Night and Fog (1955 film)

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Night and Fog
Directed by Alain Resnais
Produced by Anatole Dauman
Written by Jean Cayrol
Narrated by Michel Bouquet
Music by Hanns Eisler
Cinematography Ghislain Cloquet
Sacha Vierny
Edited by Jasmine Chasney
Henri Colpi
Distributed by Argos Films
Release date(s)
  • 1955 (1955)
Running time 32 minutes
Country France
Language French

Night and Fog (French: Nuit et brouillard) is a 1955 French documentary short film. Directed by Alain Resnais, it was made ten years after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. The documentary features the abandoned grounds of Auschwitz and Majdanek while describing the lives of prisoners in the camps. Night and Fog was made in collaboration with scriptwriter Jean Cayrol, a survivor of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. The music of the soundtrack was composed by Hanns Eisler.

Resnais was originally hesitant about making the film and refused the offer to make it until Cayrol was contracted to write the script. The film was shot entirely in the year 1955 and is composed of contemporary shots of the camps and stock footage. Resnais and Cayrol found the film very difficult to make due to its graphic nature and subject matter. The film faced difficulties with French censors unhappy with a shot of a French police officer in the film, and with the German embassy in France, which attempted to halt the film's release at the Cannes Film Festival. Night and Fog was released to very positive acclaim and still receives very high praise today. It was then re-shown in 1990, to remind the people of the 'horrors of war'.

Synopsis[edit]

Night and Fog is a documentary that alternates between past and present and features both black and white and color footage. The first part of Night and Fog shows remnants of Auschwitz while the narrator Michel Bouquet describes the rise of Nazi ideology. The film continues with comparisons of the life of the Schutzstaffel to the starving prisoners in the camps. Bouquet then addresses the sadism inflicted upon the doomed inmates, including torture, scientific and medical 'experiments', executions, and prostitution. The next subject is shown completely in black and white and depicts images of gas chambers and piles of bodies. The final topic of the film depicts the liberation of the country, the discovery of the horror of the camps, and the questioning of who was responsible for them.

Production[edit]

Development[edit]

In 1954 the French publishing group Hachette released a book about eyewitness reports of deportation of the Jews.[1] In November 1954, an exhibition of themes from the book was shown at Institut Pédagogique National in Paris.[1] The historians Henri Michel and Olga Wormser proposed making a film in the context of their joint work in organizing this official exhibition to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the liberation of France.[2] The first public notice of their project was given during a radio broadcast on November 10, 1954, the opening day of the exhibition.[3][page needed]

Film producers Anatole Dauman, Samy Halfton and Philippe Lifchitz were invited to this exhibit and felt that a film should be made on the subject.[1] Anatole Dauman, originally from Warsaw, undertook the production for Argos Films and arranged for co-financing by Films Polski, the Polish state production company.[3][page needed] Dauman approached filmmaker Alain Resnais who had experience with documentary films since 1948.[4] Resnais turned down the offer for over a week, feeling that only someone with first hand experience of concentration camps should attempt the subject matter. [5] Resnais eventually agreed providing that poet and novelist Jean Cayrol, who had been a concentration camp prisoner would collaborate on the project.[4] Resnais officially signed his contract for the film on May 24, 1955.[6] Cayrol had written in 1946 about his experience as a survivor of Mauthausen in Poèmes de la nuit et brouillard, which gave the documentary its title. For Resnais, the film was meant to showcase a warning that the horrors of Nazism may be repeated during the Algerian War where torture and internment were already under way.[7]

The film was commissioned by two organizations: the Comité d'histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, a government commission assigned the tasks of assembling documentary material on, and of launching historical inquiries and studies of, the period of the French occupation from 1940 to 1945. The other commissioner was the Réseau du souvenir, an association devoted to the memory of those deported to camps. A pre-production meeting was held on May 28, 1955, during the course of which it was decided "to explain clearly how the concentration-camp system (its economic aspect) flowed automatically from fascism". The film's working title, Resistance and Deportation, was also changed to the French translation of the German term Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog), which described handling of World War II prisoners according to a decree promulgated by Himmler on December 7, 1941. This provided that those resisting the Reich, arrested in their own countries, but not promptly executed, would be deported to camps in such a way that they would vanish without a trace, "into the night and fog". The title takes on yet another level of meaning a quarter of the way through the film, when Hanns Eisler's chilling score that has accompanied images of deportation is disrupted, as the train arrives at Auschwitz. The narrator observes that during the train ride "death makes its first choice" and "a second is made upon arrival in the night and fog." The visuals cut to a shot of trains arriving in night and fog, which has become a metaphor for the mystery of their situation.[8][page needed]

Filming and scoring[edit]

