Sunday, March 20, 2011

Night and Fog (1955, Nuit et brouillard)

No matter how many times you hear the expression this movie will change your life, it is a rare moment when it does.  Night and Fog did for me, not in a truly life-altering way, but it made me recognize the documentary genre as a powerful form of film.  I would watch documentaries (which I have always enjoyed doing) but never bothered with a film’s technique, impact or aesthetic value.  As far as I thought, in order for a movie to move me, the situations, the emotions, all had to be larger than life.  Then I saw Night and Fog.

It’s not a big movie.  Most people have never heard of it, but I saw it at a store and picked it up.  After completing its short running time, I was stunned—numbed is probably more accurate.  My only cinematic journeys into the Holocaust were narrative dramas like Schindler’s List, a movie I’ve never enjoyed because of its sentimental and overtly emotional approach to the subject matter.  I don’t particularly dislike weepy films (if that is indeed the correct term) but the emotions films like Schindler’s List spark go against my feelings about the Holocaust, and the effects of war in general.  The Holocaust is the darkest memory of the 20th Century, and I don’t look at it with soft, tangible feelings.  It’s depressing to think anyone or group could get away with what the Nazis did.  It doesn’t speak well of mankind.  When I saw Night and Fog, finally—finally—I had seen the Holocaust film that hit the right tone.  The film does not ask us to feel any which way about the Holocaust.  It is matter-of-fact, unsentimental and powerful.

As far as technique, I’d say director Alain Resnais didn’t have to do too much to stir his audience.  The images he shows would be enough to shock and sicken anyone.  Of particular note are the very first image of a dead man, his eyes wide and staring right into camera; the shot of a human foot being burnt with phosphorous; and the various images of dead bodies being bulldozed like broken concrete.  Resnais's approach to the film, his style, accents the atrocities in meaningful, though not intrusive, ways.  The film, you could say, is sort of a flashback.  We open with some color photography of an isolated industrial setting, beautiful in its way.  The camera glides and shots dissolve into other shots.  It is all peaceful and serene.  We are then told through a restrained Narrator that this was the site of a concentration camp.  While the scenery hasn’t changed, our own feelings of such a place turn the shots ugly; much like the nature of a person changes the image of them in our minds.  We then see the past, the Holocaust; black and white stills and archival footage mostly shot by the Nazis for unmade propaganda films.  It’s sort of like the inverse of The Wizard of Oz, except the “fantasy,” the Holocaust footage, is real.  The beauty of the present—the color photography with its dreamlike maneuvering through space, seems to be of another time and place.  What Resnais is saying, the way I interpret it, is that man is a cruel animal capable of committing these acts, and that we should always be conscious of the fact.

I don’t remember if I had this reaction while watching the film on DVD by myself, but when I watched Night and Fog on the big screen with an audience, I couldn’t help myself but I had to shield my eyes from the final shots of the Holocaust footage: a montage of truly horrible images—mountains made of human hair for example.  I could not take it.  I think the reason is this: I felt responsible—not “I” as an individual but as a human being.  Inaction leads to the inevitable.  No other film has affected me in the same way as Night and Fog.  With this film, I realized how effective documentaries can be and it toppled for me this bigoted notion that they pale in comparison to narrative films.  I concede that documentaries have the ability to move audiences in ways dramatic pictures never can, perhaps because fiction hasn’t really happened.  Night and Fog is our history.  It is not just a superb example of modern art, this shit (there is no more appropriate word) actually happened.

I can’t truly say I love this film or even enjoy it.  I can’t understand how someone can enjoy it the same way you can a Hitchcock thriller or even a Bergman chamber drama.  I appreciate the film as a powerful indictment of the Holocaust, an unforgettable and haunting event in world history, and as a work of art.  Whenever I watch it, I’m spellbound by the visuals and the ideas, the beauty and the horror.  Alain Resnais was never coupled into the French New Wave.  Like the great Agnes Varda, he began making films a decade before but he contributed some of the defining New Wave films.  Night and Fog, made in 1955, is a perfect example of what a New Wave picture would mean: a nonconformist, idiosyncratic, adult masterpiece that withstands the test of time in that, as Resnais suggests, its topic is timeless.

Night and Fog (1955)
(a.k.a. Nuit et brouillard)
Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Jean Cayrol, Chris Marker (Script Editor)
Stars: Michel Bouquet (Narrator)
In French
Runtime: 32 minutes

To purchase Night and Fog on DVD from The Criterion Collection, visit Amazon:

IMDB link:

No comments:

Post a Comment