FILM 101: NUIT ET BROUILLARD (NIGHT AND FOG) (1955)

I’m not in the business of giving a score and doing the full ranking for every short film I see. I guess I have to draw the line somewhere. But when I see a landmark short and have the desire to talk about it a little bit, I see a perfect opportunity to drag out the old FILM 101 series as an excuse. I’ve done this once before for A TRIP TO THE MOON, and am bringing it back around for Alain Resnais’ powerfully brutal short documentary about concentration camps, Nuit et brouillard, which translates as NIGHT AND FOG.

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Nuit et brouilaard – NIGHT AND FOG – 1955

From all accounts, director Alain Resnais was very reluctant to get into a project involving the Holocaust just a decade removed from so many terrible and tragic deaths. That he did is important, because he left us with a vital short documentary which takes a look at concentration camps. He uses WWII footage, much of it from the Allies who liberated the camps and combines it with his own contemporaneous color filming which takes in the camps a decade removed from the events.

The first twenty minutes of this film are tough, but are more didactic history lesson than grotesque expose. The last third of the film, however, is brutal to sit through. It is important, no doubt, top see the actual footage of what was done to both the living and the dead occupants of the concentration camps; but that makes it no less brutal to endure (and brutal enough that I wouldn’t dare post some of those images out of context on this site). A less gentle filmmaker could have been accused of exploitation of the dead. Resnais’ pacing, care, and frankness leave no room for such an accusation. He is merely documenting the facts in a way which will be unforgettable to the viewer. Some of these images are grotesque in and of themselves, others are grotesque in a symbolic way, such as this shot of the mountains of shoes pulled form those about to be killed:

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Or of this simple image of a log kept to indicate how many workers were killed in a specific mine on each day:

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Famed Director Francois Truffaut was effusive in his praise of NIGHT AND FOG. At different times he said the movie was the greatest ever made and that it “makes every other film look trivial.” While Truffaut is certainly being more than kind to his fellow Frenchmen, there is no reason to doubt his passion for the movie.

The title NIGHT AND FOG is derived from the words of WWII arch-villain Heinrich Himmler who coined the phrase to describe the German practice of ensuring that all prisoners from other countries (at least those not instantly executed) would just disappear into the fog of night never to be heard from again. It is a chilling reminder of just how morally bankrupt the hierarchy of the Nazi party truly was. Interestingly, Resnais was also making the film as a shot across the bow of the Frnech army for its involvement in the then-current Algerian War.

More than the footage, this is a film dated by its score. The orchestral sounds are sometimes jarring to a modern audience, almost too optimistic in the presence of such powerfully negative images. While not enough to creative a negative impression, it would be interesting to see how a modern composer might score this film.

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Interestingly, the film was originally barred from its planned exhibition at the Cannes Film Festival. The West German contingent complained about the film and it was unceremoniously dumped. After a protest and threatened walk-0ut by all eighteen members of the competition committee, the film was allowed back in as a non-competitive entry. It was amazingly well received, a point which has been diminished over the years as it still stands as an 8.6 on iMDB and with scores of 100% and 95% of critics and audience, respectively, on Rotten Tomatoes.

NIGHT AND FOG is a film whose impact does not diminish with age. After nearly 60 years it still stands tall as a necessary documentary which demands attention. It is not an easy short film to watch, but it is one very much worth seeing.

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~ by johnlink00 on June 7, 2014.

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