Night and Fog

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(1956, directed by Alain Resnais)

- inducted 2018 –

“Along with the late Claude Lanzmann’s monumental nine-hour 1985 documentary Shoah, Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog has emerged as the preeminent non-fiction film on the Holocaust. A documentary short from 1956, running little over half an hour, it evokes monumentalism in a completely different and supremely harrowing way. Resnais, who became one of the finest filmmakers on the subject of memory and experience, worked in conjunction with a number of key collaborators: Jean Cayrol, who wrote the script and survived Mauthausen-Gusen; Hanns Eisler, who composed the haunting, unnervingly vivid score; and Chris Marker, one of the other masters of memory and who assisted with script editing.

“The result is something that, by its very nature, seems to defy easy categorization. Night and Fog is founded on multiple dialectics, each of which comes with its own baggage that only grows more complex over the course of this short film. The most obvious is the footage: Resnais moves fluidly between contemporary color footage of the camps and archival black-and-white images (both still and motion). The contrast between the two is at first obvious – the stark difference between the verdant ruins of the concentration camps and the overwhelming brutality that was enacted in them when they were still intact is plain to see – but Resnais refuses to augment that sense by simply showing scene after scene of destruction. Some of the shots have a startling beauty – to name just the most obvious example, the first archival shot in the camps, in which a train looms in the frame as SS soldiers stand silhouetted by the fog – and others focus on the minutiae that becomes so important to Resnais’ investigation; a few black-and-white shots even bear an uncanny resemblance to Resnais’ signature shot of a medium-paced track from left-to-right (I was unable to ascertain whether Resnais himself had filmed these at the same time as the color footage).

“To name all of the unbearably moving subtleties of Night and Fog would be too long for the scope of this piece, but the short’s profound power comes from its perfect union of sound and image. Cayrol’s words, as read with impassive urgency by Michel Bouquet, hold within their matter-of-fact veneer such horror and anguish at this degradation and extermination, one that was driven by a systematic, utterly cold complex of systems. Resnais leaves the viewer with many questions, but he unflinchingly conveys the fundamental contradiction in the normalized conceptions of the Holocaust that persist to this day: it was (and is) at once unimaginable and inevitable.”

~ Ryan Swen

Original title: Nuit et Brouillard
Commentary written by: Jean Cayrol
Produced by: Anatole Dauman, Samy Halfon, Philippe Lifchitz
Cinematography by: Ghislain Cloquet, Sacha Vierny
Original music by: Hanns Eisler
Sound by: Jacqueline Chasney, Henri Colpi
Special effects by: Henry Ferrand
Assistant director: Chris Marker
Narrated by: Michel Bouquet (uncredited)
Film editing by: Alain Resnais (uncredited)

Duration: 32 min.
Languages: French
Filmed in black and white and color
Sound mix: Mono
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Produced by Argos Films
Premiered in France in January 1956