clung to the canonical Six Million figure, to the exclusion of the millions other dead, and the masses killed by Communist regimes, under the likes of Stalin, Mao, Castro, and Pol Pot, which dwarf even the highest amounts attributed to the Nazis, have been given almost no scrutiny. In recent years, with the release of supposedly classified Nazi archives from Germany, the death tolls have again been claimed higher than the accepted ten to twelve million total, approximately half of which were Jews.
Yet, there is a certain flippancy that one sees with such historically important claims, and, after the seriousness of the Nuremberg Trials, the almost blasé approach of Resnais to this film is a bit unnerving. Of course, stürm and drang is not necessary, merely an incisive look at the reality. That requires no bad poetry and a bit more time. This blame has to fall on writer and minor poet Jean Cayrol, as much as it does Resnais. And yes, they were explicitly making an agitprop film for the French government, which chose to hide its Vichy complicity, as Resnais notes in a radio interview included on the Criterion Collection DVD of the film. There is one still photograph of a Nazi death camp in southern France, where French police can be seen. This was obscured upon the original release but included in the DVD. Yet, if that was done to the film, one can only imagine what other compromises were made, thus effectively nullifying the film’s artistic and historic impact.
If artists and writers in the Soviet bloc countries of the time could figure out ways to outsmart their censors, so should have Resnais. On the positive side, Resnais has claimed he wanted to make the film more than just a look backwards at the Second World War, but a comment on the then current French-Algerian war. Thus he called the death camp inhabitants deportees, not Jews, and used a larger figure for what he believed was the total amount killed (Jews and others) — nine million people.
Of course, the manifest flaws in the film’s structure, some badly synched images and music, and the bad narration, did not deter those of a Leftist bent from praising the film for its statement rather than its art. French film director Francois Truffaut called Night And Fog the greatest film of all time. Well, no. Often, when dealing with war films, or Holocaust films, there is a tendency to trivialize mass murder, by making patriotic excessiveness a virtue, or dripping the story in melodrama. Night And Fog comes down in the middle, yet still misses its mark, because it seems as if Resnais had no real target, despite his claims about the Algerian Resistance.
Yes, we see bodies plowed into holes, stacks of skulls and mounds of human hair, and while that may have shocked years ago, one must be aware that Bela Lugosi’s original turn in 1931’s Dracula, by Tod Browning, was also considered by some to be far too scary for film. Now it’s hokum, and Night And Fog is the documentary equivalent of Dracula. One might argue he’s not to blame, since time and history have swept by his film, but a truly great artist knows that his work will stand up not only upon first peek, but decades later, centuries after that, and as far into the human future as one can envision. This is why the best of Greek tragedies speak to a reader today, and why Night And Fog fails.
And, a final word on the narration, written by Cayrol and voiced by Bouquet. Aside from the pseudo-poetry, there is a condescending tone throughout. Oftentimes, Bouquet chides a viewer for not believing what is being shown (an unwitting invitation to Holocaust deniers in years hence), and then offers platitudes like, "Words are insufficient." Well, not really, not in great art. And while, at 31 minutes, there was obviously no attempt to be comprehensive about the death camps, much less all of World War Two, there is not even an attempt to distill the experience. This lack of focus and air of flippancy make a strange combination for the viewer to chew on, for there is no reflection, no analysis, and what is presented seems almost parodic.
The film’s score is no great shakes either, often being wildly out of touch with the images onscreen. Hanns Eisler plays flute and woodwinds against horrific images, which only further underscores the film’s seeming California surfer dude approach to the subject matter. Music need not be didactic and ponderous, thus recapitulating a terrible image of the dead, but it need not flounce lightly off the carcasses, as well.
Other than the five minute Resnais radio interview, there are only a few essays on the film. As Resnais was still alive at the time of the DVD’s release, one wonders why there are no interviews with him, nor even a commentary. And, as usual, Criterion really flubs it when they use only black and white subtitles, half of which wash out when the white of the black and white segments are shown. All in all, Criterion really shafted the public on this release.
Night And Fog is an interesting curio from the late post-war period. It was made at the height of the early Cold War, and the beginning of the end of Colonialism. While Resnais’s attempt to link the Nazi genocide with Colonialism’s many genocides was ahead of its time, the actual work of art has to stand on its own. It simply fails on all the counts enumerated. Heavy-handedness cannot replace deftness, purples prose cannot replace spare description, and poor scoring cannot replace the sometimes necessity for just an image and quietude. And while poor critical thinkers might believe criticizing a film like Night And Fog is tantamount to blaspheming the memory of the Nazi victims (Jews and others) I would caution those with that view to cogitate on just what such a facile and flippant representation of the dead, by Resnais, says. I claim not anti-Semitism, just not too good art. Unfortunately, these days, even saying that can get you called a Nazi.
Now, what was that saying of Santayana’s about history and doom?Powered by Sidelines