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Playback: Alain Resnais' 'Night and Fog'

By Michael Apted

Film still from 'Night and Fog'.

Editor's Note: Welcome to "Playback," a new feature in which we invite a documentary filmmaker to reflect on one documentary that had special meaning to him or her. The criteria of selection are wide-open. The film could be a "Desert Island Doc"—the documentary for which one would stake career, livelihood and life to see over and over again. It could be a favorite doc, or what one feels is the most important documentary to the evolution of the genre, or the most influential to one's career as a filmmaker. To help launch Playback, we asked veteran documentarian Michael Apted to share his thoughts with us.

My life is full of film, so it's tough to make a choice of what is good, better, best—to have any idea of what work will stand the test of time. I can only pick what sticks to the back of my brain.

I first saw Alain Resnais' Night and Fog when I was 19, and it has never left me. The half-hour film intercuts archival footage of the Nazi concentration camps with images of them ten years later: desolate, empty blockhouses; broken fences; rusting rail tracks. Resnais uses a lyrical and constant tracking camera to contrast the stark brutality of the newsreel images. This counterpointing of time past and time present is simple and unbearably moving. It is a device that has served me well in some of my documentary work. Looking at the film again after some 40 years, maybe there's a bit too much text and not enough silence, but that was then and style and tastes have changed.

For sure, the documentary has lost none of its remarkable power and, if anything, has gained in resonance. Resnais ends the film with an admonition to his audience: "To those who pretend all this [the Holocaust] happened only once, in a certain place. To those who refuse to look around them—deaf to the endless cry." Who dare argue that most of us basking in the privilege and wealth of the Western world haven't got very hard of hearing?

Michael Apted was honored with the 1999 IDA Career Achievement Award. Two of his films, 28-Up (1984) and Moving the Mountain (1994), earned IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Awards. His latest film, Me & Isaac Newton, airs on HBO/Cinemax this month.