Night and Fog has various meanings behind it. Literally, it refers to the deportees arriving at the concentration camps in the dark of the night and in the thick of the fog – unseen by anybody. Night is often symbolical of the end to something, while fog indicates some kind of obscurity. Basically, Nacht und Nebel was an order given by Hitler during the time of the Second World War. He said that any political enemies to his regime would be caught and deported to camps in such a way that they would vanish into the ‘Night and Fog’. The theme of Night and Fog keeps recurring throughout the documentary. At the end of the film, Resnais shows the audience how everyone is ready to move on, forget the past and end the whole ordeal (‘night’), while it is still unclear who was responsible for it all (‘fog’).
The switches between colour and black and white during the film played an enormous role in conveying not only a time frame, but also a very different emotional relation to the same place but at two different times. The scenes shot in 1955 were made in colour, while the archive footage was filmed in black and white. Also, the shots taken in 1955 were mostly moving or trailing shots, and the elements in the frame remained still; while those shot in black and white were usually shots taken from one position but within the frame was a lot of movement and interaction. The use of colour shots in juxtaposition against the black and white shots brings out a stark contrast. The shots taken in colour in 1955 bring about a sense of peace and calm; similar to the lull after a storm. The lull is so overwhelming that it almost seems emotionless. On the other hand, those visuals in black and white are choc-a-bloc with emotions ranging from sadness to anger to frustration and helplessness.
Music plays a significant role in the film. The film begins with a peaceful observation of a large countryside farmland, shot in colour. As the visuals roll in, there’s the sound of a low timpani roll, which sounds almost like a funeral march. Almost immediately the timpani are followed by a few woodwind instruments, slowly merging into the timpani, in the form of a warning, contributing a sense of foreboding to the audience. Immediately they are made aware that something is not right at that place.
The music gradually begins to supplement the audio and subtitles. Along with “the machine goes into action”, there is also a slow build up in the tempo of the music, and it sounds very much like a machine being started and slowly beginning to run. As the tempo goes up even further, there is more activity being shown in the visuals too. Just as it reaches its peak, it collapses into a new track, which sounds solemn and desolate. At times, the music seems to follow a mood that is contrasting to the mood of the visual. This, in combination with the narrator’s ‘as a matter of fact’ tone creates an interesting combination and setting for the film.
Another interesting aspect of music in the film is how the music seems to mimic sharp cuts in the visuals correspondingly: especially at a few times when the visuals are changing between colour and black and white. At around 7 minutes, 30 seconds in the film, there is an abrupt cut from a shot of the rail track in colour to an exterior shot of a house in black and white. This sharp cut is further emphasized by a pounding chord from the piano followed immediately by piercing trumpets.
The music was designed in such a way that it always gave a sense of waiting throughout the film. It built a certain feel of anticipation and curiosity in the progression of the film. Something brilliant about the music in this film is that it doesn’t overdo the emotions. In a few shots where visuals speak emotions loudly, the music takes a back seat and lets the visuals do the talking.
Yet, at the same time, there are instances where only the music conveys a meaning to the emotion of the scene. For example, at the appearance of Himmler, there were two deep drum hits in a way that announced his arrival, followed by a low, slow and menacing clarinet solo.
The film has a few tinges of dark humour in it. While the humour doesn’t ruin the seriousness of the film, it highlights the irony within the camps. It also exposes the inhumanity involved in the setting up of such camps. This can be observed in the sequence where the camera moves along the corridor of a squatting bathroom. As soon as that sequence finishes, the shot gets cut to a close up of a signboard that says “cleanliness is health”.
Apart from the screenplay, direction and music, the narration is an area that needs to be applauded as well. Michel Bouquet did a fantastic job of keeping his voice expressionless. This turned out to have a greater positive impact on the audience, as the facts were put out straight to the audience for them to understand it themselves. There was no forceful bombardment about what was wrong and what was right. This style of narration distinguishes the film from other narratives and is therefore unique in this manner.
Alain Resnais’ work in the film was extraordinary. Within 30 minutes, he told a story that would otherwise take hours to tell. His use of symbolism within those 30 minutes brought out an implicit meaning which could not have otherwise been so beautifully told. For instance, if one looks at his shots of the Jews at the camp and those of the German officers, most of the shots of the Jews are long shots; he focuses a lot of them into one shot. On the other hand, there are only a few shots where he focuses on more than 3 German officers. By doing so, he’s recreating the same power relationship that a German officer enjoyed at those times. That is, a huge number of Jews are equal to one officer.
