It’s almost like a genius act of evil for a man, a cult, a society to have executed a crime so vast and systematic and horrific that it defies encapsulation. It complicates its own discourse. The How and the Why of it, such critical elements of any other historical episode, seem at once irrelevant and crucial and impossible to answer. That the holocaust exists as a corollary to World War II doesn’t lend it any kind of sense. We have the narratives of Adolf Hitler’s ascent, chronicles of the German milieu after World War I, the Nuremberg trials, we’ve read and heard the rhetoric of the killers and the stories of victims, we’ve got texts from Paul Celan and Anne Frank and Victor Frankl and Primo Levi—but what does any of it do to provide context for what you see when you finally actually look, via something like Night and Fog, at the piles of corpses, the hairless naked starving rows of men and women who were once normal citizens, going to movies and falling in love and chatting with he grocer, living normal lives in this country, their country, interacting in courteous comfortable ways every day with the very people who now file them at gunpoint into death camps?
Night and Fog is barely more than a half hour, a documentary compiled from footage within the camps as well as some modern-day photographe of the locations. The voicover from Michel Bouquet is sparse and declarative, leaving the footage to speak mostly for itself.
The piles of victims’ belongings.
The massive collection of rugs made from their hair.
There was an image I replayed several times of a dead woman draped and flopping over the back of another prisoner who’s carrying her. Something about the bonelessness of her. The bouncing limps. The eyes and gaping mouth.
It’s a haunting and profoundly upsetting movie in its own right, both for the horror of its imagery and what my postmodern lit professor would’ve called “rhetorical/intellectual violence,” the fact, in other words, that it forces us to confront the idea that humans are capable of this. The fact that, if humans like us are capable of it, humans like us are also susceptible to it.
Night and Fog is visceral and fascinating in its own right but it’s particularly interesting to see it in contrast to another documentary of roughly the same length that came out a year prior, The Mad Masters, which is also notorious for its violence.
The vilence of Mad Masters, however, is frantic, noisy; there’s an element of shock and spectacle to it.
The violence of Night and Fog is quiet. As grim and declarative as Bouquet’s commentary. The footage is black and white but you canf eel that the sky is gray. Something funereal and matter-of-fact about the whole thing.
Early in the film we’re shown footage of Jews being escorted onto trains that will take them to the camps where almost all of them will be murdered. I had always imagine that such a sight would be blatantly horrific. Guards jabbing people in the sides with gun barrels, shoving them to the ground or through the doorway. Some militarized version of that scene in The Great Train Robbery when the robbers are pulling everybody off the train.
But it’s nothing like that.
Everybody has hair and baggage and their civilian clothes. Nazi guards meander and fumble about like the rest of them, consulting documents, pointing people in the right direction. They look almost helpful. Aloof. Human.
Some commentary provided by the List points out that Night and Fog was released only a decade after the war and that many of the camps survivors would have seen it. I can only imagine what it must have been like.
Night and Fog, like Mad Masters, raises questions about morality and filmmaking that I’m having a hard time approaching, but I suspect subsequent documentaries will give me a clearer idea. Something to do with movies that must be seen, confronted. The ethical trickiness of pointing your camera at something so important and thereby saddling it with the inherent bias of a camera. Questions about how such subjects oughta be handled and the angles that oughta be covered in pursuit of roundedness.