Saturday, June 10, 2006

Night And Fog (Resnais, 1955)

Night and Fog is not a documentary. It is, actually, a film that is utterly convinced of its own inability to document or take any meaningful action. This is a retrospective essay and a dirge all at once.

The film is obsessed with deceptive surfaces. The building plans for the concentration camps being made for their unwitting victims. Crematoria that look like normal buildings. Sick sites of cruel human experiments disguised as clinics. The infamous shower-rooms-as-gas-chambers that fooled the prisoners and the whole world alike. Like the filmmakers, like the viewer, the world stood by, inactive. The Nazi and holocaust machines were built, turned on, and operated all without any one doing a damn thing, for far too long.

The shots of present-day ruins of concentration camps are likewise permeated with an inability to comprehend, recreate, empathize, or do anything. "It is useless to describe," we are told, "what went on in these cells." "If you must know," we are told, the only signs of the gas chamber victims are the marks their fingernails left in the concrete ceiling. The narrator voices our inability to comprehend. No, we are stuck here with a painful memory that, toward the end of the film, we are told is slowly drifting away, being covered up. "It is useless to describe," but the film doesn't believe that. These present-day shots are yet another example of a deceptive surface: while we are horrified by the past, we delegate it to the past. We are convinced that these ruins represent not the end of physical buildings and lives, but of the mentality behind them. We are, in essence, in danger of repeating our mistakes because we don't acknowledge the deceptive surface. Just like before.

Filmmaker, viewer, past, and present are implicated as variably incapable of or unwilling to take action concerning the holocaust. This gives an emphatic quality to what is not documented. As we try to make sense of these past events, and fail, there is only one course: to try to apply them to the present. And that's what Resnais would have us do.

The difference between something like this and Schindler's List is that the latter does not admit its inability to comprehend and recreate. It amounts to, at times, "wow, this sucks, huh?" and smacks of exploitation despite the respect the filmmakers may have and display. It also undermines the horrors by focusing on a drop-in-a-bucket positive event. In the end, it glosses over what Night and Fog implies with the force of large mallet to the face when you're not looking. We cannot (and should not) hope to see the fingers clawing or the head's being shaved, but we have the nail marks and mounds of hair to prove that they did happen. The trick is not letting it happen again, and these deserted camps stand as monuments to the necessary, however painful, memory, so long as we also remember that they could very well be built again if we assume they won't.


Blogger JavierAG said...

I'm loving these capsules. Fabulous writing.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Nikolus Ziegler said...

Thanks for the compliment.

2:40 PM  

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