Year of Release: 1955 Directed by Alain Resnais. Narrated by Michel Bouquet.
The following statement is in no way meant to be a slight towards Schindler’s List. I think Spielberg’s epic film is a masterpiece that deserves the acclaim it receives. But Night and Fog, a short French documentary made ten years after the Nazi concentration camps were shut down, achieves the same level of pathos and horror in its mere thirty-minute runtime that Schindler’s List achieves in just over three hours. Again, I am not belittling Schindler’s List; I am trying to emphasize the incredible power of Night and Fog.
The film is comprised of a trip to the remains of the concentration camps in 1955, shortly after they first opened for public viewing. Intercut with the present day color shots of the camp are black and white photos of actual inmates as well as some archived footage of the atrocities. As the viewer sees what the camps looked like during the time of the filming, the film cuts to photos of the same location when the camps were in use.
Adding to the power of Night and Fog, the film does not focus on any specific concentration camp, but uses footage from several and mentions the most infamous ones by name. The narrator draws the viewer’s attention to the barrenness of the current landscape: the patchy fields of grass, crumbling buildings that look like the ruins of a once flourishing city. The film then shows the “cities” at the peak of their functions.
The entire film follows this pattern of shifting between present day and the past with efficacy. As the camera slowly pans along the weed-covered train tracks leading to the camp, the film shifts to footage of a train arriving at a concentration camp, full of prisoners unaware of the upcoming horrors. A shot of the cramped, wooden sleeping barracks, which would be uncomfortable for one person, is followed by pictures of three or more prisoners crowded onto one cot. The narration draws the viewer’s attention to the significance of the crumbling and damaged remains before cutting to the tragic photos and recorded films.
All the images, both past and present, are connected by a haunting score by Hanns Eisler. The music is driven by an uneven percussive beat and often is interrupted before cadences, suggesting the terrible nature of the camps. With its shifting modes and highly textural form, Eisler’s score bears resemblance to Messiaen and Stravinsky, two composers who were affected by the horrors of World War II.
Night and Fog highlights the ignorance and blind following of orders that allowed the atrocities of the concentration camps to occur. The places were built simply as one more workplace and living quarters. Even some of the victims contributed to their construction. When people walk among the ruins now, they often pose for postcard pictures, not realizing what happened behind those walls. Night and Fog shines a light through that darkness. It is one of those rare films that remains as unforgettable as the tragic events it depicts.
Content Advisory: Many gruesome and nude photos of concentration camp victims, explicit references to methods of torture. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A+