Despite numerous other documentaries on the subject, as a masterwork of craft and technique, Alain Renais’ landmark Night and Fog still evokes the mind-boggling obscenity of the Holocaust with maximum impact. Renais forces us to witness the horror and digest those horrible images which, once seen, never leave one’s mind. While the breadth of Claude Lanzmann’s work is missing from Night and Fog, Renais’ vision in documenting the Holocaust is close to being the first and final word on the subject.
Night and Fog (1955) dir. Alain Renais
By Alan Bacchus
Night and Fog became one of first and most notable films to document the Holocaust on film. Alain Renais, known mostly as a French New-Waver, began as a documentary filmmaker and despite his influence on cinema, Night and Fog might be his most lasting and influential work. While Claude Lanzmann’s landmark Shoah documentary, at 9+ hours, is the most comprehensive and earth-shattering, in its scant 32mins running time Renais just scratches the surface of the tragedy and yet succinctly conveys the hideous contradictions and mind-boggling atrocities of the Nazis.
Renais takes a chronological approach to his narrative, starting with pre-War fascist hysteria, including familiar images from the Nuremberg rallies and other Reifenstahl footage and moves through the war years of 1939 and 1945 and the now familiar chain of events which led to the murder of millions. Renais employs then-famous French actor Michel Boquet to voice writer Jean Cayrol’s written narration with a distinct angered frustration. Of the archive of images and film at filmmaker’s disposal Renais opts for an anecdotal approach as opposed to a conventional ‘story.’ As such contradictions emerge from his astute arrangement of image and sound.
Hanns Eisler’s antithetical and serene score compliments the serenity of the modern colour footage of the vacated death camps rotting away untouched. Obscene details and observations of the genocide are listed off without traditional narrative connection. The painstakingly detailed prisoners logs of the Nazis and the consistent cursive handwriting of the guards who kept the journals drill into our brains the absurdity of their record-keeping process through this endeavor. The now-familiar photographs of the mounds of shoes, eye glasses, hats and even women’s hair stockpiled in a barn convey the scope of death which occurred.
Perhaps most disturbing images occur near the end, and it’s not the graphic horrors of bodies, or the emaciated survivors rescued after the War, but the rolls of cloth made from human hair or paper made from human skin – images presented to us without explanation but effectively represent the incomprehensibility of the tragedy.
Night and Fog is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection