Ten years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, filmmaker Alain Resnais documented the abandoned grounds of Auschwitz and Majdanek inNight and Fog (Nuit et brouillard), one of the first cinematic reflections on the Holocaust. Juxtaposing the stillness of the abandoned camps’ empty buildings with haunting wartime footage, Resnais investigates the cyclical nature of humanity’s violence against humanity, and presents the devastating suggestion that such horrors could occur again.
Have you ever heard someone say something like, "[Insert move title] is one of the best films I've ever seen – but it's one that I never want to watch again." It's understandable how that saying can ring true, but no film has ever warranted that response from me … until now.
'Night and Fog' is a pure and simple documentary like no other. In late 1954, a French historical organization commissioned a young filmmaker by the name of Alain Renais to shoot the abandoned concentration camps that were once ran by the Nazis. Each location was once filled with unimaginable horrors, but then sat vacant with beautful tall green grass covering up the grounds. Each looked like a rundown facade of a suitable factory or storage facility. None showed signs of the cruel brutality that once existed there. Knowing the heavy weight of the then-to-now contrast, Renais chose to juxtapose the new footage with archival footage and photos from when the Nazis ran the camps. Instead of being carried by interviews, this documentary feature a sole, somber voiceover narration by an actual survivor; the effect of this narrative decision has a huge impact on the overall viewing experience.
Although 'Night and Fog' runs a brisk 33 minutes, it covers a lot of ground and tells historical aspects of concentration camps that certainly weren't taught to me as a kid. The first section tells the history of how the construction came about starting in 1933. Specs were written. Contractors made bids. With the locals thinking the construction was a sign of a booming economy, the structures were raised.
Shortly thereafter, Jews from all across Europe were deported. Loaded into boxcars and packed like sardines, they were transported to the camps. With most being unloaded in the dead of night, they were given the nicknames "Night and Fog." An identifiable marking was placed on their clothes. The intentions of the forceful camp staff immediately became apparent upon arrival. They were stripped nude, shaved, tattooed and numbered.
Although the inhumane acts – the physical abuse, the mental abuse, the blatant murder – was prevalent from the get-go, the mass genocide wasn't immediate. The initial purpose of the camps was to drive free slave labor. The women and children worked above ground, while the men went below ground for mining and machine work.
We are shown the 1955 remnants of the housing sturctures. If you didn't know what happened in the holocaust, you'd assume that the bunk-filled living spaces weren't that bad – but then our narrator describes everyday living there. The sleepless nights with three to a bunk. The random middle-of-the-night, violence-filled searches and raids. The horribly prepared and unhealthy meals. The filthy latrines. The disease. The so-called hospitals. The surgical experiments and mutilations. In contrast, we're also shown the Nazi living spaces. Their cozy individual rooms. The dinner parties. The complete opposite of what was going on in the other buildings.
It wasn't until World War II was in full swing that that genocide began. In 1942, with the war not going the way the Nazis wanted it to, Hitler's number two man, Himmler, gave the extermination order. He called for their "annihilation" of the Jewish people. Facilities were converted into murder chambers where the mass executions could be carried out. It's at this point that the footage becomes graphic and hard to handle. Many of the photos and archival videos are ones that I'd never before seen.
Although 'Night and Fog' isn't a film that you're likely to revisit, it documents the worst grand scale man-made event in the history books. Although unpleasant, it demands to be seen. It's a piece of history that's not fun to think of or dwell upon, but it cannot be ignored and should never be forgotten. The film is a perfect, brief way of not only remembering, but educating.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has placed 'Night and Fog' on a Region A BD-50 disc, placed it in a standard-to-Criterion clear keepcase with #197 on the spine, and included a booklet with an essay from film scholar Colin MacCabe and details about the transfer. Absolutely nothing plays before the main menu. Unrated by the MPAA, I want to make sure that you're aware and prepared for some extremely graphic imagery.
Criterion has given 'Night and Fog' an amazing 4K transfer (from original 35 mm camera negatives). The Blu-ray carries a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, it bounces around from black & white archival footage to color-filled 1955 footage. The color-less imagery comes from various sources that range across the spectrum of preservation, but a lot of quality clean-up has been done to make it look its best. In some scenes, grain is as thick as I've ever seen it. The negatives are damaged, so the remnants of those flaws – the scratches, the specks, the vertical runs – are present. But all dirt and debris are absent. The rest of the imagery is clean and clear.
The 1955 footage is something else. It's magnificent. In many ways, it looks just like brand new film. The colorization is gorgeous. The death camps are covered in a vibrant greens of grown-over foilage. The beauty of the '55 content makes the contrast of the archival footage even more poignant. Grain is present, but not nearly as thick as some of the B&W video. The '55 video is seemingly void of all standard flaws: no noise, artifacts, bands, aliasing or crushing.
For the Blu-ray, Criterion completely remastered the audio. The transfer notes explain that "the original monaural soundtrack was restored … from the 35 mm optical soundtrack positive." Although the audio is extremely simple and it emits from just one channel, it's highly effective. Void of sound effects, it's carried purely by the narrator's voice and original scoring. The balance of music and voice-over is powerful. When the V.O. can drive the emotional impact of the on-screen imagery, it takes a leading role. And when the music can amplify the emotion, it stars center stage. The one could undermine the other, so the balance is crucial.
The mono track is devoid of any and all aging flaws. The 61-year-old recordings don't show any signs of wear and tear. There are no thumps, no pops, no crackles. It doesn't warp. It's never warbly. There's no ambient hiss. Instead, the audio is 100% crisp. The end result allows for the strongest sound quality and impactful aural experience.
It's always a delight to discover a powerful film that was previously unknown to you. 'Night and Fog' is one of those. It's important and demands to be seen. The only thing keeping it from being a must-own disc is the fact that, while's it's definitely a must-see, it's one that you'll have a hard time ever bringing yourself to watch again. It takes an extremely intimate and honest approach into the holocaust, one that dramatized films like 'Schindler's List' have done an excellent job at attempting, but could never reach the true heights of 'Night and Fog.' The 61-year-old documentary features some of the very best remastering I've seen in a film of this age. A lot was put into this gorgeous 4K transfer. Nearly two hours of special features are included, making this an excellent release. If you've never seen 'Night at Fog,' it's a title that you absolutely have to see at least once in your life.