- “Night and Fog”: A Film in History by Sylvie Lindeperg
Sylvie Lindeperg occupies the Chair in Film History at the University of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne) and has written several authoritative studies of early films about the Holocaust. Her most important is the wide-ranging, impressively detailed study of Alain Resnais’ brilliant documentary, Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), which she published in French in 2007. Now available in English, it is a most welcome—indeed, a pathbreaking—addition to the literature about the cinematic representation of the Shoah. My characterization of the film in this way may puzzle some scholars of Holocaust cinema. Although widely acknowledged as a brilliant artistic triumph, Resnais’ thirty-two minute film, made over the course of nine months in 1955, aimed to portray the Nazi concentration camp system as experienced primarily by political deportees. Its archival footage, and above all its voice-over narration written by poet and former deportee Jean Cayrol, only obliquely addressed the mass murder of European Jews. As many earlier commentators have noted, the word “Jew” is mentioned only once, although in fairness images of Jews bearing the Judenstern on their clothing are included in the film’s complex montage structure. Night and Fog thus possesses a rather controversial status in the canon of Holocaust cinema, and a thoroughgoing reassessment has been needed. Lindeperg has delivered one. She exhaustively explored many archival sources, and combed existing studies by Richard Raskin and other scholars, in several languages. Her book provides a much more comprehensive understanding of how this major work of film art came into being and why its engagement with the Judeocide was so cautious, and at times confusing—indeed, conflicted.
The film’s origins lie in a photo exhibition mounted in Paris to mark the tenth anniversary, in late 1954 and early 1955, of the concentration camps’ liberation. Sponsored by two prominent French groups—the Comité d’histoire de la Deuxième [End Page 507] Guerre Mondiale and Le Réseau du Souvenir, a prominent association of former deportees—the show was the brainchild of historians Olga Wormser and Henri Michel. Their exhibition’s success encouraged them to imagine a film as a “portable memorial” that could reach larger audiences. With the help of Anatole Dauman, himself a decorated member of the Resistance and the founder of the vanguard documentary production company Argos Films, they engaged the promising young director Alain Resnais to make the film based on Michel and Wormser’s script.
A decade after the liberation, the images, both still and moving, had largely disappeared from the public arena. Over the course of 1955, therefore, Resnais, aided by Wormser, scoured archives in England, the Netherlands, France, and Poland for crucial visual materials. He also filmed at Auschwitz and Majdanek in color, both to convey precisely how the camps functioned and to provoke reflections on the unstable boundaries between past and present, memory and history. Cayrol’s moving narration and the fascinating score by Hanns Eisler, the German-Jewish composer of Communist East Germany’s official anthem, infused the whole with destabilizing emotional and ironic contrasts.
Controversy surrounded the film almost from its inception. French military authorities denied the filmmakers access to their film archives for reasons they did not sufficiently explain. Once the film was completed in December 1955, moreover, French censors demanded several cuts, above all, the deletion of a photograph of a policeman in a képi (French military cap) as he guarded the internment camp at Beaune-la-Rolande. Evidently, although some ministries of the French government had supported the work’s creation, it was too early to include an indictment—however mild—of French collaboration with the Germans in administering camps on French soil. Resnais was forced to obscure this image. Additional controversy swirled when the West German government protested the film’s nomination as an official French entry at the Cannes Film Festival in spring 1956. Even though West Germany ultimately ordered hundreds of copies for use in schools, and the film was eventually shown...