Alain Resnais' "Night and Fog" begins with colored shots of Auschwitz and the surrounding the landscape. Many Holocaust documentaries also include a similar shot, perhaps because there is such a contrast between the natural beauty-the rich yellows, greens and browns of the Polish countryside and the grainy black and white images of starving prisoners and mass graves. But Resnais' documentary was filmed in 1955, only 10 years after the camp was liberated, and some of the landscape and images that Renais filmed, probably greeted the victims of the camp.
Night and Fog is one of the first major documentaries on the Holocaust, and has received numerous awards since its first release. The film is in French with English subtitles. There were some technical problems with the subtitles, they went by too fast, and the white lettering against gray background made it almost impossible to read.
But, the narration is of secondary importance. It is the images that endure long after the film ends. Besides the tranquil shots of the post-war Auschwitz countryside, there are the images of the dirty prison barracks and the pale blue latrines. The stillness of those images contrast in tenure and tone with the black and white war time footage. There is the famous shot of the family with the little boy being deported from Warsaw; and the video clip of the half starving Roma girl arriving at the camp. There are the films of the trains arriving at Auschwitz, of the rooms full of hair, of the starving half-dead naked prisoners humiliated, the mass graves; and a woman-who looking at her face I could not tell if she was dead or alive, before the camera panned to her limp corpse. These images are both familiar and startling. Holocaust awareness was a major part of my school curriculum, we had entire units on the Holocaust in the 5th and 8th grade, I've visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C., read "Night" and "The Diary of Anne Frank" in school. But these images still have the power to shock and sicken. And more than once I found myself adverting my gaze from the screen.
Even when I could make the narration out, they faded in comparison to the images on the film. But two things stood out to me. The first is, unless I missed it, there are almost no mention of the Jews as the primary (although by no means only) target of the genocide; and certainly no mention of the fact that the Jews were singled out for complete annihilation. There is however a brief mention of political prisoners at the beginning of the film (the title of the film comes from a Nazi pogrom against political rivals). This omission is perhaps better understood within a larger context. Early reporting of the Holocaust was unfortunately influenced by institutional Anti-Semitism. In U.S. newsreels for example, the suffering of the Jews was often downplayed. In France the story is much more complex, and it is really only since the 1990s that there has been an acknowledgment of the role of the French collaborationists in the Final Solution.
What also sticks in my mind is the ending, a haunting warning and prophesy of things to come. It is easy to confine the Holocaust to one time and one place. But, if it took place at this one time and place, how can it not happen again?