‘The first glance of the camp it’s like another planet.’
Alain Resnais’ documentary about the Holocaust and, specifically, the inception and development of concentration camps is now available on DVD. Originally released a decade after the wider world became aware, through newsreel footage, of the existence of the Nazis’ horrific project Nuit et brouillard approaches its subject by exploring the actual sites as they stood some 10 years after the end of World War 2, edited together with documentary footage from the time of their creation as well as the Allies’ discovery of the horrors during the closing parts of the war.
Although many documentaries have been made about the Holocaust, Nuit et brouillard is one of the earliest to look beyond the newsreel footage and tries to take a different approach, revealing details to an audience who may have been less aware or, at least, have different perceptions about what occurred. It does this in a way that is modern, inventive and relentless in all aspects of its revelations, using detailed discussions and footage to inform and, occasionally, shock. An early film from Alain Resnais, this is finally getting a release in its original length (which is just about 30 minutes), covering a remarkably detailed series of events that confront the shocking revelations as though desperately trying to understand the horrors. The depth, enormity and variety of the suffering involved is virtually impossible to comprehend; as the documentary itself asks, ‘who does know anything?’
Visually and structurally, the artistic approach to the filmmaking places this as a contemporary (1950s) exploration of events of the past and how they alter perspective of the present. Resnais and cinematographer Sacha Vierny filmed the contemporary scenes in colour, which clearly places the black and white archive clips and filmed photographic shots as shots from the past. The camerawork is notable for its composition, whether it is showing the fresh green grass growing through tracks of disused railways that transported innocents to their horrible deaths or revealing forensic architectural evidence of unimaginable atrocities.
Although no film could truly confront the full details, horrors, mercilessness and bizarre actualities of the multiple concentration camps, their histories and their hellish cruelties, Nuit et broulliard has a real power in the way it deals with details that it admits it cannot fully expand upon. It depicts these images to make you understand the enormity of the inhumanity, the horrors perpetrated, the clearly defined and designed methods for killing noted on the ‘hundreds of ledgers, thousands of files’ and the emotionally bereft savagery of ‘occasionally just killing them out of boredom.’
Nuit et brouillard is not an easy film to engage with, it has numerous scenes of mind-numbing atrocities, of naked, malnourished victims staggering to prescribed executions, of mutilations and corpses, of ghastly torture that deny any hint of humanity, of execution chambers that ‘looked like normal rooms.’ But the purpose of the film is not simply to dwell upon the horror but to record the events and document the awful abilities of human beings to engage in a cruel brutality that defies comprehension and powerfully envisages savage barbarity of terrifying proportions. Nuit et brouillard, for all its horrific depiction of atrocity and death, succeeds in its purpose as a thoughtfully constructed and powerfully realised revelation of man’s inhumanity to man.