Night and Fog relies on a series of montages of repetition. Repetition repeated until the world learns not to repeat itself, its torrid forgotten history is here a torrent of repetition screaming at the top of its lungs to not be forgotten. The piles of shoes, combs, glasses, and the mountain of hair ripped of the millions of Jewish prisoners of these extermination camps is a montage of the mounts of dead bodies piled on top of another.
During the sequence of the Jews being crowded into a train to be sent off to the concentration camps, there is a point when the trains begin to move and the narrator says, “Trains sealed and bolted. A hundred people crammed into a car. No day, no night. Hunger, thirst, suffocation, madness. A message flutters to the ground. Will it be found? Death makes its first cut.” There are two meanings conveyed through this narrative, especially with the sentence, “A message flutters to the ground. Will it be found?” First is the literal meaning. As the train passes by, we can see a sheet of paper fall out of a window and flutter to the ground. It could be a message that somebody wanted to give to someone. But the question arises whether it will be found. Then there is the implicit meaning. The message fluttering to the ground in this case is compared to a warning given out to the rest of the Jews, before it’s too late. But will it be found? If not, then death has made its first cut.
The next shot of the sequence shows the train reaching its destination. Here, the setting is a visual, literal representation of the title of the movie. The shot is of a station at night, and the station is shrouded with fog as German soldiers stand on the platform, guns at the ready. “Its second (death’s second cut) is made on arrival in the night and fog,” says the narrator.
Another fine example of Resnais’ symbolism is shown at 13 minutes and 48 seconds. As the narrator says, “At times like these, the real world, the world from before, with its peaceful landscapes could seem not so far off,” Resnais shows two shots of the ‘real world’ and the peaceful landscapes in it. But each shot is taken from the other side of a barbed wire fence, indicating that though these landscapes do not seem far off, they still remain inaccessible.
The music also plays a symbolic role in the film at one part. At 26 minutes and 21 seconds, the music sounds very similar to that of a clock ticking. It subtly refers to the passing of time to the end of the war and the consequent passing of time after it as well. It is basically used as a means to convey a fast forward to the audience; to show in brief what happened as soon as the war finished.
The importance of Alain Resnais using colour in his 1955 filming is understood in one very important sequence in the film. At 10 minutes and 2 seconds, Resnais shows an exterior shot of one of the buildings in the concentration camp. At the same time, the narrator says, “Buildings that could pass for stables, garages or workshops.” If the same shot was taken in black and white, or if the narration was said over the shot at 13 minutes and 34 seconds, the narrative wouldn’t make sense with the visual. The presence of colour makes the visual a lot more pleasant, and at the same time, in the case of this movie, a lot more deceiving as well. With thick green grass around the red building against a blue sky, the location seems a lot friendlier than it actually is; and could therefore be mistaken for stables, garages or workshops. Another such example is seen at 20 minutes and 38 seconds – “A crematorium from outside can look like a picture postcard.” What Resnais and Jean Cayrol are trying to stress here is how the Nazis are disguising the place to make it look pleasant in order to hide the reality within the camp. In other words, they are creating the fog to cover up the night.
The reason why Night and Fog remains a serious film on the holocaust is because it raises serious questions. Resnais set out to make a film not emotionalizing or sentimentalizing or plainly horrifying about the holocaust even though the holocaust is all this and much more. It is this much more that Resnais and Cayrol envisioned bringing to the screen. They weaved a visual medium that would shove chunks of hot burning charcoal like imagery into the minds of its viewers not to horrify them (Resnais feared this would tow them to denial and they would inadvertently distance themselves from the act) but to make them realize that they are equally responsible to what is shown on the screen. ‘War sleeps with one eye open’.
Night and Fog does not speak from a single persons point of view, it stands from the perspective of humanity. Or what could humanity really be, including its dark demonic other face that everybody willingly ignores because to see it is to really see oneself for what we really are. And that image is more than just horrifying, it is incomprehensibly foggy, or so we make ourselves believe. And Resnais tries to strip our masks off, shine light on our naked brutality and ask “who’s responsible?” The answer we all know very well. “It is us, it is us”. And that is why Night and Fog remains strangely incomparable for me, besides the genre of real life horror and a holocaust movie, Night and Fog stands out for its attempt to capture a truth that is beyond its own grasp.
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