The film draws on several sources, including black-and-white still images from various archives, excerpts from older black-and-white films from French, Soviet, and Polish newsreels, footage shot by detainees of the Westerbork internment camp in the Netherlands, or by the Allies' "clean-up" operations and new colour and black-and-white footage filmed at concentration camps in 1955.[8][page needed] He filmed his colour sequences in Eastmancolor rather than Agfacolor. Resnais uses the colour footage to contrast the desolate tranquility of several concentration camps—Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek, Struthof, and Mathausen—with the horrific events that occurred there during World War II, to muse on the diffusion of guilt, and to pose the question of responsibility.[8][page needed] The film also deals briefly with the prisoners' conditions, and shows disturbing footage of prisoners and dead victims in the camps. While Night and Fog states that the Nazis made soap from the corpses, giving the possible impression that this was done regularly, this claim is nowadays considered as untrue, with the exception of possible isolated cases. Researching the film was difficult for Resnais who would have nightmares from filming and found himself waking up screaming in the night.[9] These nightmares passed as Resnais began filming in Auschwitz.[9]

From the September 29 to October 4, 1955, Resnais and his crew filmed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.[6] From there, scenes were shot at Majdanek from October 7 to the 10th.[6] For the archival material, Resnais had to use black and white footage and did not receive any from English, German or French military sources.[6] Some of the stock footage in the film is from Michel and Wormser's exhibit.[10] Other stock footage is from the Rijksinstituut voor Oorlogsdokumentatie from the Netherlands, and from French television, Gaumont, and the association of former deportees.[10] Cayrol was aided by mutual friend and film maker Chris Marker while writing the commentary that was spoken by actor Michel Bouquet.[1] After viewing the images in the editing room, Cayrol became sick to his stomach and was unable to write further.[11] Marker's contribution was to adapt the written text to the rhythm of the images in the film.[12] While editing the film, Resnais felt a feeling of general discomfort, stating that he "had scruples, knowing that making the film more beautiful would make it more moving - it upset me".[13]

Composer Hanns Eisler was invited to compose the music to Night and Fog by Argos Films on October 18, 1955 offering Eisler 200,000 francs and help in obtaining a visa to enter France.[14] Eisler agreed to do it by telegram on October 25.[14] The overture in the score had been written before Eisler was offered work on the film. It had originally been written for Bertold Brecht's play Winterschlacht. Eisler's inspiration for this piece was Horatio's monologue from Hamlet which Eisler had read in Karl Kraus' Weltgericht.[15]

Post-production and censorship[edit]

A still from Night and Fog, showing a French police officer, identifiable by his kepi, guarding the Pithiviers deportation camp. This shot was censored in some versions of the film.
Censored version of the image

After the film was complete, producer Dauman told Resnais that he was "delighted to have produced the film", but that he guaranteed that "It will never see a theatrical release".[5] In December 1955, French censors wanted some scenes cut from Night and Fog.[6] The end of the film shows scenes of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves. These were considered too violent to be allowed in the film. Another point of contention was that Resnais had included photographs of French officers guarding a detention center, operated by the Vichy government and located in central France, where Jews were gathered before Deportation. This scene prompted a call demanding that the shot be cut because it "might be offensive in the eyes of the present-day military".[16] Resnais resisted this censorship, insisting that images of collaboration were important for the public to see.[16] When Resnais refused to cut the scene with the officer, the censors pressured that they would cut off the last ten minutes of his film.[5] Finally, to compromise, Resnais stated that obscuring the scene wouldn't change the meaning of the film to him, and he painted a beam that obscured the képi the officer was wearing.[5] In exchange, Resnais would be allowed to show the bodies at the end of the film, which was restored to its original form for a 2003 DVD release.[8] The second act of censorship in the film was a huge scandal with the German embassy in France asking for the film to be withdrawn from the Cannes Film Festival.[17] The French press reacted against the proposed withdrawal, noting that Cayrol and Resnais were very cautious in defining the difference between the Nazi criminals and the German people.[17] Articles were written in French magazines including Libération and L'Humanité, protesting any censorship of the film at Cannes.[17] One of the few writers who supported the withdrawal, Jean Dutourd, felt that Auschwitz and other concentration camps should be forgotten.[17]

Release[edit]

A local association of deported prisoners insisted the film be shown at Cannes, threatening to occupy the screening room in their camp uniforms unless the festival showed the film.[13] On 26 April 1956 the film was announced to be shown out of competition at Cannes.[18] Night and Fog was shown in commercial theaters in Paris, in May 1956.[19] The film was awarded the Jean Vigo Prize, a French award for young filmmakers.[18]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received very high acclaim in France on its initial release. Jacques Doniol-Valcroze wrote in Cahiers du Cinéma that the film was a powerful work comparable to work of artists Francisco Goya and Franz Kafka.[20] French film critic and director François Truffaut referred to Night and Fog as the greatest film ever made.[21]

Modern reception has also been positive. The film ranking website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 100% of critics had given the film positive reviews, based upon a sample of 14.[22]

Ironically, as Nitzan Lebovic pointed out, the film was not received as well in Israel; Resnais's universalist approach drew some criticism that reached the Israeli Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), immediately after its arrival, in 1956. A political debate opened around the film, dividing supporters and opponents between religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sepharadi, right wing and left wing, or–as Lebovic showed–between center and radicals from both ends of the political map. A centrist demand to ban the film resulted with a small and a limited release until the end of the 1970s.[23]

