Ok, so three days before Christmas is probably an unlikely sort of time to be reviewing a Holocaust documentary. I really ought to be munching on mince pies and offering my views on The Hobbit or something. However, I’ve been meaning to watch Night and Fog for ages (since September) and I thought as I’ve already mentioned Alain Resnais this week I might as well run with that.
The Holocaust has loomed quite large in my sphere of consciousness this year. I spent a month in Berlin during which time I visited a concentration camp and wrote up the experience for a travel guide, as well as writing up both the Jewish Museum and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I was morbidly fascinated with the Holocaust when I was younger (I read the Diary of Anne Frank when I was 11 and it snowballed from there) but it didn’t occur to me until this year that even though I might have learnt a lot about the Holocaust I still didn’t ‘get it’. I still don’t ‘get it’, and I believe that unless you’ve been through it then you never will.
But boy, since wandering around Sachsenhausen concentration camp on my own do I have a better idea, and I have to tell you I’m not really pushed to dig a lot deeper. I always wanted to visit Auschwitz, but hey, now I’m really not sure about that, I think I’ve done my concentration tourism – and it was certainly enough. Anyhow, I got into conversation with one of my friends about this whilst in Berlin and he recommended Night and Fog, so here I am.
I already like Alain Resnais, but how would did he deal with such a sensitive subject?
Bearing in mind what sort of thing Resnais would go on to produce it is interesting that images in this film appear so surreal. Surely with that box full of human heads and bulldozer clearing away bodies we are looking a work of fantasy, something from a different world? But no, not this time.
Night and Fog was produced in 1955, a ridiculously short amount of time after the war. I think this might actually be the earliest documentary about the Holocaust I’ve ever seen, and it’s certainly the most shocking, no surprise that it ran into censorship problems. The film switches between archive footage and contemporary views of Auschwitz, faint of heart beware – this is graphic, and it’s absolutely brutal.
‘Night and Fog’ is a poignant title, drawing attention to the shady handling of prisoners by the German military. Millions of ordinary people were plucked out of their lives, sent off to the camps and ‘disappeared’. I’m not sure how I feel about this, so the mechanics of the camps were kept secret – but what did the people really think happened to those prisoners? In Oranienburg (the sleepy suburb where Sachsenhausen is located) residential houses run almost up to the front gate. Thousands of people go in, no one comes out, and still more people keep coming. It’s pretty obvious what’s happening. Or is it? That section of life between arriving at the camp and death is where the real cloak and dagger horror is; the starvation, the miserable conditions, death leering at every corner. So giving the film this title is like a attaching a billboard to the whole thing, calling out the Nazi’s on their great cover up.
The script was written by camp survivor Jean Cayrol, no doubt an almost impossible task. The narrative is measured and poetic without being bitter or condemning, there is a sense that Cayrol and Resnais are just presenting the facts and it is up to the viewer to draw their own conclusion about who is responsible. As the camera spans over the tumbledown, now peaceful ruins of Auschwitz there is a plea not to forget, not to let it happen again.