NIGHT AND FOG

Nuit et Brouillard

France

1955

 

Director: Alain Resnais

Production Co.: Argos Films / Como Films

Commentary written by: Jean Cayrol

Cinematography: Ghislain Cloquet & Sacha Vierney

Editors: Henri Colpi & Jasmine Chasney

Music: Hanns Eisler

Narrator: Michel Bouquet

 

31 minutes

 

16 mm

Black & White / Colour

French, with English subtitles

  Certificate

 

remarkable for its sensitive and unusual approach to the subject

- The Oxford Companion to Film

 

Nuit et Brouillard..., along with Paul Celan's poem 'Todesfuge', is one of the two best artistic treatments of the death camps I know; elegiac yet restrained, understated yet terrible.

- John Simon, Something to Declare: Twelve Years of Films from Abroad

 

And there are those of us who look concernedly at these ruins as if the old Concentration monster were dead in the rubble... those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened long ago, and in another country, who never think to look around us, who never hear the cry that never ends.

- Jean Cayrol, from Night and Fog

 

 

In 32 brief minutes, director Alain Resnais offers a counterpoint to Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (q.v.), brilliantly achieving what dozens of other documentaries and feature films have laboured hours for: evoking the horrors of Nazi concentration camps and conveying the message for succeeding generations that it could easily happen again.  Resnais creates his essay of evil like a master composer at the keyboard, using still photos, wartime footage, and contemporary film of the abandoned camps to sum up the Holocaust in a few powerful images.

 

- The Entertainment Weekly Guide to the Greatest Movies Ever Made, New York, 1994

 

 

This is a tour of the ruins of Auschwitz in the mid-1950s, filmed in colour but intercut with black-and-white archive material of the horrors that took place there not too many years before.  The peak of Resnais' eight short films prior to his feature debut Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), was reached with this moving and thought-provoking documentary.  The carefully controlled commentary, narrated by Michel Bouquet and written by ex-deportee Jean Cayrol, as well as the gentle music, contrast starkly with the newsreels of the concentration camp victims - the past intrudes upon the present, memory precludes forgetting.  The theme and the long exploratory tracking shots were to become characteristics of Resnais' feature films.

 

- The Bloomsbury Foreign Film Guide, London, 1988

 

 

During [the fifties] the imprint of a personal style had appeared in a small number of documentaries exquisitely refined and polished and informed with consummate skill and power to evoke the purpose for which they were made.  First among them was Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, a cool, grave semi-compilation film on the Nazi concentration camps, made in collaboration with Jean Cayrol, the novelist and poet, himself a former camp prisoner, and Hanns Eisler, the composer and former associate of Brecht, who had been driven from Germany by Hitler.  The poetic intensity of Night and Fog sprang from a sophisticated humanism and a scrupulous concern for style.  The film not only revealed the truth about the horrors of Auschwitz, but - because of its construction, moving in a purposeful counterpoint between the tragedy of the past and the forgetfulness of the present - energized a form that became a constant reminder that the past was always present, and a warning of what everyone was capable of in a society that did not respect the elementary rights of all its citizens.

 

- Lewis Jacobs, The Documentary Tradition, New York, 1979

 

 

Starting from actual documents - news clips, photos, archives - and joining them to images that he filmed last year, Alain Resnais has given us a cruel but deserved history lesson. 

 

It is almost impossible to speak about this film in the vocabulary of cinematic criticism.  It is not a documentary, or an indictment, or a poem, but a meditation on the most important phenomenon of the twentieth century.

 

Nuit et Brouillard treats deportation and the concentration camps with a flawless tact and quiet restraint that make it a sublime work... 'uncriticizable'... almost 'undiscussable'.

 

The power of this film, which opens with the image of grass springing up by the abandoned watchtowers, crushed underfoot by police, is rooted in its tone, the terrible gentleness which Alain Resnais and Jean Cayrol, who wrote the commentary, were able not only to create but to maintain...

 

Miles and miles of film are shown every day in studios around the world.  For one evening we must forget to think of ourselves as critics or moviegoers.  Here we are involved as human beings who have to open our eyes and question ourselves.  For a few hours Nuit et Brouillard wipes out the memory of all other films.  It absolutely must be seen.

 

When the lights go on at the end, no one dares applaud.  We stand speechless before such a work, struck dumb by the importance and necessity of these thousand metres of film.

 

- François Truffaut, The Films in My Life, London, 1980

 

 

Resnais made a slight reputation in 1950 with Guernica, an essay built around Picasso's painting, and he consolidated it in 1956 with Nuit et Brouillard, commissioned by the Comité de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale to mark the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.  Resnais took an Eastmancolour camera to Auschwitz, to photograph the red-brick ruins languishing under a blue autumn sky, and as the camera begins to probe the commentator falls silent.  Both he and the colour give way, so that newspaper newsreels and clippings tell something of what happened there between 1941 and 1945.  The film's title derives from the order to destroy human beings, which became known as the 'Night and Fog' decree.  The film is one epitaph on the Thousand Year Reich.  Another was spoken by Hans Frank as he was led to the gallows at Nuremberg, "a thousand years shall pass and Germany's guilt will not be expunged," though the film's own final comment, "Je ne suis pas responsable" is equally moving in context.  Resnais' shattering half-hour film is essential to anyone trying to understand this century, yet it is still inadequate.

 

- David Shipman, The Story of Cinema: An Illustrated History, London, 1984

 

 

Alain Resnais builds up his film on a counterpoint of present and past; the horrors of yesterday, shown in black and white, through documents, films and photographs found in German, Polish and French archives, and the return to peace today, shot in colour, at what remains of Auschwitz.  The opening images are of springtime; nature itself seems to encourage forgetfulness; and then, suddenly, the camera swoops down to the barbed wire...  We enter the dead abandoned setting of what - only ten years ago - was man's most rational enterprise for exterminating man.  So the past becomes the conscience of the present, its tormenting question mark; and the spectator has to ask himself - how was this possible...

 

The rhythm of the film is very slow: tranquil, one might almost say.  It matches the meditative quality given to even the most atrocious images by Jean Cayrol's admirable commentary.  Cayrol, poet and novelist, was himself deported to Germany; his commentary has a fine poetic intensity, gives an extra edge to the already knife-sharp images.

 

- Sight & Sound, Spring 1956