In a 2014 Sight and Sound poll, film critics voted Night and Fog the fourth best documentary film of all time.[24]

Home media[edit]

Night and Fog was shown on French television as early as April 26, 1959.[19] On May 10, 1990 a Jewish cemetery at Carpentras was desecrated and the body of a freshly buried man, Felix Germont, impaled on a stake.[25][26] Response was strong to this act, including having Night and Fog broadcast on all three of the French national television channels at the same time.[26] The film has been shown as a teaching tool in schools in France since 1991.[26][27][28]

Alan Pakula studied Night and Fog when he was writing the film adaptation of Sophie’s Choice, William Styron's novel about a Polish-Catholic survivor of Auschwitz.[29]

A DVD of Night and Fog was released by The Criterion Collection on June 23, 2003.[30] It restores the scene of the French officer that was censored in France on the film's initial release.[6]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Night and Fog (Booklet essay "Origins and Controversy"). Alain Resnais. New York, United States: The Criterion Collection. 2003 [1955]. 197. 
  2. ^ Hirsch 2004, pg. 30
  3. ^ a b Sylvie Lindeperg, 'Nuit et brouillard' un film dans l'histoire Odile Jacob, 2007. ISBN 978-2-7381-1864-4.
  4. ^ a b Barsam 1992, pg. 262
  5. ^ a b c d Night and Fog (Audio interview with Resnais from 1994). New York, New York: The Criterion Collection. 2003 [1955]. ISBN 0-7800-2694-2. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Knaap 2006, pg. 8
  7. ^ Rashkin 2008, pg. 83
  8. ^ a b c d Sylvie Lindeperg, 'Nuit et brouillard' un film dans l'histoire Odile Jacob, 2007. ISBN 978-2-7381-1864-4.
  9. ^ a b Wilson 2006, pg. 25
  10. ^ a b Haggith 2005, pg. 130
  11. ^ Knaap 2006, pg. 14
  12. ^ Knaap 2006, pg. 15
  13. ^ a b Dupont, Joan (7 September 2006). "Resnais, at 84, still doing it his own way - Arts & Leisure - International Herald Tribune". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2009. 
  14. ^ a b Knaap 2006, pg. 22
  15. ^ Knaap 2006, pg. 24
  16. ^ a b Emma Wilson, Alain Resnais, French film directors (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p25
  17. ^ a b c d Knaap 2006, pg. 39
  18. ^ a b Knaap 2006, pg. 40
  19. ^ a b Knaap 2006, pg. 36
  20. ^ Knaap 2006, pg. 43
  21. ^ Night and Fog (Booklet introduction). Alain Resnais. New York, United States: The Criterion Collection. 2003 [1955]. 197. 
  22. ^ "Night and Fog - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. IGN Entertainment, Inc. Retrieved 20 July 2009. 
  23. ^ Nitzan Lebovic, "An Absence with Traces: The Reception of Nuit et Brouillard in Israel," in Knaap, pp. 86- 105.
  24. ^ "Silent film tops documentary poll". BBC News. Retrieved 1 August 2014. 
  25. ^ Smadja, Gilles (17 March 1997). "Le procès de quatre profanateurs néo-nazis après six ans de fausses pistes". L'Humanité (in French). Retrieved 20 July 2009. [dead link]
  26. ^ a b c Knaap 2006, pg. 35
  27. ^ Knaap 2006, pg. 42
  28. ^ Knaap 2006, pg. 44
  29. ^ Insdorf, Annette (2003). Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 36.  additional text.
  30. ^ Fordham, Trent. "Night and Fog (Criterion Collection) > Overview". Allmovie. Retrieved 20 July 2009. 

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Richard Raskin, Alain Resnais's Nuit et Brouillard: On the Making, Reception and Functions of a Major Documentary Film, Including a New Interview with Alain Resnais and the Original Shooting Script Foreword by Sascha Vierny." Aarhus University Press, 1987. ISBN 87-7288-100-3.
  • Andrew Hebard, "Disruptive Histories: Toward a Radical Politics of Remembrance in Alain Resnais's Night and Fog" New German Critique, No. 71, Memories of Germany (Spring - Summer, 1997), pp. 87–113. (JSTOR)
  • Christian Delage et Vincent Guigueno, Les contraintes d'une expérience collective : Nuit et Brouillard, L'Historien et le film, Paris, Gallimard, 2004, p. 59-78.
  • Sylvie Lindeperg, 'Nuit et brouillard' un film dans l'histoire Odile Jacob, 2007. ISBN 978-2-7381-1864-4.
  • Nitzan Lebovic, "An Absence with Traces: The Reception of Nuit et Brouillard in Israel," in Ewout van der Knaap, Uncovering the Holocaust: The International Reception of Night and Fog. Wallflower Press, 2006, pp. 86– 105.

External links[edit]