Skip to main content

The 'Fog' of World War II: History and Mis-Contextualization in Alain Renais' Renowned Documentary

By Betsy McLane

Night and Fog: A Film in History
By Sylvie Lindeperg
Translated from the French by Tom Mesv Visible Evidence, Volume 28
University of Minnesota Press, 20140

No subject in history has received as much examination for its visible evidence as the Nazi concentration and death camps, and no documentary about the camps has created as much controversy as Night and Fog (1956), directed by Alan Resnais. I write "directed by," rather than "a film by," because after reading Night and Fog: A Film in History by Sylvie Lindeperg, I realize that this seminal film is the product of many, sometimes warring, sensibilities, both individual and organizational.

Night and Fog—at least images from it—became my first memory of the Holocaust. As Lindeperg reveals, the film—or rather, parts of it—didn't reach the American public until 1960. Under a legal contract with Argos Films, sequences were lifted whole and repurposed into a "talking heads" television program for Metropolitan Broadcasting Corporation that was produced by Ted Yates, directed by Arnee Nocks and entitled Remember Us. A studio-bound commentator interpolated pieces of Night and Fog with interviews of Jewish survivors, thus linking Night and Fog's original and archival images to the Holocaust, a theme that was not the film's original intention.

That this "Americanization" presents itself only on page 212 is indicative of two of the book's major characteristics. First, it is an impeccable work of original historical scholarship presented in a precise chronological order; and second, it is overwhelmingly French in perspective and tone. Tom Mes' translation is not mellifluous prose; I had to look up words, even in English. Lindeperg is a much-published professor of history at the University of Paris. Her method is meticulous, the facts are revelatory, and the explanation of the genesis, making, distribution and reception of Night and Fog is fascinating.

Lindeperg uses the life and life's work of another historian to both frame and form her narrative. Olga Wormser-Migot, the "missing link" in the making of Night and Fog, was a teacher when the Nazis invaded France. As a Jew under Vichy law, her career as a historian was blocked. After the liberation in 1944, friends from the French Resistance asked her to join the new Ministry for Prisoners, Deportees and Refugees.

Having previously worked at the Center for Information on Prisoners of War, Wormser quickly realized there was a significant difference in information and records available for the two main categories of French deportees to Nazi camps: 1) "prisoners of war," aka Resistance fighters; and 2) largely unnamed "others"—victims of racial discrimination such as Jews and Gypsies. For the second category of persons, there was official secrecy, lack of deportee rolls, and an absence of lists of liberated prisoners to testify about their experiences. There were not even laws to provide the second class of detainees with official status.

Confronted with this, Wormser began a lifelong investigation and analysis of the facts involved in building and operating the Nazi camps. One outcome of this work was Night and Fog. The idea for the documentary grew from an exhibit, "Resistance, Liberation, Deportation," organized by Wormser and fellow historian and Ministry employee Henri Michel in 1954 at the Musée Pedagogique, with the support of the government's Comité d'Histoire de la Deuxieme Guerre Mondial and the Reseau du Souvenir, an organization composed almost entirely of members of the Resistance and their families that was dedicated to keeping alive the memory of French deportees.

Wormser and Michel conducted exhaustive research throughout Europe about the camps, and the exhibit they created was a political and popular success. Since no French film on the deportation and the camps existed apart from a 1945 newsreel compilation, the Ministry commissioned Argos Films, which had a reputation for artistically ambitious and award-winning shorts, to produce a short documentary. Argos' first choice for director was Nicole Vedres, who turned down the job. Resnais, the next choice, had directed the 1948 Oscar-winning documentary short, Van Gogh.

Once Resnais was hired, he took total directorial control of the film, while Michel and Wormser remained deeply involved. The middle section of the book details their collaborative work: painstaking research of documents, photographs and archival film, as well as scouting locations. Resnais' contract stipulated that he collaborate with Wormser and Michel on the script. Wormser wrote a historical script that focused on the camps' construction, operations and the 1942 Nazi policy shift when they became factories for extermination. Michel was key in raising money. Both were present during shooting at Auschwitz-Birkenau-Majdanek and in the editing room. Resnais was always the artistic force, opting to shoot in both black and white and Eastmancolor 35mm.

