Talking about the Holocaust is incredibly difficult to do, but in my opinion is an important undertaking. Remembering the truly horrific acts committed by human beings, against other human beings, may be an important step in making sure that such things never happen again. But how do you describe things that are indescribable? How do you depict in media events that can hardly be put into words, and in many ways are simply unthinkable?
That’s the inherent challenge of Holocaust films, and a problem that many filmmakers have grappled with. Rather than attempt to dramatize or overstate the emotional impact of the Holocaust, Alan Resnais’ 1955 short film Night and Fog (Nuit et Brullard) takes the complete opposite approach, and instead presents facts and images in a direct and matter-of-fact fashion.
In doing so, the events being portrayed somehow become even more striking. As we watch, we struggle to reconcile the blasé attitude with the horrific things being shown on the screen. How is it possible for such atrocities to become normalized? How is it possible for us to become numb to such things? Throughout the 30 minute film, there are no diegetic sounds whatsoever. The only aural stimulation for the audience are the voice over narration (which is calm, collected, and steady throughout), and the soundtrack. The music is truly impactful for me, as it is wholly incongruous with the film’s images as well as its overall messages. The music is upbeat, light, and even whimsical; throughout the film, a flute dances around in a playful manner. In fact, if it were not paired with the images of Night and Fog, it wouln’t take much stretch of imagination to place the soundtrack over a children’s cartoon.
But instead of being paired with something happy and playful, the whimsical soundtrack is placed atop images of humans being absolutely terrible to other humans. Atop black and white images of piles of bodies, mass graves, as well as color images of those same locations–somehow “safer” in feel, but still haunting, the music serves to create a general feeling of unease. The audience is forced to confront this uncomfortable feeling and the incongruous nature of the film.
This incongruity is addressed head-on in the final moments of voice over. Who is responsible for these atrocities? If everyone was just following orders, then who is responsible? Who is to blame?
And perhaps a bit more broadly, if we watch these types of films and promise to never forget, then why do we still stand idly by as humans continue to do awful things in the name of their countries even to this day?
Many copies of Night and Fog are available throughout the Internet. Here’s a link to a version on Vimeo.