Night and Fog, viewed in tandem with Triumph of the Will gives the viewer counter views of the same story. Night and Fog debuted in 1955; ten years after the Nazi’s were defeated. Triumph of the Will debuted in 1935 as an ushering in of the Nazi movement. Triumph of the Will was a propaganda piece, it showed on a huge scale, the might of the German Nazi regime. Night and Fog was an inquisitive piece that asked the audience to view the facts and introspectively, to ask one’s self, who did this? Why did this happen? How can it be prevented from happening again? Each film had its own beauty and mastery of composition, but each was a uniquely a different piece. The aesthetic of Triumph of the Will was the long shots showing the legions of followers, close ups of the happy German faces, the athleticism and virility of the military, and the exuberance of the teenaged Hitler Youth. Night and Fog’s pulchritude was in the edit, the dichotomy of things. The truth presented without telling the voyeur how to feel.
The opening shot is peaceful and serene. The camera begins to tilt down and we see the barbed wire. We cut to an open meadow, green lush grass, birds flying, then the camera pulls back to reveal the remains of a Nazi concentration camp. Next, the auteur cuts in beautiful footage from Triumph of the Will. This sets the tone for the rest of the film. Triumph’s footage shows the blind devotion of German troops and sets it against the quiet death of their victims. Throughout the color sequences, the panning and tracking shots walk us through the camp as a visitor and voyeurs. We only become aware of the reality of this place through the inter-cut footage taken by the German tormentors and murderers. Through the telling of this story, we become witnesses to the horror and reality of humankind at its worst. In reading about Alain Resnais, he was first and foremost an editor; it is evident in the juxtapositions in the film.
As we view the ugliness, the melodic flutes of the music seem cheerful. The film is replete with contrasts. There is Color vs Black and White. The scenes of the concentration camp after and before the barbarism. The music of Hanns Eisler evokes the opposite feelings to the visuals we see. The theme as the past, present and future are all one in the same. The film is not a trivialized, sentimental pulling of one’s heartstrings, it didn’t give the victims a voice, what it did do, was make the audience think. It tells us words are insufficient, no description can reveal the actual truth. The film took the words of poet and survivor Jean Cayrol, and lent them to the monotone voice of Michel Bouquet to guide us through the reality of life inside the camp, but does this without manipulating our view. We hear the facts and see the visuals. We learn of mutilations of the infirmed in hospitals, the use of human beings as products for soap, fertilizer, cloth woven from hair, and lampshades made from the skin of the dead.
In the film the voice over tells us “we regard these ruins as if the old monster lay crushed forever beneath the rubble ….we pretend it only happened once , at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.” History will always repeat itself if we don’t make different choices. In my supplementary reading for insight on this film, I stumbled across a quote in an article by Chris Elliot. The article was entitled Looking Through a Glass Darkly; the quote goes like this… “It was a period of near-apocalyptic insanity, in which the basest metaphysical prejudice (with all the ancillary rhetoric of racial purity and divine right which came with it) combined with the mechanical and logistical means to achieve extraordinary brutal ends” this summarizes not only the Holocaust in Germany; it summarizes genocide throughout the history of humankind. At the end of Night and Fog, we are asked, “Who is responsible?” Who indeed.