Teaching Night and Fog: History and Historiography
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 15, Number 1, February 1985
- pp. 1-11
- Additional Information
Teaching Night and Fog: History and Historiography Charles Krantz Charles Krantz teaches histoiy at New Jersey Institute ofTechnology. His work on Night and Fos grew out ofa projectfor the development ofcurriculum materials funded by the New Jersey Department ofHigher Education. At a high school in Brooklyn, a teacher of literature assigns Ehe Wiesel s Night, and screens Night and Fog afterwards in order to make the nightmare "come alive. (I)A professor at a Community College employs the film as a platform from which to launch discussions ofguilt and survival. (2) A history professor shows it to his students when he fears that the enormity of the Holocaust overwhelms his capacity to form words, to "say the unsayable." Annette Insdorfin her useful study offilm and the Holocaust tells how as a graduate student at Yale she first understood what her parents had endured in Auschwitz and Belsen when she saw Night and Fog. "It occurred to me that if I, the only child of Holocaust survivors, needed a film to frame the horror and thus give it meaning, what about others? How great a role are films playing in determining contemporary awareness of the Final Solution?" (3) The idea for Alan Resnais film about the nightmare ofthe concentration camps was suggested by the Comité d Histoire de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, a group of professional historians based in Paris who specialized in the study ofWorld War II. The title comes from the Nacht und Nebel Erlass, the "Night and Fog Decree" of December 1 941 promulgated by the German armed forces to root out the burgeoning resistance in the occupied territories ofWestern Europe. (4) So called because the suspects were to be arrested in the middle of the night and whisked away in "night and fog," these prisoners—always very few in number—joined millions of others deported to the Nazi camps. Contrasting archival black-and-white footage and still photographs with color footage taken in 1955 at the time ofproduction, the film follows a loose chronological framework, starting with the rise of the Nazis, progressing through the war to the final scenes of allied liberation ofthe camps in 1945. Hanns Eisler s musical score to Night and Fog contributes significantly to the emotional impact ofmany ofits images, while also adding to certain ofthe film s ironies. Yet the music does not overwhelm. It avoids maudlin airs and melodramatic effects. Like the tone of the narration itself, the music is gentle and encourages the viewer to thoughtfully consider the film s shocking images. The film begins in 1933 as the totalitarian machine gets underway. Camps are built like any other construction projects, but to them stream Europeans ofall nationalities, deported in sealed freight trains. We are given a glimpse ofa deportee inside a box car, helping to bolt its gate shut—sometimes the victim is also an executioner—hurrying people, trains steaming on arrival after a torturous journey. We are introduced to the camps: "It is another planet." The film documents aspects ofthe camp experience in searing vignettes. Bureaucratic domination, emotionless and calculated in its efficiency, begins with numbering, letttering, tattooing, bookkeeping. Next, the hierarchy ofpower is established—from the skeletal, unclothed ciphers, through the Kapos, privileged auxiliaries, their SS bosses, to the presiding Commandant. Dehumanization is the objective: cramped like lice, overworked, mocked 1 by slogans proclaiming cleanliness while the camp routine insures filth, the prisoners come to learn that the camps are a new kind of universe, one with "normal" institutions serving perverse ends: orchestras, zoos, hospital wards, even brothels. The Commandant lives a life of sweet domesticity while he supervises the erection of crematoriums and gas chambers. At Buchenwald, the camp is built around a cultural landmark, Goethe s oak tree. Goethe is the embodiment ofthe German Enlightenment. The ironies are inescapable. As the war spreads, the pace ofkilling is accelerated. The normal corporate criteria ofprofit and productivity are enforced relentlessly. Bones, human hair, body fat, nothing is to be "wasted." When the horror is over, the question ofresponsibility is evaded by its perpetrators. But as the film ends, the narrators warns that the virus ofhate is not dead. "Who among us is on the looking tower...