World War II’s mass murder still casts shadow: Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog and other films

By Daniel Garrett

Consciousness of film is inevitably contradictory, fragmented, too much and too little: very different kinds of films appear within a week, not to mention a year. The more distinct a film subject or film form, the less likely it is to be understood by the average critic or the general public; and yet some of us crave novelty and require originality. How to know if what we’re getting is original or merely incompetent? While watching Robert Towne’s film Ask the Dust, based on a 1939 novel by John Fante, I admired its imagery, so rich it verged on the precious, and was fond of its actors, and surprised by its focus on the emotional clashes and ethnic prejudices that occur when an Italian writer and Mexican waitress become involved, a focus that seemed more historical than vital, though it might be said that such conflicts grow old but never die. I found myself one moment really glad that I was watching the film and in another finding it somewhat boring: its pace may be too leisurely, and its characters’ particular troubles may seem now less like drama than melodrama, an indulgence. The film is set during the celebrated time of Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) and his journal, The American Mercury, begun in 1924 and known for publishing great writers in the 1920s and 1930s, before the tumult of the second world war was felt. Mencken is referred to as a mentor and editor for the writer in Ask the Dusk; and Ask the Dust has been compared to films made decades ago, during the 1930s, and it doesn’t seem quite like anything else I have seen recently: In a short span of time, I saw Tristan and Isolde, a fanciful historical romance, starring James Franco and Sophia Myles, and allowing a heroic role for Rufus Sewell as Lord Marke; Underworld: Evolution, a chilly English-language epic about vampires in a war with werewolves, suggesting the construction of a new cinematic myth; Something New, a comedy-drama about a professional African-American woman’s affair with a working class Euro-American, with acknowledgement of still unresolved social issues regarding class and ethnicity; Night Watch, a wildly imaginative Russian vampire epic; Shakespeare Behind Bars, a true-life story about a theatrical production in prison; an art house screening of three short documentaries, including Night and Fog about wartime mass murder, by Alain Resnais; Funny Girl, Streisand’s first film shown in a local one-day revival; and 16 Blocks, a Bruce Willis-Mos Def movie. Ask the Dust features an unusually detailed performance by a young-looking Colin Farrell as a talented but struggling writer, Arturo Bandini, a man whose creative ambition and personal insecurity inspire him to both generosity and malice, and Farrell’s co-star is Salma Hayek as a waitress, Camilla Lopez, who has moments of anger, confusion, desire, and pain, as she struggles to make a living and find her place and also love in an unfair society. Hayek allows herself to look confused, exhausted, sick, none of which destroys her beauty in Ask the Dust, a film that is an imperfect gem, and not the only one.

Seeing these very different kinds of films reminds one of all sorts of things: diverse historical periods and ways of living, a variety of storytelling modes. Ask the Dust andSomething New both present social problems as personal dilemmas, which is often how they occur in our lives, but the larger powers behind those problems—the systems that create and perpetuate unequal political relationships and prejudices—are little suggested, so strength of character and luck, rather than political analysis and social movement, are the helpmates. The stern intelligence, shy curiosity, and professional accomplishment of Sanaa Lathan’s character, Kenya, and Simon Baker’s character Brian’s confidence, competence, and concern, create a relationship of substance that survives discouragement. I was pleased that Tristan and Isolde brought back to me a story I had either forgotten or never knew very well, until I was told that it mixes different periods with little discrimination, something which does not affect one’s enjoyment of the film but does make it difficult to accept what is presented as having a positive relationship to truth. That Rufus Sewell—an actor I first saw in Cold Comfort Farm andCarrington a little over a decade ago, and expected to see more of—has a good part in the film is a reason for gratitude, as is the chance to see Barbra Streisand’s youthful but authoritative performance—one of charm, eccentricity, intensity, and wit—as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (her voice and musical performances are ageless, great, unsurpassed). Most of the other films—such as 16 Blocks, Underworld: Evolution, and Night Watch—provided scenes featuring chase, gadgetry, and magic, the movie thrills that are sometimes routine, and sometimes spectacular, and always part of what one thinks about when one thinks—not of films, or art (but)—of “movies.” Bruce Willis’s aging, liquor-soaked and weary policeman and Mos Def’s ambitious criminal with useful information and a desire to change lend depth to a story of police corruption and dwindling time in 16 Blocks. However for truth, we have to go elsewhere, such as to documentaries like Shakespeare Behind Bars or those of Alain Resnais.

