Night and Fog intercuts contemporary color footage of Auschwitz (the word “Auschwitz” is practically synonymous with the concept of the concentration camp), with black-and-white stills and archival film of not just Auschwitz, but other concentration camps. Resnais made an innovative, if unsettling, decision to film an empty, desolate concentration camp at Auschwitz and the surrounding area with a moving, restless, probing camera. The camera opens on a quiet, overgrown landscape, a narrow road, a nondescript village in the background, but tracks back to reveal wooden pylons and an electrified fence, before turning its attention to the concentration camp itself. In fact, the camera is the lone visitor to the concentration camp. Nothing, with the exception of a small flock of birds at the perimeter, moves inside the concentration camp. A dry, passionless, disembodied voice (Jean Cayrol) informs us that the “blood has dried, the tongues have grown silent.” The unseen narrator leaves another statement unsaid, that the camera's role in this documentary is to act as witness to history.
Accompanying the camera as it explores the buildings and grounds of the concentration camp, the unseen narrator demystifies and delineates the relevant social, cultural, and political history behind the creation and maintenance of the concentration camps, before turning its focus to the victims of those camps: the Jews who were systematically targeted for the camps (approximately 6,000,000 Jews died in the concentration camps, with another 3,000,000 drawn from various nationalities and political persuasions antithetical to Nazi ideology). Here, the wooden barracks where men sleep three to a bed, with, at most, a thin blanket during the winter months, sleep was rare (and food and other belongings often stolen). Around a corner, a small, bare room: a privilege for the “kapo,” usually a common criminal who, in exchange for his service to the Nazis, was allowed to live, and thrive, inside the concentration camp system. The camera pans up to reveal Orwellian signage placed around the camp, “cleanliness is health,” “work is freedom,” and “to each, his due.” There, the so-called “hospital” where, at best, dying men, women, and children were served placebos for their illnesses; at worst, these same men, women, and children could be poisoned. Others could disappear, to become unwilling subjects in medical experimentation. Another corner, another building: we enter a disused gas chamber. The camera pans to the ceiling, revealing the holes dug into the ceiling by those victims of the Nazis quickly asphyxiating and dying. The concentration camp, our guide tells us, operates on endless fear and uninterrupted terror. There, in the distance, the electrified fence, the observation towers. Further in the distance, the commandant's villa, where he lived less like an officer, and more like an aristocrat. Later, after the end of the war, both the kapo and the commandant will claim they were not responsible for the concentration camps (their line of defense will be rejected).
For the black-and-white footage, Resnais relied on now iconic imagery associated with the Holocaust: the cattle cars repurposed for human use (with 100 individuals to each car, resulting in multiple deaths before the cars reached their ultimate destination), the nighttime arrivals in the concentration camps in the night and fog, stripped naked in the cold, the shaved heads, the tattooed arms, the blue-lined uniforms, later, the emaciated faces and bodies, and ultimately, the nearly unrecognizable corpses, the end result of the Nazi process of dehumanization, humiliation, and starvation. After the “liberation” of the camps by the Allies, those same bodies will be bulldozed into mass graves. For those not starved or worked to death, the Nazis offered a different, swifter end: the crematoriums (often built with inmate labor). Here too Resnais accepts the need to present unmediated reality (or reality once removed, given the nature of photography). Resnais shows us both the crematoriums and the human remains (not unlike the more peaceful images usually associated with the ritual cremation conducted on the Ganges River in India). For most of the inmates inside the concentration camps, there is no escape, only the slimmest hope of survival and rescue in the distant future.
As the camera leaves Auschwitz, the unseen narrator describes those who refuse to believe, if only momentarily, the historical truth associated with the concentration camps. George Santayana's oft-repeated phrase that “those who forget the past, are doomed to repeat it,” isn't used here, but it certainly could have been (Santayana's words have been inscribed at the Holocaust museum located in another concentration camp, Dachau). Ultimately, Night and Fog leaves the audience with a simple, but profound, message: we can never allow the Nazi's catastrophic failure of empathy (and that of their innumerable collaborators) to be repeated in our own time, whatever the circumstances. Human beings should always be treated as ends in themselves, and never as the means to an end. For that reason, and for the others listed above, Night and Fog is an essential viewing experience.
© Mel Valentin, 2nd November, 2004
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