BOOTLEG FILES 343: “Night and Fog” (Alain Resnais’ 1955 documentary classic).
LAST SEEN: The film is available on several online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been a staple of public domain labels for years, despite not being in the public domain.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is a classic and people want to spread it around.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Surprise! There was an official restored DVD in 2003 – but the dupes keep coming.
“The blood has dried, the tongues have fallen silent. The only visitor to the blocks now is the camera.”
The words of poet Jean Cayrol, as brought to life by director Alain Resnais, created an astonishing work of art called “Night and Fog.” Created on the tenth anniversary of the end of World War II, this half-hour documentary forced audiences not to forget the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Viewed today, it still resonates with an uncommon power and passion.
In 1955, there was a general sentiment in Europe and the United States to put World War II into the conveniently forgotten past. In the 10 years following the fall of Hitler’s Berlin, the new enemy to the free world was its one-time ally, the Soviet Union. Europe was divided between democratic and Communist alliances, and Germany was also cut down the middle as part of the Cold War. Western governments were eager to incorporate West Germany into its mission to fight the Kremlin, and a constant reminder of those nasty ol’ Nazis was not something that fit into that game plan.
Even worse, the film world responded by failing to consider what took place during the Holocaust. Ten years after the war, it appeared (with very few exceptions) that filmmakers amnesia in regard to tragedies within the concentration camps.
“Night and Fog” nearly didn’t come about – Resnais initially rejected the invitation to direct the film, believing that a survivor of the concentration camps would better helm the assignment. However, he agreed to the project and collaborated with Cayrol (a French resistance fighter who was incarcerated at the Gusen concentration camp), and composer Hanns Eisler (an Austrian-Jewish artist who fled to the U.S. before the war, but was deported in 1948 at the start of the McCarthy-era witch hunts against suspected Communists).
The resulting film was a startling piece of experimental cinema. Rather than offer a straightforward documentary, Resnais and his team offered a lyrical meditation between the eerie serenity of the abandoned 1955 camps and the systematic terror that occurred in the first half of the 1940s. Eisler’s elegiac music provides a disturbing reflection to the tragedy captured by the camera.
Throughout the film, the camera moves in slow, graceful tracking shots through the ruins of the still-standing camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek. Using a lush color cinematography, Resnais captures glimpses of distant meadows through the rusted wire fences, the waves of wild grass growing along the train tracks that transported the Nazis’ prisoners to their doom, and the empty barracks where countless millions died and millions more barely survived starvation and torture.
The film cuts away from these images to the grainy newsreel footage and harsh black-and-white still photographs of the earlier decade, when the camps operated at their full capacity. Cayrol’s narration, spoken with careful eloquence by Michel Bouquet, recalls the subcultures within the camps: the Nazi hierarchy, their kapo stooges, and the cliques within the prisoner populations.
“These are all we have left to imagine a night of piercing cries, of checking for lice, of chattering teeth,” the narration tell us as we view the prison barracks. When the film moves to the site of the camps’ medical centers, we are told of “pointless operations, amputations, experimental mutilations.” Chilling footage shows the survivors of these medical abominations. “A few of these guinea pigs survived,” the narration continues. “Castrated, burned with phosphorous – for some, their flesh will be marked for life.”
The film also goes into the gas chambers. “Nothing distinguished the gas chamber from an ordinary block,” we are told, as the camera pans to the concrete ceiling of the death rooms – and discovered scratches made in the concrete by the terrified prisoners clawing for life as they were systematically gassed to death. The film cuts back to the liberation of the camps, when Allied soldiers found baskets of severed heads, warehouses of human hair and eyeglasses, and mountains of emaciated corpses that needed to be buried with bulldozers and mass graves.
Curiously, “Night and Fog” does not detail the specific prisoner demographics of the camps. While several photographs and clips of newsreel footage clearly show an assault on Europe’s Jews, the film prefers to depict the Holocaust as an attack on a wider population that opposed Nazism. And according to film scholar Anne-Marie Baron, Resnais also used footage from the 1947 Polish narrative feature film “The Last Stage” as part of the newsreel footage without properly identifying it as a work of fiction.
“Night and Fog” also scratched the very touchy subject of French collaboration with the Nazis. A photograph of a French police officer guarding a Vichy detention-deportation center raised the ire of French censors, who threatened to make deep cuts into the film. Resnais compromised by obscuring the uniform details of the police officer, thus making it unclear where the photograph was taken. Later versions restored the original photograph.
“Night and Fog” created a controversy at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. It was initially slated for presentation, but was withdrawn following a complaint by West Germany’s embassy in Paris. The withdrawal created a major press storm and the film was restored to festival, albeit in an out-of-competition screening. Ironically, it played at the Berlin Film Festival without any incident.
For many years, “Night and Fog” was a staple of public domain home entertainment labels – even though the film is clearly not a public domain title (Argos Films retained the copyright). The Criterion Collection released a fully restored version in 2003, but cheapo labels are still offering public domain dupes. The restored version, plus older non-restored versions, can be seen in their entirety on several online video sites.
Francois Truffaut would hail “Night and Fog” as “the greatest film ever made,” and the strong reaction to the film would encourage other directors to begin considering the once-taboo subject of the Holocaust-themed films. Thanks to this film, the horrors of World War II will never be ignored by future generations.
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