Shakespeare Behind Bars is a film, about ninety minutes long, on a prison rehabilitation program that allows inmates to perform a Shakespeare play: the experience allows them to consider ideas and feelings, literature, and themselves—their lives and choices. It was written by Hank Rogerson and produced by Jilann Spitzmiller, and focuses on volunteer theatrical director Curt Tofteland’s work with Luther Luckett Correctional Complex’s prisoners, covering the year in which the men prepared to performThe Tempest. (Tofteland remembers how theater used to have a scandalous reputation and says Shakespeare would have loved these men.) One inmate says he thought criminals would be able to act because of their practice of lying, but he has realized that acting is a form of truth-telling. It’s interesting to see the actors taught to move in physical ways that express their characters’ mental states. The actors talk about their characters—the lost stature of Prospero and his concern for his daughter, the vulnerability of Miranda, the wildness of Caliban, and the arrogance of Antonio—and the men see that they share similar concerns for family and self, a painful and enlightening fact. It causes an ache to hear how cruelty, misuse, incomprehension, and silence when they were young shaped their characters (and one hears and intuits the influences of class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in their lives), but it is infuriating to hear how a moment’s coldness, rage, or stupidity led to an irreversible act. The men’s crimes are shocking, even unforgivable: several of them admit to murder, one molested seven girls; and they hope for parole. Another had drug-addled acquaintances who killed his stepfather, and he in turn killed them and he received two life sentences without parole, something he finds puzzling, having only one life. One man doesn’t want the worst thing he has ever done to be the meaning of his life; and another tallies the skills he has acquired, what he has learned, and the fact that he has a job offer for when he gets out. Several of them are in a horrible cycle, judged not for who or what they are today but for who they were and what they did in the past: and the parole board simply gives them more time in prison. What are the limits of forgiveness? When has retribution been made? One of the men says something harrowing: the people who need mercy the most deserve it the least. The experience the men have in putting on the play seems valuable; certainly the film made out of that experience does. It is almost a transcendent affirmation that Shakespeare’s work can be useful in such circumstances (I say almost as transcendence promises a certain freedom; and these men are obviously not free, despite their moments of creativity, emotion, and understanding).

We rarely think of documentaries as having a sensibility. They are often iterations of fact, or assertions of ideology, or dull (or salacious) narrations of biography. I was first surprised then very pleased to realize as I watched Alain Resnais’s documentaries—Statues Also Die, All the Memory of the World, and Night and Fog—that they were imaginative and passionate, literary and philosophical. Sometimes intelligence alone can be radical, sometimes objectivity can be. Resnais’s mostly black-and-white films are each complete—and so full of life and thought they still speak to us and speak without awkwardness, without loss of value. The film Statues Also Die (1953), co-directed by Chris Marker, discusses the French influence—the colonial impact—on Africa, its people, and its art. (It was banned in France for more than a decade for doing so.) Statues Also Die contrasts African art as part of a living creative, practical, and spiritual process. A stool, for instance, is made for use, and made to represent something of social and spiritual meaning to the people, and also made to be beautiful. However, western museum culture, by taking it out of context, turns this living thing into a dead object, fit only for admiration. Often, mechanical routine and skill are substituted for artistic personality and spiritual energy as western influence grows in African culture. The 1956 film on France’s national library, All the Memory, presents a place of national heritage, a repository of business productions (books), and a survey of diverse experiences and ideas embodied in texts. Night and Fog, finished ten years after the end of the twentieth century’s second world war, in 1955, presents facts too terrible for tears: a view of the Nazi death camps as man-made cruelty augmented by modern technology and utilitarian purpose, and also as a human tragedy of mystery and perplexing dimension. It reminds us of the many different peoples—the film gives the number of nine million persons—of different countries and religions killed as a result of the policies and the war initiated by the government of Adolph Hitler and the National Socialists German Workers Party (the Nazis).

Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, which uses black-and-white archival film and photographs and also color cinematography, with narration by Mauthausen camp survivor Jean Cayrol, is important, for when it was made and even now, because it restores an international event, an international calamity, to the memory and responsibility of all humanity. I saw the film and two other Resnais documentaries as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema program at Manhattan’s Walter Reade theater and that was a chance to catch up with a director whose works—such as Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961)—are well-known. Alain Resnais’s most recent films include Same Old Song (1997), about family, love, and real estate, and Not on the Lips (2003), a musical about marriage, money, and fashion. Resnais, born in 1922 France, acquired a movie camera at fourteen, and studied at the Institute of Advanced Cinematographic Studies in the early 1940s, before making short films on art and various documentaries. “I am never driven. Every film I’ve made has been an assignment,” Alain Resnais has said (Interview magazine, November 1999). If that is so, he is to be commended for turning work into revelation. People, such as Haim Callev (The Stream of Consciousness in the Films of Alain Resnais), have discussed Resnais’s ability to suggest human consciousness, the perceptions and processes of how thought occurs, a profound ability, but what’s important about Night and Fog is that it gives us, with order and style, particular thoughts and facts to contend with. To see camps built to torture and kill people, and to see remnants of the bizarre experiments that were conducted in them, and then to hear speculation about human hair turned into fabric, human skin used for a lamp shade, or human flesh’s fat made into soap, is unforgettable. To see photographs and scenes of hundreds and hundreds of the starved and the dead is to be moved beyond pity.

I was taken aback to be reminded of how many people Adolph Hitler and his associates had killed and who they were: “Communists, Czechs, Greeks, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, mentally and physically handicapped, Poles, resistance fighters, Russians, Serbs, Socialists, Spanish Republicans, trade unionists, Ukrainians, Yugoslavians, prisoners of war of many nations, and still others whose identity may never be recognized,” as Karen Silverstrim, a University of Central Arkansas graduate student, wrote in her paper “Overlooked Millions: Non-Jewish Victims of the Holocaust,” citing Michael Berenbaum’s anthology A Mosaic of Victims(New York University Press, 1990). How was it that an international twentieth century holocaust—a great slaughter; an offering of sacrifice to flames—became the Holocaust of the Jews? Do the stories we tell about an event always become simple, so that we can easily identify heroes, villains, martyrs, and victims? So that one person or group’s pain becomes more significant than another’s? How could the millions of people killed who weren’t Jews be so easily forgotten? Karen Silverstrim’s paper, available as of March 2006 on the web site of her university’s history department at, contemplates such questions; and she states, “The same respect and remembrance afforded the Jewish victims should be extended to include the non-Jewish victims as well.” I agree: I watched Night and Fog and kept thinking, “This is a human atrocity. This is a human tragedy. This is a human crime. This is for us all to remember, for us all to be wary of its occurring again—and for us all to recognize when it does occur, whether in Europe, Africa, Asia, or elsewhere.” Does making the holocaust into a Jewish story concentrate and consecrate Jews as different from the rest of us? Isn’t that a corroboration of Hitler, and not a repudiation of prejudice? Isn’t that always the danger in seeing identity as essence and fate? Is the emphasis on various forms of social identity—whether attached to religion, nationality, skin, gender, or sexuality—something that can only obscure a broader, deeper human identity?

