(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing from the Criterion Blu-ray for Night and Fog.)
Face aux fantômes [Facing Ghosts] by Jean-Louis Comolli and Sylvie Lindeperg, produced by Argos Films under the aegis of the INA in 2009, details in 99 minutes the background of the creation of Alain Resnais's 1955 landmark Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog]. The film takes the form of a lengthy and elucidating interview with historian Sylvie Lindeperg conducted and shot by Comolli within a hangar-like media-workspace illumined by footlights and various blue gels. The first shot reflexes upon a dolly track setup, with 'bowed' angle of the camera recording the traversal of the track's length; unnecessary apparatus for this kind of project, one would think — indeed the entire space seems a little ostentatious or overreaching, albeit this context of steely, 'futuristic' cavernousness perhaps materializes an interior 'third-image' of Night and Fog intended by Resnais in the course of what he would come to describe as a "re-presentation" of the death-camp footage.
1945. French families awaiting deportees' return. The image that will survive: the patriotic deportee: the Resistance fighter coming home to France. Lindeperg: "This of course left unmentioned the specific and tragic fate of the Jews deported for extermination. Images of deportees begin to be shown in late April 1945; they're used to convey this message, even though the faces and bodies tell another story, one that wasn't part of the message of Frenay's ministry nor of the French news."
She continues: "When the Auschwitz camp was evacuated in January of 1945 due to the advance of Soviet troops, the deportees were evacuated westward, in what was later called 'death marches,' to the concentration camps of the Greater Germanic Reich. At that point, they were mixed with, notably, Resistance prisoners. This was the case at the Bergen-Belsen camp, which received many evacuees from Auschwitz. They were liberated in April by British forces and repatriated to France along with other categories of deportees. So if we examine the image of the camps and deportees as seen from France, these deportees return to France together, and that contributes to the confusion. Furthermore, the dominant political line presenting deportees as Resistance fighters reinforces the image of the concentration camp as the only sort of camp, one in which Jews and non-Jews, without distinction, suffered the same fate. In addition, the images shown to the French immediately after the war are of the Western camps. No images of the liberation of Auschwitz or Majdanek were shown. When we speak of the creation of the collective image of the concentration camps and their liberation, all the images were of the Western camps."
Lindeperg goes on to relate that in November 1954, an exhibition opened in Paris titled "Résistance — Libération — Déportation, (1940-1945)" at the Musée Pédagogique. "It's helmed by the French Committee for the History of the Second World War, and more specifically, its secretary general, Henri Michel, and Olga Wormser, who oversees the section on deportation." Wormser, in the early '50s, also joined the committee on the history of deportation, which concentrated on examining the structure of the concentration camp system and whose members included ex-Resistance fighters among others. Their mandate "was first to gather evidence, and then to write the history."
Wormser and Michel write Tragédie de la déportation, 1940-1945, témoignages de survivants des camps de concentration allemands, based on accounts from Resistance prisoners while indicating the gaping absence of the genocide of the Jews. (Lindeperg: Wormser "does this discreetly, first because the narrative frame doesn't allow for it, and also because her understanding of the two phenomena still lacks clarity.")
Fast-forward: Henri Michel ("working under the gaze of the deportees"; Lindeperg cites "the demands of memory and of history") contacts Anatole Dauman (co-founder with Philippe Lifschitz of Argos Films), asks can he produce such a work. Dauman writes to Michel accepting, on the grounds the film will only ever exist if it aims for and meets "the highest artistic ambitions". The film will be produced within the context of the aforementioned exhibition of documents and relics pertaining to the war and in accord with the vision the Réseau du Souvenir. It must honor the dead. Amid these tensions Nuit et brouillard must operate. And it will further serve to advance Olga Wormser's own inquiries.
Resnais will operate on "the principle of accumulation". He is given access to the documents and objects used in the exhibition.
Resnais's modus operandi in part was to make a film in direct contrast to Les camps de la mort (realized by correspondents, Allies, etc.) — a print of which the director owned on 16mm as a "reference". Lindeperg notes that for Resnais it was essential to find the balance between the straight presentation (let's say, an archive dump) and artistic construction.
"It's no longer 1945 — he's 're-presenting' these archival images."
The images of Westerbork and the transport contain no narration by his screenwriter, Jean Cayrol. "Resnais shows a sort of intuition that comes before perceptual knowing..." — "One must both pierce the mystery, and preserve it."
"Were the subjects reassured by the camera's presence?" — "The camera pans to seek out her face." — her name was Anna Maria "Settela" Steinbach.
Wormser was historical consultant to Resnais — her knowledge and point of view was still being shaped; as Lindeperg puts it, and as indicated earlier: the film is "a rough draft and an initial synthesis of a history still taking shape."
Resnais had to tweak Cayrol's narration to fit the editing — as he Cayrol couldn't bear to return to the editing room. — "This was where Chris Marker came in." — "He did a sort of rewrite of Cayrol's text, but based on the film's images, of course. So then Cayrol pulled himself together and rewrote Chris Marker's version, but this time in the editing room. That's how we moved forward: sentence by sentence. We'd try each one out. So the structure of the narration is very much in the style of Chris Marker, but it's Cayrol's words and thoughts."
Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and Resnais's arrival to shoot there — no 'museum' in an institutional sense as with the site of "Auschwitz I" — where the filmmaker shoots in black-and-white various interiors. Lindeperg: "This choice implies that everything shot in the museum [of Auschwitz I] is relegated to the past."
The film concludes with a thread about Celan's adaptation of Cayrol's V.O. for the German-language dub: How does it differ from Cayrol's original French-language version? "It shows intent." Here the word is directly used: They "lied".