(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing from the Criterion Blu-ray.)
These recent viewings of Night and Fog [Nuit et brouillard, Alain Resnais, 1955] have been my first of the CNC-funded 2015 restoration, performed at 4K from the original 35mm camera negative by Éclair Group for the image and L. E. Diapason for the sound. An opening title reads: "As digital projection and restoration rapidly invaded the film world, Alain Resnais lamented that the same respect awarded old books — despite their battered covers and worn-out pages — was painfully missing when it came to aging film prints and negatives. — Thus, the utmost restraint has been exercised in the restoration of this film, in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the archival footage. – Argos Films"
Truffaut once wrote: "The effective war film is often the one in which the action begins after the war, when there is nothing but ruins and desolation everywhere: Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and, above all, Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard, the greatest film ever made." Resnais's picture certainly established a standard point of perspective — the retrospective reckoning, the face à face projections of history and memory — that would be adopted and focused further not only in the filmmaker's subsequent work but in that of Lanzmann, Marker, Godard, Akerman, and others. A method of forensic-science: train the camera, magnify the evidence. Observe the brilliant opening shot upon docile pasture, as the camera cranes down like the very Geist or omniscient prodigy only to reveal barbed wire fences in parallax relation; beneath Hanns Eisler's ambivalent score, scenarist Jean Cayrol's voice-over intones: "Même un paysage tranquille..." / "Even a peaceful landscape..." (Side-note: Every Resnais film serves also as homage to its scenarists, here Cayrol and in an associate capacity Chris Marker. Note the owl-like visage of one particular prisoner: hybrid grotesque: strange fruit.)
Soon we see the overgrown train-tracks that, filmed by Resnais in tracking-shot (le travelling), transported the prisoners from across Europe here to Auschwitz, to Bergen-Belsen, etc. These shots not only dramatize, attempt to replicate the 'feeling' of, arrival at this destination, disused now or rather preserved in its disuse (cf. Auschwitz I, now converted to a museum, and discussed in my piece on Comolli and Lindeperg's film Face aux fantômes), but manifest in a sense the inevitability of the narrative-line's endpoint itself. Resnais shoots Auschwitz-Birkenau 1955 in color, with cranes and via oblique high-angle tracking shots; he shoots Auschwitz I 1955 in black-and-white, using lateral tracking shots; lastly, he incorporates archival and newsreel footage and photographic documents from the 1940s. All three approaches emanate ghosts. In Face aux fantômes, Sylvie Lindeperg will raise the question of the presence and provenance of the cameras filming the Jews from the train platform as they prepare to depart to the camps. The camera-eye doesn't blink before the men, women, and children "unaware that hundreds of miles away a place has already been assigned to them."
The color images make the events hyperreal — according to Cayrol, "are all that's left for us to imagine." They also defy, silently, implicitly, "that nocturnal spectacle the Nazis were so fond of." Here lies a basis for the detail of "night and fog," a phrase used early on in the narration, some minutes before images show up of prisoners the back of whose shirts are stained with an "N N" — for "Nacht und Nebel". Such was the 'poetic' gallows-humor of the Oberhäupter and the Kapos who, in any case, were largely comprised of "petty criminals, masters among subhumans."
In 1942, Himmler visited the camps to examine progress. (In the administration's eyes, "these strange 70-pound workers are unreliable.") Cayrol tells us that the precise process of annihilation is Himmler's idea, but that "efficiency" is left up to the engineers. Work begins apace upon the furnaces. The ghoulish irony is that documents such as those made to better assess the operations' prized efficiency should lend so ineluctable a materiality to the dead: no 'ashes of time' in history, but starved desocketed corpses in piles, heaped, bulldozed into mass graves. •