Karen Silverstrim notes that estimates of the number of ordinary citizens (non-combatants) killed by the Nazis vary, from about 15 million to 26 million, referring as sources to Martin Gilbert’s 1985 book The Holocaust and also to a decades-older French publication. She says, “Jews were the most intensely targeted victims, but the common denominator for all victims was death.” She constructs a table showing those killed—including 5.5 million to 7 million Ukrainians, and more than two million Russian civilians (in addition to more than three million Russian prisoners of war), and at least three million Poles, among many others. Silverstrim also notes—following Deborah Lipstadt’s 1986 book Beyond Belief from The Free Press—how reporting on the war, both during and immediately after, in publications such as The New York Times,described Jewish suffering with more specificity and sympathy than that of others. Films followed this established form. Silverstrim states inarguably that Jewish suffering has been used to justify the existence of the state of Israel, which the United States finds of strategic political use. Was all that part of how Jews came to be seen by many as holy victims, beyond criticism or censure; beyond the complexities of human character—beyond ordinary good and evil? I was surprised to read in one source book that while the figure given of Jews killed is often six million, estimates actually have ranged from four and a half to seven million. Such uncertainty is a door through which one can walk and reconsider the past; while accepting that the Jewish struggle against amnesia and indifference is laudable, necessary, and without denying the known facts, such lack of verifiable precision is a reminder that mystery persists. Isn’t there a way to acknowledge the particular history of Jews without denying other histories (and to acknowledge other histories without denying Jewish history)? Is it possible to teach history without turning it into a myth or a rationale for current bad behavior?

The Nazis wanted a strengthened German people, and to conquer the world. Germans with physical problems, handicaps, did not fit Nazi standards, and a euthanasia program was begun in 1939. “The gene pool of the German nation would have to be cleansed,” summarizes Donald L. Niewyk and Francis R. Nicosia in The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust (Columbia University Press, 2003; 48). About one-hundred and thirty-thousand gypsies (the Roma people) were killed during the war; and by December 1942 the Nazis had decided to kill all of them—almost a million—and accelerated their deportation. Though the Soviets had been Nazi allies, the Nazis considered Slavic people beneath human—and that’s why Russian prisoners of war were killed and also many Poles. Yet among the Poles, as with German Jews, many of those murdered were educated and professional, people who proved not inferiority but superiority (or at least the inaccuracy of Nazi thinking). According to The Columbia Guide, three million Poles and nineteen million Soviets were killed; and that Soviet count includes three million Ukrainians and one million five-hundred-thousand Belarusans (49). If Germany had won the war, it’s likely more of these peoples would have been killed. (How people are categorized can be as confusing as the numbers are formidable. Night and Fog is filled with ideas, facts, and observations, where other films would be structured to reveal and elicit emotion. Its rapid pace prohibited note-taking and thus I’ve been inclined to do some additional research.) The Columbia Guide talks about various ways of looking at the Holocaust: as a Jewish genocide; as made up of several holocausts; as centered on Jews, gypsies, and the handicapped (preferring this definition); and as “an inseparable complex of policies and events encompassing all racially motivated German crimes and all their victims” (51-52). The most complex view usually strikes me as the truest—and I do no think any persecution or death should be dismissed.

Gypsies and Poles and Russians died during the second world war, so did blacks who lived in France and Belgium when the Nazis invaded. There have been other terrifying examples of genocide: under Stalin in Russia, Mao in China, Ismail Enver in Turkey, Yakubu Gowon in Nigeria, Menghitsu in Ethiopia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Kim Il Sung in North Korea, and Hideki Tojo in Japan. Often people who remind us of their unfortunate histories are called chauvinistic, hate-mongering, nationalistic, self-pitying. Consequently, many stories go untold, unknown. Society does have a pattern of recuperating after trouble but it also recuperates after positive radical changes in thought and tradition, and reinvests old meanings in new terms, and narrows then eliminates new freedoms, so that figures, activities, and even understandings that represented something advanced are made to embody something archaic. Thus, the Nazis prohibited the work of modernists such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, and removed Jews from secular pursuits such as music, broadcasting, the press, and civil service. As described by Jack R. Fischel’s Historical Dictionary of the Holocaust, Nazi practices—like requiring Jewish men to add Israel to their names, and Jewish women to add Sarah to theirs—seemed intent on increasing and making visible and then punishing Jewish difference (Scarecrow Press, 1999; 39 and 132). Thus, after remarkable assimilation comes even more remarkable separation.

