the second annual karen sisco award
what i watched last week

#21: night and fog (alain resnais, 1955)

(This is the 30th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

This is probably the most specific example yet of how I’m cheating in my choices. It is hard to imagine anyone calling Night and Fog a “favorite” movie. Truffaut famously said it was the greatest film ever made, which I suppose is the point: this is not my 21st-favorite movie, but rather a movie I consider to be among the greatest ever made. And I’ve stated several times that the closer I get to the top, the farther away I get from more personal/favorite choices (we’re a long way from Near Dark). As I look at the 20 films still to come on my list, I see 19 that are traditionally thought of by some as “classics” and only one that is more of a personal favorite. I can’t help myself; when I hear “favorite” I am inexorably drawn to “best.”

The film was made a mere ten years after the end of the war. The discussion over what the Holocaust “meant” was still in its initial period. Eichmann hadn’t been captured … films that have tried to define the Holocaust, like Schindler’s List or Shoah, were in the distant future. Night and Fog met with some resistance. An old still photograph that showed a French policeman watching a roundup of Jews was not allowed until Resnais changed the photo to obscure the cap which identified the policeman’s nationality. West German officials tried to have the film removed from the Cannes Film Festival. The film’s ultimate greatness overwhelmed the controversies.

Philip Lopate says that Night and Fog is not a documentary, but an essay, and I think he’s half-right … the movie is both. It is stark and it is poetic. Many of the people who worked on the film found it extremely difficult to make. Resnais struggled during the editing process, saying “I had scruples, knowing that making the film more beautiful would make it more moving.” It is one of the film’s many paradoxes, that beauty within the setting of the film would seem problematic.

Night and Fog is about memory, as are many Resnais films. The current-to-1955 camera takes long shots in color of the camps as they looked after the fact, with the overgrown grass and general ordinariness. He uses the aging black-and-white photographs and footage to mark the past from the present, gradually showing how the ordinary became the unthinkable. The narration reminds us that the gap between past and present makes our memories unreliable, even though something like the Holocaust demands that we remember, that we never forget:

And who does know anything? Is it in vain that we in our turn try to remember? What remains of the reality of these camps -- despised by those who made them, incomprehensible to those who suffered here? ... No description, no picture can restore their true dimension: endless, uninterrupted fear.


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