I have a vivid recollection of going to see Schindler's List at the cinema. I must have been about 17 at the time, it disturbed me, one of my friends even more so as she spent most of the film weeping hysterically. The film does not fail to upset me, to make me question things, to be astounded by such a horror happening so recently in our "civilised" history and yet there is that Hollywood gloss there isn't there? I think what you do get is Speilbergs attempts to make the history and truth of the Holocaust something more easily accessible. This is a good thing, I would not seek to criticise it. The fact that many schools in the U.S.A and in the U.K had screenings for their pupils shows that it can be watched by the most sensitive eyes and minds.
Nuit et Brouillard moves you up a level in the potential reactions you can have about a film. The film sickened me the first time I saw it. I felt physically sick. I have had the same reaction every time I have seen it since. It is not the sort of thing you decide to watch to entertain, but it is something that should be watched again and again. It reminds you of what happened, it reminds you that similar things go on even today and it makes you value your freedom all the more.
The phrase Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) originates from the decree introduced by the Nazi party in 1941, I have noded this here for those of you who would like to read it. The premise was basically to make any "undesirables" disappear, to vanish in the night and fog if you like. You may have seen images of camp inmates wearing the symbol "NN" - this stands for Nacht und Nebel (Nuit et Brouillard, Night and Fog).
Aside from the historical truth of the phrase, the title is also evocative of the fog that surrounded those hellish arrival points, the heavy wrought iron gates, "Arbeit macht frei"...the segregation of those scrawny confused bodies into useful and non-useful. The smoke rising above the camp, from a chimney, the snow-like ashes falling from the sky.
We see this imagery in Schindlers List. In Resnais' piece, the truth of our dark history is altogether more shocking.
The 30 minute piece was comissioned by the French Committee for the History of the Second World War in 1955, for screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Resnais, with words written by Jean Cayrol (a poet and camp survivor) and music by Hans Eisler, the film is simple, with glances of black humour, and more than anything, has that ability to leave a lasting impression on your mind.
"The job is begun. Building a concentration camp like a stadium or hotel, means contractors, estimators, bids....Architects calmly design doorways to be entered only once. Meanwhile, Burger, a German workman; Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam; Schmulski, a shopkeeper in Krakow; Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux....live on unaware. Until the day only they are needed to make the camps complete."
The camera work is subtle, alternating wide, panning shots of a camp as it is today, in the sunshine, surrounded by grass, with stark documentary footage of the camps as they were. This has a strong effect, it serves to remind us that these things happened, by flashing an image in colour, we relate it to the modern day. We see the remains of the "crematorium" with its horrific machinery and this is followed by an image of bodies being loaded into the ovens. This happened, this is real.
The images in themselves would be enough to serve the purpose of the film, but Resnais enhances this further with the addition of the poetic narrative of Cayrol. This man lived part of the horrific experience himself, so he speaks as an authority on the subject. The narrative is sad, moving, and yet the narrator (Michel Bousquet), does not show an awful lot of emotion in his voice. The words are spoken, there are hints of irony and sarcasm, but the tone remains unemotional. Where Shindlers List may have sought to play on our heart strings with characterisation- the personal touch to the story, Resnais' film does not seek this route at all. The effect is nevertheless profound. We absorb the words that are spoken, this truth. We question how anybody could deny this truth.
Music and Words
The music is another key part of the film. Eisler's music is continual, it does not stop at any point in the film and most significantly it has no sense of resolution for maybe the first 15 minutes of the 30 minute piece. it does not settle on a key, it moves from theme to theme. Until we come to the description of the shower rooms, then, maybe surprisingly, we do shift finally to a major key. However, and you can try this out for yourself with any song or film theme you know.....a major key, a happy tune mixed with sad images or sorrowful words, enhances the import of what you are seeing or hearing. It makes it more poignant.
And yet, despite the shock of the film, we are left with a sense of optimism. Both Cayrol's speech and Eisler's music seek to uplift us at the end of the piece. The music is ascending, finally resting happily in the major key, the words are resolute, with a sense of lessons learned, with a note of warning to future generations.....do not forget...
"As I talk to you, cold marsh waters fill the ditches, as cold and sluggish as our memories. War has dozed off, one eye still open. Grass grows again around the blocks, an abandoned village, still full of menace....Nine million dead haunt this scene. From this strange observatory, who watches to warn of new executioners? Do they really look so different from us? Somewhere amongst us remain undetected Kapos, officers, informers. There are all those who didn't believe, or only sometimes. And those of us who see the monster as being buried under these ruins, finding hope in finally being rid of this totallitarian disease. Pretending to believe it happened, but once, in one century, and not seeing what goes on around us, not heeding the unending cry."
One interesting point relating to the French reaction to the film is that one frame was edited: a guard, a french guard, is photographed keeping watch over a camp from a tower. The authorities asked that the tip of the gendarme hat be obscured - to make the image neutral.
Director: Alain Resnais; Assistant Director: Andre Heinrich; Commentary: Jean Cayrol; Narrator: Michel Bousquet; Music: Hans Eisler; Producer: Argos Films, Como, Cocinor