Night, Fog, and the State
a peaceful landscape…even a meadow in harvest, with crows circling
overhead and grass fires…even a road where cars and peasants and
couples pass…even a resort village with a steeple and country fair…can
lead to a concentration camp." So begins the narration of the
most devastating documentary film ever made.
Hollywood determined it takes at least three hours to effectively
grapple with the Holocaust a Schindler’s
List or a Pianist,
for example long before, some four decades and more,
there was Alain Renais’ 31-minute Night
first saw and was shattered by this remarkable short movie while
in college in 1975. I’ve just seen Night and Fog a second
time, because Criterion recently released a new digital restoration
of it on DVD. And 28 years later, Renais’ film remains for me not
only a chilling record of Hitler’s "final solution" but
the most powerful cinematic indictment of the State I’ve ever seen.
and Fog mixes color photography of the abandoned grounds of
Auschwitz and Majdanek, shot just ten years after the 1945 liberation
of those Nazi camps, with horrific black-and-white archival images.
blood has dried, the tongues have fallen silent," reads the
narrator from a script by Mauthausen survivor Jean Cayrol. The camera
pans slowly across a deserted camp in vivid, "present-day"
color. "The only visitor to the blocks now is the camera,"
the voice-over continues. "A strange grass covers the paths
once trod by inmates. No current runs through the wires. No footstep
is heard but our own." Abruptly, the documentary cuts to black-and-white
stills and film footage. "1933," the narrator recites
dispassionately. "The machine goes into action. A nation must
have no discord. No complaints or quarrels."
as Night and Fog reveals, the State is a machine.
And a murderous one. Its day-to-day operation is simply business
as usual. Says the narrator matter-of-factly:
concentration camp is built the way a stadium or a hotel is
built: with businessmen, estimates, competitive bids, and no
doubt a bribe or two. … Architects calmly design the gates meant
to be passed through only once. Meanwhile, Burger, a German
worker; Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam; Schmulski, a merchant
in Krakow; and Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux, go about their
daily lives, not knowing a place is being prepared for them
hundreds of miles away. One day their quarters are ready. All
that is missing is them."
watch the State’s victims being herded onto the trains, into the
trucks, then into the camps. We see the SS slogans that greet them
upon their entry: "Cleanliness is health." "Work
is freedom." "To each his due."
see the cylinders of zyklon gas. We see the emaciated inmates, then
their dead bodies, stacked one atop another.
we return to the color photography of 1955’s "today."
The camera tracks quietly over rusted barbed wire, now surrounding
collapsed walls. It worms through gates and doorways. It lingers
over one building. "A crematorium from the outside can look
like a picture postcard," the narrator remarks. "Today
tourists have their snapshots taken in front of them." We are
drawn inside to study the now-cold ovens that were once so essential
in making room for the next trainload of arrivals.
camera eventually takes us to one of the camps’ observation towers,
standing watch over the growing debris. The narrator concludes:
among us keeps watch from this strange watchtower to warn of
the arrival of our new executioners? Are their faces really
different from our own? … With our sincere gaze we survey these
ruins, as if the old monster lay crushed forever beneath the
rubble. We pretend to take up hope again as the image recedes
into the past, as if we were cured once and for all of the scourge
of the camps. We pretend it all happened only once, at a given
time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and
a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry."
Night and Fog never categorizes victims, whether Jew or gypsy
or other undesirable. It doesn’t identify the executioners by name.
It never distinguishes one concentration camp from the other. It
doesn’t need to. We know that Alain Renais is addressing
the Holocaust specific faces, specific times, specific places.
But by speaking in broad language, even while presenting hideous
images of the Nazi death camps, Night and Fog widens its
message by implication. The State is the State is the State, after
all. Some six million died horribly in the Holocaust. But death
by the State, suggests Renais’ brilliant documentary, is never-ending.
At least 100 million people died at the hands of their own governments
during the past century.
Conger [send him mail] is a
marketing consultant and writer living on California’s central coast.
ago, he visited the Dachau memorial outside Munich and is still
shaken by the experience. He has a website, www.WConger.com.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com