Before venturing into feature films three years later, director Alain Resnais was approached by producer Anatole Dauman to direct a short film on Nazi Germany's concentration camps. Using a dry, almost factual text by Jean Cayrol - himself a camp survivor - with "neutral" narration by Michel Bouquet, Resnais' brilliant editorial skills combined archival black & white footage with new colour material.
Visiting the former camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, Resnais and his sensitive team of cinematographers adopted a pacing akin to a curious Sunday afternoon walk; tracking down hallways, panning along the rust-infested barbed wire fences, and calm pauses at the disintegrating ruins and near-mundane camp offices, where indescribable horrors occurred.
Criterion's DVD offers a new digital transfer of the film from a 35mm interpositive, with digital cleanup for dust, scratches, and other artifacts. The sound has also been cleaned up, and Hanns Eisler's exquisite music can be relished in an isolated music track.
A rather compact DVD, some may wonder why a two-disc Alain Resnais set wasn't created instead, pairing "Night and Fog" with Criterion's "Hiroshima Mon Amour;" two films dealing with levels of human suffering during World War II. A DVD release requires focus and sensitivity to its subject, and while there's several threads linking both films, each ultimately deserves its own pedestal, so viewers can thoroughly appreciate their artistry and meaning without connective theorizing.
Included in this DVD release is an extract from a 1994 audio interview with Resnais from the program "Les Etoiles du cinema" (The Stars of the Cinema). Like "Night and Fog," the French audio is accompanied by optional English subtitles, and though quite brief, Resnais describes the project's genesis, and the stumbling block that led to a curious compromise with France's official censor to ensure the film would be released with its final reel of graphic camp footage.
The film's structure is very gradual, easing the viewer into the narrative as camp construction, the relocation of Jews, camp maintenance, daily horrors, and camp liberation are explained. The last ten minutes are horrific, often gory black & white images of atrocities that were shot in part by allied war cameramen, as documents of Nazi crimes against humanity. In that respect, sensitive viewers should be forewarned, although a more potent assembly of the footage can be found in an incomplete documentary called "Memory of the Camps," with editorial supervision by Alfred Hitchcock. Found in England's Imperial War Museum, the surviving footage and original text was broadcast in 1985 by Frontline on PBS, with newly recorded narration by Trevor Howard. A detailed history of the 55-minute documentary - worth seeing as an adjunct to "Night and Fog" - can be found at:
Criterion's DVD also includes nine crew profiles, written by veteran film historian Peter Cowie. Pretty succinct, the profiles - of director Resnais, producer Dauman, writer Cayrol, cinematographers Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny, composer Eisler, historical consultants Olga Wormser and Henri Michael, and assistant director Chris Marker - offer some basic career backgrounds, crew contributions to the film, and later film credits.
Cowie also penned an essay in the 8-page booklet, along with a more scholarly assessment of the film by Phillip Lopate, and a career overview of composer Eisler, written by Russell Lack (author of "Twenty-Four Frames Under: A Buried History of Film Music").
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan