In tribute to Alain Resnais, 1922 -2014
I remember handing a work of literature about the Holocaust (Art Spiegelman's Maus) to my class, and after they had finished the book and passed the exams, having them watch Resnais' Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955). By then my students were wary (they knew me too well) and full of questions: will it be long? Will it be in black and white? Will it be boring? I replied: "No; kind of; see for yourself."
Night and Fog is too famous for me to repeat production background and details, save this: Resnais wouldn't even have attempted to do a documentary of any kind on a subject of this scale if he didn't have a way of accessing first-hand experience--and in this case he did: the text was written by Jean Cayrol, a survivor of the Gusen (originally Mauthausen 2) camp.
The film because of its brief length (thirty-two minutes) is dense and direct; it talks plainly to the audience (in the voice of actor Michel Bouquet) and presents its material briskly--a sketch of how the camps were designed and constructed (the usual contractors, with an occasional bribe thrown in), a summary of the process by which prisoners were gathered, a description of the elaborate system of classes under which they were categorized and labeled (I assume Cayrol stressed the latter to suggest the Nazis' obsession with status, all others rated below them in varying degrees of inferiority). Mention is made of how the prisoners responded--either by hiring on as kapos (supervisors at times more cruel than even the Nazis), or by helping one another, or by more furtive means (a wooden crocodile carving; a recipe for Basque crawfish).
Most call Night and Fog a film essay; I prefer to call it a film poem in that it fulfills the definition of a poem in one important fashion: its every spoken phrase, its every screened image works overtime to convey more than its usual weight in meaning. When touring a camp hospital, for example, Resnais suggests the horrors of unanestheticized surgery by presenting the operating table--the canals that channel blood to a central drain, the cutout where the skull pokes through, the funnel that catches heavy runoff. He shows us a prison within this prison camp, points out the air vents leading to tiny cells and, by noting that these vents "were not soundproof," delicately evokes the immense suffering found within.
And it's not all torture and death. In contrast to the hospital and prison Resnais throws in the occasional odd detail: a camp orchestra, a camp whorehouse, even a camp zoo (you wonder at the kind of thinking that felt them necessary) on his way to making a larger point: that these camps were really cities and functioned like cities, large urban communities with their own organization and structure and idiosyncrasies.
My students liked, I think, the no-nonsense tone, the undramatic way the film presented its facts, with no undue emphasis or evasion (considering the kind of young men and women I'm dealing with, they must especially appreciate being told things straight--appreciate the film 'being real,' as they say). More than one commented on the (mostly string-and-flute) music (by Hanns Eisler), which at one point was described as 'weird'--"It's surprising," I admitted. "It's like the kind of cheerful ditty you'd hear in those old science documentaries they used to show kids in grade school, back in the day. In effect we're watching a documentary about grade-school science experiments, with bright music to keep you interested."
The film goes on to make connections between the camps and the outside world--how corporations tried testing their drugs on hospital patients, how prisoners were lent out as cheap labor. I pointed out to my students that they could in Walmart and still find the names of these companies--IG Farben, Siemens, among others.
I felt I couldn't really talk about the subtler elements--the way Resnais assembled the footage with no fancy fades or dissolves, only simple cuts, and how this kept the film moving at a crisp pace, adds to its "just-the-facts-ma'am" quality. The way he chose old footage to depict the camps during the war, the black-and-white and the graininess of newsreel giving the images an unquestioned authenticity. The way a discreet color palette gives the footage of today (or at least the today of 1955) a mysterious serenity--what, you want to ask, is so portentous about this grassy field, or that bit of twisted standing metal (see picture above)? I asked the class, and some guessed that it was an instrument of torture, some playground equipment, some even a chair for the disabled. I finally had to admit I didn't know for sure myself--that their guesses were as good as mine. Resnais if he did know wasn't telling.
It's a remarkably modest film, in that it continually protests the impossibility of describing the Holocaust, refuses to sensationalize the material in any way-- resorting to archival footage to present atrocities, modern footage to suggest them (the aforementioned air vents and operating tables and--but you have to see the picture to really appreciate this--furrowed concrete ceilings). You might say Resnais' Night and Fog shares with Spiegelman's Maus a common strategy: in attempting to describe the indescribable they resort to the small and commonplace (a documentary short, a cartoon about cats and mice).
It's possibly one of the most modest great films I've ever seen, quite a feat in my book (for a film to be great I imagine the artist usually having to overreach, or break out somehow, try something no one ever has before; Resnais I think does achieve something relatively new--a refinement or innovation of what arguably was first developed by Dziga Vertov--but with so little fuss you have to remind yourself of what he's done).
It's this very modesty however--this refusal for most of its running time to make any claims too far beyond what can be supported by the material on hand--that earns it the credibility to present its final point: that the Holocaust was not just a horror, but a reminder; that people are not only capable of doing this, but (the very reason Resnais was moved to make the film) are capable of doing it again. People like to think of World War 2 as having happened over half a century ago; after Eisler's music shades almost imperceptibly from jaunty to solemn--strings trembling to the point of heartbreak--and Bouquet speaks Cayrol's closing words, I point out that war is still being waged today, that there are camps still holding prisoners for interrogation and torture (in North Korea, in China and Russia, in Guantanamo and the United States prison system) and that specific groups (Muslims, homosexuals, Latin- and African-Americans) are still being persecuted.
In a way they--the young men and women watching this, many of whom are Muslim, Latino, gay--have already experienced something of what these prisoners experienced: the targeting, the loss of freedom, the regimented life. They of all people should know the encroaching signs, and who's to say it hasn't happened already? That last point may have hit an already sombre class particularly hard; when filing out, they mostly wore the same thoughtful expression on their faces.