Alain Resnais: Night and Fog

I don’t have a lot to say about Resnais’s 1955 Holocaust documentary, but 50 years later, these are the things–next to the horror–that stood out to me.

Jews are mentioned exactly once during the thirty minutes of the film. Writer Jean Cayrol, the author of the voiceover narration, gives three examples of people being deported to the camps, one named by occupation, one by nationality, and one by religion. Jews are not mentioned when Cayrol describes the “arbitrary hierarchy” of the camps;he only names resistance members and foreigners. Cayrol was himself a resistance member who was brought to the camps; I know little else about him. The yellow triangles, however, are much more prominent in the images than any of the other indicia.

I don’t have the background to know the particular reasons for this: this was 1955, before, as Peter Novick observed, the Holocaust had come to be defined as it is commonly thought of today. But I find James Leahy’s explanation unconvincing at best:

Like Robin Wood, Roger Michael rejects the generality of the film’s message:

If Night and Fog can work in French Resistance fighters and Spanish Republicans unjustly deported from France and cruelly murdered at Mauthausen, why can it not identify the special and prime targets of the Nazis–the Jews, who died their deaths not in the hundreds or in the thousands, but in the millions?

Knowledge and memory change with time (coincidentally, this is one of Resnais’ thematic concerns, here and elsewhere). When the film was made, a decade after the end of the war and the discovery of the camps, nobody needed to be reminded who had been “the special and prime targets of the Nazis,” even if, perhaps guiltily, officialdom was reluctant to talk about all that had happened.

I think not; people’s memories can be very, very short. This is not to find Resnais and the other historic figures who worked on the film–Chris Marker, Sacha Vierny, Hanns Eisler–complicit, but there is an untold story here that nagged at me.

One story that is told is that the French authorities censored one bit of the film:

Night and Fog, cited by Roberto Rossellini as the most important film of the post-war years, ran into trouble with the French censors. They forced us to mask the cap of a French policeman who was supervising the deportation of the Jews who had been herded into the Vel-d’Hiv’. The cap–the unmistakable characteristic of the French police–was proof of institutional collaboration in the Holocaust.

And it’s not hard for me to imagine that Marcel Ophuls heard this story and that it only added fuel to the fire when he was making The Sorrow and the Pity.

Leave a Reply