Noted poet Jean Cayrol, who was one of the earliest members of the French Resistance and a survivor of Mauthhausen-Gusen camp, wrote the narration. His first draft was unusable and his anguish at revisiting pictures of the camps unbearable. Chris Marker rewrote the narration, adjusting its rhythm to fit the editing. Upon reading Marker's version and with Marker's support, Cayrol returned to write, this time in the editing room. Tellingly, the final narration contains no direct reference to Germany. Actor Michel Bouquet, already a stage star, agreed to be the narrator, without screen credit; it was felt that having his name on screen would seem frivolous. Bouquet was also shocked at Night and Fog's images, but was able to deliver the "absolute neutrality in spite of the emotions I was feeling," that Resnais wanted. Wormser was present at the recording, guiding Bouquet through dozens of retakes to get correct pronunciations. She was also there for the music recording session. At Marker's suggestion, East German/Jewish composer Hanns Eisler was hired to write the score. Eisner, like Cayrol, suffered a breakdown when confronted with the images in Night and Fog, but managed to complete his work. Lindeperg relates all of these stories and more in a matter-of-fact way that de-emphasizes their drama and focuses on their political and cultural contexts.

In the chapter "The Darkness of the Editing Room," Lindeperg analyzes the beautiful formal structural oppositions that Resnais, with an editor and two assistants, created as she describes the many problems involved. She explains how filmmakers in 1955 saw the archival footage and photographs in a very different way than we do in 2015. Some of the most iconic archival images in Night and Fog were mis-contextualized—usually unintentionally because their actual sources, subjects and purposes were then unknown. For example, the narration never mentions the Final Solution, but the montage of stills preceding the gas chamber footage at Birkenau seems to imply that prisoners of any type, rather than primarily Jews, were gassed. Some of the stills in this sequence had nothing to do with the gassing. Resnais made choices from the research at hand; he had no way of knowing that in some cases he was using the only visual material ever captured for a particular atrocity. There was no access to footage held by the Russians, Americans or British.

Discrepancies in identifying images, which have created great controversies about the film over the decades, occupy much of the book's latter third. Night and Fog's contentious out-of-competition screening at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and the story of the film's distribution in Europe, Japan, USSR and the US make sense only if one understands the slippery geo-political shifts at play from World War II, the immediate post-war recriminations against Germany, the economic rehabilitation of Germany and Japan, and the Cold War. As she does throughout her book, Lindeperg assumes that the reader has a sophisticated understanding of twentieth century history.

It is in the various readings of film images and the assumptions those readings can precipitate that I find her book most profound. Images from Night and Fog (those shot specifically for the film, not only the archival materials) are themselves often reused, misread, abused and subjected to falsification, sometimes in the guise of fair use. What Resnais and others conceived of as a historical work of art meant in part to comment on their current political situation, now resides in the pantheon of great documentaries and in the collective memory of twentieth century war. Tens of millions have seen parts of the film without ever understanding their origin, while filmmakers, writers and artists continue to appropriate pieces to their own ends.

My own trip to Auschwitz Birkenau in 2010 was unreal, hyper-real and harrowing. One phenomenon overlaid everything: Everywhere, I saw scenes from Night and Fog. Resnais’ framing of the entry gate, the measured shifts between color and black and white, panning, tracking and still shots, the heaps of hair and the lengths of the barracks—I knew these and could not separate what was in front of my eyes from the film playing behind my eyes. Most striking was feeling the dolly shot pull me along the pitiful latrines and the force of camera movement that carried me, as it had carried Resnais and crew, alongside the train tracks that had carried people to the platform where they were separated—one side to the barracks, the other to the gas chamber.

Night and Fog gave me a context, a literal frame of art through which I could watch the unwatchable. Lindeperg's book does something similar for the film itself, and readers willing to tackle it and the film will find the effort well rewarded.


Betsy A. McLane, Ph.D. is director emeritus of IDA and the author of A New History of Documentary Film, Second Edition.