Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog 1955)
Directed by Alain Resnais
32 min.; France; Black and White / Color; Mono
This weekend I screened a documentary that challenged me to ask questions about two of my favorite subjects: film and history. Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog) is Alain Resnais' 1955 documentary on one survivor's account of the Nazi concentration camps. I've read that the documentary isn't about history but about memory. After screening it, thinking about it, and reading some of what's been written about it (there's a lot of material out there including a book on various interpretations) I think it might be both. Below are my immediate thoughts on it...
Let's say you're a filmmaker and you're asked to make a documentary film that says something meaningful about resistance, deportation, and/or the concentration camp experience of WWII. How would you go about it? What would you present in your film? Maybe you'd fill the movie with historical facts and figures, a narrative survey of the events, charts full of statistics, maps of different locations, and the learned comments of professional historians? Once that film was completed would it make the past any more real in the minds of the viewers? Would it really be any different than a written work about the same events? Would it really have anything meaningful to say about that past? Would anyone have much use for it fifty years later?
One tends to think Alain Resnais pondered similar questions when the Comité d'Histoire de la Déportation de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale (Committee on the History of Deportation of the Second World War) commissioned him to make a documentary film on the concentration camp experience as part of an exhibition on the history of the resistance, deportation and liberation in France some ten years after the end of World War II. Thankfully, Resnais, a filmmaker best known at that time for his avant-garde short films but who went on to make canonical features Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), did not make the kind of film described above. Instead, he collaborated with poet and concentration camp survivor Jean Cayrol and created an unforgettable personal account of the death camp experience.
In the picture, Cayrol's narration is composed of lyrical passages, flashes, memories, feelings about his time in a Nazi camp while Resnais edits color tracking shots of concentration camp ruins juxtaposed with stark black and white archival footage of the camps in operation. He upsets traditional film language with jarring spatial and temporal dislocation, a favorite trick of avant-garde filmmakers such as Maya Deren, while Cayrol's recollections and descriptions fill our ears. The effect is not a representation of the reality of the past but the cinematic equivalent of remembering.
The documentary gives a sharply felt kick to the active viewer too. For example, a single tilt up an immense pile of human hair (see screencap above) or the shot of marks caused by the desperate clawing of fingernails in a "shower room" evoke more acutely felt horror than a thousand Clive Barker movies. At one point Cayrol surmises that these words and pictures are ultimately inadequate to represent the true horror of the concentration camp experience. We have to use our historical imagination and Resnais eases that task by evoking the experience of recollection. Tracking color shots of the present day concentration camp strike us with the immediacy of Now. When these shots are starkly juxtaposed with black and white archival films of the camp in operation we're wrenched through time. The monochromatic stock of the archival images evokes the past as a suddenly unburied memory. It isn't necessary for the narrator to say "this is Buchenwald in 1943," or whatever, we make the temporal leap unconsciously.
Incidentally, the previous uses of full color/black and white transitions in motion pictures that I recall are basically effects. For example, the color sequences in early revue musicals, the color sequence in the unmasking of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the titular painting at the end of Portrait of Jennie (1949), and The Wizard of Oz (1939) which sort-of reverses the technique used here by Resnais (black and white is Dorothy's present reality while color is reserved for her unconscious world). According to an interview on the Criterion DVD, the use of color was a conscious choice made by Resnais to produce an intended effect. It was not forced upon him by the fact that the archival footage was black and white, as some have claimed, because he could have shot new footage in b/w (in fact, I noticed that he did for a couple of the shots). It's since become such a standard and recognizable technique, especially in documentaries about the past, that I have no idea how novel it might have looked to audiences back in 1955.
Can we also view the picture as a kind of history on film? Perhaps. Motion pictures may be inadequate to truly represent the past, but through them we can better imagine places and events that we ourselves never experienced. A looong ways back on this blog, as I was reading Robert Rosenstone's book History on Film/Film on History, I asked fellow film bloggers their opinions about the difference between history on paper and history on film (thanks again for all of the thoughtful responses guys). One part of Rosenstone's theory is that history on film is a separate and distinct kind of history that has an esoteric potential for sharing something meaningful about the past in ways quite different from the written word. I felt opposed to the thesis at first. However, I feel somewhat, if grudgingly, more open to it as my knowledge of the cinema expands. After seeing Resnais' picture I'm kind of surprised that the author didn't use it as a primary example in the chapter on documentaries. The formal language does evoke the experience of remembering, but the film may function as a kind of history on film too. It unburies traces of the past and lays them bare before us as a kind of shared recollection and the imagery engages the historical imagination. Though it's been criticized for questionable historical accuracy of some of its narrative claims and for failing to more fully address causation, particularly anti-Semitism, the subjective focus reveals a kind of historical truth that drives an emotional response to events in the past. If no single film can represent the total truth of the past because traces of the past can be used to create a variety of true accounts depending upon interpretation does that make this account any less historical? Also, the documentary reveals how a filmmaker can coax images to function as a kind of history on film that has a meaningful impact that endures. The chromatic mercuriality and personal reminiscence reminds us of the sudden unexpected ways that memories can become aroused while it prods us to consider horrors of the past as something present and live--not as a potential within each of us or as a shared culpability as some critics have interpreted, but as a reality among us. Finally, if the director made an academic style documentary full of historical facts, figures, and talking heads about concentration camps would cinephiles remain interested in it all these years later?
At one point in the film we're told that the title refers to Himmler's threat that the Nazis would make anyone deemed undesirable vanish into the "night and fog," never to be seen or heard from again. Resnais' haunting documentary, which we're still discussing all these years later, helps to ensure that those who suffered this fate will not be forgotten. For realizing the unexpected potential of a performative historical documentary in the short subject format through 1955 Night and Fog is about as accomplished a film as we can hope to find.