Reflecting on Night and Fog by Alain Resnais :
In Night and Fog, Resnais deals with the holocaust. He does not, though, deal with it in the institutionalized manner of the Jewish memory of the event. He chooses instead to use the world impact of the horrifying events of the holocaust, and construct a common memory for the viewer in the film. Except for one sentence, the film never uses the word “Jew”. The film follows an intellectual montage style throughout, using the juxtaposition of two images next to one another to create a meaning out of them. Jean Cayrol, who was a survivor of the concentration camps, has written the text for the film. The vocal narration of the film has been done with a very dry and seemingly emotionless voice. This was done on purpose by Resnais to make the viewers feel more of the cold brutality of the memory of the concentration camps and the atrocities perpetrated. Holistically, the film carries a very matter-of-fact view about the whole event and its horror. Michel Bouquet, who has narrated the film, was specifically asked by Resnais to have a very matter-of-fact voice in the film so as not to create a feeling of alignment with anyone in the film.
Resnais takes the montage forward when he uses tracking shots to introduce the viewer to a space in the film. From the opening sequence where he tracks down to reveal the barbed wire before the pristine pastoral beauty of a vast open field, to when he tracks around the ovens / furnaces that were used to burn the bodies, to the last shot, where he tracks over the muddled swampy water over the graves, and along the dilapidated electric chair, and then around the ruin of a building of the camp complex. He makes the viewer feel the space by using an eye level camera height, and the track pace is of a slow walk around the space. The way he places the camera close to the fences of the camp compounds makes the viewer feel trapped inside. The light used to shoot the buildings would be considered a very “perfect” light, however, it gives the spaces a certain duality of emotion. It is common memory of what transpired inside those buildings of the concentration camps, which gives the duality of emotion along with the light. There are a lot of still images from the time used in the film, which help the viewer in visualizing the ghastly horror of the camps. These images, in combination with the film footage of the bulldozers pushing heaps of dead bodies into large pits dug as common graves for the millions who were killed in the camps. The images of the victims of het camps standing naked in large numbers, shows the viewer how they were humiliated. The voiceover narration over these images remains very matter-of-fact, lending it coldness as mentioned before. In the shot where the train comes into the camp in the night and fog, and the following shot of the same tracks in present times, the viewer can feel like a victim of the camp because of the camera angle and movement used. The camera keeps tracking forward, looking down at the tracks, and then gradually tilts up, revealing the main building and entrance of the camp. The narration over this bit gives the viewer the context to imagine. With the description of the barking dogs, fallen bodies on the sides of the tracks, and the massive searchlights etc, the viewer can very well imagine what the situation could have been at that time. In addition to the aforementioned points about the visual treatment of the film, there are other points as well like the shifting from black and white images of the found footage, to the colored images of the footage that he shot while making the film. This also lends a temporal passage of time in the narrative without mentioning it in words. The film never tells the viewer about the time that it is engaging the viewer in.
Resnais in this film does not follow the exact chronological order of events. He was of the opinion that he was not interested n representing reality. Therefore he does not follow the exact chronological order of events in the film, while depicting the concentration camps. The film successfully establishes different temporal spaces by using color and black and white images for the depiction of the past and the present for the film. The film also shows the concentration camps in the present first, in the opening sequence and then it goes to show the processes that were followed in the times when the concentration camps existed. The film then also goes to show the unified and machine like way in which the German “Fatherland” used to function. In the scenes where Michel Bouquet says that “ The machine goes into action”, there are shots of hundreds and thousands of people doing the same action together, in the militarized fashion that was the mark of the third Reich. He then uses another shot, taken from a low angle, from the triumph of the will, where soldiers with Deutschland banners walk in a line to separate left and right near the camera, in a mechanical fashion, echoing the words of Bouquet. The temporal connections are also made by Resnais by using the common memory of the Second World War that people all over the world have. He uses this fact to create the ‘internal cinema’ or experience in the viewers’ minds. When he talks about the nail marks on the ceiling of the gas chambers in the camps, the viewers’ mind immediately begins to imagine how low the ceiling must have been. More so because to make a mark on concrete, person needs a lot of force, which makes it imperative that the ceilings were very low.
Resnais uses the natural tendency of people to his advantage to tell his story of the camps in Auschwitz. He never shows video footage of the torture that transpired in Auschwitz. But he shows images of men and women being paraded naked through the camp, trains getting filled to the brim with people and reaching a station with many dead in them already. As said before, he has married these images to a narration that is almost emotionless. This lends the coldness needed for the human mind to make an association of the dehumanization and the cold horror of the camps. He creates the association of the people in the camps being tortured and treated like animals by juxtaposing the images of them being packed into halls and buildings like animals, being paraded naked, and then the images of the latrines where one can easily imagine the way they must have had to sit right next to each other to perform daily chores. This way, the mind has the capability of manufacturing a memory for itself, by which even if a viewer is not completely acquainted with the details of the holocaust, he can construct a memory of the holocaust for himself while and after watching this film. However he does not use the technique of creating illusions at all in the film. All through the film, he only uses real images from the times when the genocide was perpetrated, juxtaposes them and creates a meaning out of them.