I think again of Gertrude Stein’s Wars I Have Seen, in which she wrote that some men who say they want to defeat an aspect of history most embody the history they want to defeat: Hitler looked to the future, and used some of technology’s most destructive tools, but he hated modernism and his concept of identity was old and tribal; and it is a tribalism still observant in society in beliefs in essential identities and fundamental spiritual doctrines. The long-held Christian belief that rejection of Jesus was a cause of Jewish misery was part of the ground for the growth of Nazism, according to some thinkers: see The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust by Donald L. Niewyk and Francis R. Nicosia, Columbia University Press, 2003;133. Today, both Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms have condemned individuals and groups for who they are, what they believe, and what they do in their private lives. The conservative Kevin Phillips has written about the inappropriate and frightening Christian impact on the current American presidential administration in American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. Just as wars have been inspired by and fought over gods that do not exist, civic discourse has been fueled by arguments over identities that do not exist or that exist only in faith and rhetoric. Religion is superstition, unproved and unprovable belief. I heard a radio program recently in which a political organizer said that many young Americans of Jewish heritage are well-educated and few practice any religion.

The best of western civilization—as embodied in art, philosophy, and science—has affirmed choice and consciousness, but a return to the fundamentalisms of tribe or religion or the body, though disguised as morality or progress or sexuality, is a subversion of civilization. What we call identity is often an accumulation of attitudes, desires, fears, and habits created by circumstances and choices, conscious and unconscious choices, made in response to intimidations and temptations, deprivations and resources, ideals and taboos, and pains and pleasures, that are both gross and subtle. What distinguishes us among the animals are intelligence, and an ability to change. To reject individual difference and possibility is to reject humanity; and to confuse the social role or place of a group of people with their value, and to see a group of people as demons, is to reject humanity.

There are few things more horrendous than a government turning against the people within its power, and subjecting them to harassment, property theft, incarceration, and murder: it is a catastrophe for those it happens to (it is a catastrophe for all, though only time reveals this). The Nuremberg Trials, conducted from 1945 to 1949, were important because they emphasized that the Nazis committed crimes against humanity. However, knowledge of suffering is only inconsistently ennobling or illuminating: if it were itself the only necessary key to empathy or wisdom, Israeli Jews would not tolerate the Israeli government’s treatment of the Arab Palestinians, nor would governments in America and Europe fail to intervene in places such as Rwanda and Darfur.

We say often that a work is important for being an embodiment of memory, an acknowledgement of tragedy or moral wrong and a warning, but how many reminders do we need? The purpose of criticism is to describe, explain, and judge the work of an artist or thinker: is it beautiful, good, useful? The language of criticism can seem distant, but the practice is intimate: one enters a work, dwells within it, and then writes one’s report after one leaves. With luck, criticism becomes celebration. I cannot celebrate the history described by Alain Resnais’s film Night and Fog, a film of dignified honesty, forceful discipline, and a passion so resolute and true it does not have to remark on itself, a great film, but I can celebrate the gift of art and intelligence that it is.

When Night and Fog was scheduled to appear at the Cannes film festival in 1956, the German government asked that it be withdrawn; and the film festival organizers agreed to show the film out of competition, and the best short film prize went to another film, but, possibly ironically, the film was then shown in Bonn and Berlin and subsequently made available throughout West Germany, according to “Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog)” by James Leahy (Senses of Cinema, 2003). Other films, Marcel Ophul’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), both with significant attention given to the great travails of the Jews during the last century’s second world war, would follow. These films no longer belong to any one country; they belong to the world. Night and Fog, for what is says and how, is accepted as a classic; and books such as Uncovering the Holocaust, edited by Ewout van der Knaap (Wallflower Press, 2006) and Afterimage: Film, Trauma, and the Holocaust(Temple University Press, 2003) have been devoted to it. Hitler and his men had sought the cover of night and fog to move against—and move—people, particularly resisters; and Resnais’s film clears away the fog, exposing the facts to light.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud, by Simon van der Heym, a book that might have been titled The Dutch Holocaust Survivor as Businessman, Husband, and Father. He has also written about Michael Radford’s film interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice,Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water, and Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda for “If I describe a certain set of my interests, people think I’m one kind of person; and if I describe another set of my interests they think I’m another kind—and I do not know if this says something about the power of reason or its limits,” says Garrett, whose work has also appeared in the pages of The African,, American Book Review, Anything That Moves, Changing Men, The Humanist,,, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.