Sunday 13 December 2015

Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) (1955)

Nat og tåge
It is well known that the Second World War is a very frequent theme in the List and that there are quite a few Holocaust movies among them. They are not the ones I am looking forward to. Movies and documentaries on the Holocaust are invariably hard to watch and always leaves me drained. That is not to say that they should not be there, on the contrary they are terribly important, but I am not enjoying them.

Alain Resnais “Nuit et brouillard” is no exception. This was one of the first if not the first documentary on the Holocaust, made ten years after the end of the war. It is not really a documentary per se, but impressions, questions and glimpses of a reality so horrible that we cannot fully grasp it. There is no explanation on Holocaust, no numbers (or only vague hints at them) or chronology. Just a lot of images from the camps and the trains taking people to them, cross-clipped with 55 footage of the deserted, ruined remains of these places of utmost evil. It is as if Resnais himself is in shock and not himself sure where to start and where to finish, but burning with a need to show all the ugliness that was the KZ and extermination camps.

Thus bombarded I feel overwhelmed and horrified. Luckily it is only 30 minutes long, but that half hour is densely packed. Yet “Nuit et brouillard” suffer from a very common problem. The sheer scale of the nightmare is so staggering that we do not fully grasp it and so it keeps us at a distance, like watching a machine of cold components. Now and then there is a face so common and real, but placed on a half dead woman slung over the shoulder of a fellow inmate, or a row of children walking to their death that suddenly the nightmare hits us. Modern retellings of the Holocaust has correctly discerned that we cannot cope with the scale and instead tell the personal stories of the individuals, creating real people and not just cadavers in rags and that brings the story home.

My wife is Jewish and we went a decade ago to visit Theresienstadt where her great-grandparents perished. This is by no means the worst of the places, in fact it was used in Nazi propaganda as a showcase camp, but that does not alleviate the horrors I saw there. The bunks they slept in, the shoes left by dead children or their drawings now on display at the holocaust museum in Prague. My five year old son would have been the target of holocaust had we lived back then. This is what I think of when I watch a movie like “Nuit et brouillard”.

There is as I mentioned no attempt at explanation in this movie, only incredulity and questions. Who is to blame? Everybody washes their hands and remove themselves and that makes Resnais angry. His is a tone of vengeance and justice. A monstrous crime has been committed, who are the guilty? And are we done prosecuting them? But most of all his clear intent is to make sure we do not forget. The ruins today (in 55) are already decaying as if time will erase the crimes committed and he seems affronted with this wish to forget and forces our eyes open.

The question “why” is hardly touched upon. Why these people? Why must they die? And how can a nation state and the people in it commit atrocities on such an industrial scale? Resnais is not this far in his contemplation, that is for later generations, but these are the questions I ask when I watch this and they are just as hard to handle as the scale.

Alain Resnais “Nuit et brouillard” is not the final treatise on the Holocaust, it is not even terribly informative, but it is a very important early attempt at bringing into the public conscience the nightmare that the Holocaust was and it is very successful at that.

Yet I do not want to watch this one again, it is the stuff of nightmares, though I know there will be several more movies covering this ground coming up for me.


  1. I also was glad this was only 30 minutes. Shoah is very long, but it does a good job of addressing this situation.

    1. This was a movie where I constantly wanted to look away, where I felt every minute tick by and where I was grateful for the short running time. True horror.
      I have not seen Shoah, but I believe it is much later.