From Night and Fog to Shoah:
Holocaust Films in the
(1985) p. 5
Introduction (back to top)
A documentary can be a vehicle for witnessing many events, whether they are pleasing or traumatic. Both Alain Resnais' Night and Fog and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah act as vehicles for witnessing the events of the Holocaust. Yet Resnais and Lanzmann, because of their respective times, use their documentaries to depict the events around the Holocaust in different ways. Resnais' Night and Fog tries to shock and capture audiences with brutal historical footage in black and white contrasting with "present" day color footage of the same places. Claude Lanzmann's Shoah tries to provoke the audience into thinking about the accounts being told by the survivors, bystanders, and the perpetrators. The differences in the documentaries are simultaneously wrapped in the directors' purpose(s) of making these documentaries and the times/events surrounding each one. I will argue that Resnais' Night and Fog, which was released in 1955, while wars in Indochina and Algeria were going on, is about the atrocities France was committing in both countries. The universality of this short documentary allowed all strata of French society to encapsulate their "holocaust" in that film and use it to protest against the atrocities being committed in their name. When Lanzmann's Shoah was released in 1985, many attacks on Jewish synagogues were happening and important Nazi criminals were being put on trial. I will argue that Lanzmann's documentary was very influential in promoting survivor memorials and testimonies. Both documentaries were used for different reasons and made in different styles: Resnais' film is short and full of gruesome historical footage, while Lanzmann's is extraordinarily long and made up of interviews. While Resnais released his documentary Night and Fog just ten years after the camps were liberated, Lanzmann released his film forty years after the Holocaust.
Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1955) (back to top)
Alain Resnais' documentary is only 30 minutes long, yet it explores many difficult topics like comparing the time of the immediate postwar period and the 1950s (seeing how "easy" it was to forget), who was responsible for such atrocities, and Holocaust denial. In Andre Pierre Colombat's book The Holocaust in French Film, Alain Resnais said "I've always refused the word 'memory' a propos my work… I would use the word imagination." Resnais weaves remembrance and creativity in Night and Fog. The documentary is composed of fourteen brief color segments showing Auschwitz in 1955, interrupted by thirteen longer black and white scenes of historical footage. It begins with the most ordinary shots of Europe and then leads into the dreadful events of the Holocaust. Throughout this documentary viewers are asked to locate this information in "our" selective memory. Resnais does this to prod the audience into remembering the events of the Holocaust, that France was a collaborator under the Vichy Regime, and the events going on during the 1950s.
Different cinematic techniques were used to delve into the many layers of this memory. There were three main types of techniques used in Resnais' Night and Fog: the use of color (or lack of it), the soundtrack, and the chilling remoteness of Jean Cayrol's text paired with the narrator's voice. While panning around Auschwitz and showing a scene of mountains of women's hair we hear:
Today, on the same track there is sunlight. We run through it slowly. In search of what? Of traces of corpses that collapsed as soon as the doors were open, or in search of the first unloaded passengers pushed to the entrance of the camp among the barking of the dogs, the lighting of the projectors. In the distance, the plumes of the crematorium.
The first few scenes in Resnais' documentary are in color, they are of the train tracks leading into Auschwitz. But one does not know that right away. It is supposed to be tranquil and disarming at first, but once you realize where you are you understand that the Holocaust concerned the killings of over ten million individuals. The black and white footage of the camps comes into his film later. Resnais used footage from Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 The Triumph of Will documentary, and he filmed new footage to "balance" this tranquility in his short film. Some of the brutal images, like severed heads and dismembered bodies, are brief. They serve to jolt the consciousness of the viewers.
The soundtrack of Night and Fog is one of stark contrasts. When a scene is very emotionally charged (black and white), such as the footage of the severed heads, the music is light and barely audible. When a scene is soft and tranquil (color scenes) like the landscape footage of the "present," it is exactly the opposite. For example: 
… such explosive oppositions are of course very frequent in Night and Fog…The most famous might be the documentary's presentations inside a camp of a symphonic orchestra, a zoo, green houses, Goethe's oak, an orphanage, a hospital for invalids…Such sequences are immediately followed by the incredibly violent punishments, humiliations and executions of the prisoners
Alain Resnais worked with the German composer Hanns Eisler to score Night and Fog. Resnais said the following about Eisler's composition: "the more violent the images are the gentler is the music…Eisler wanted to show that the optimism and hope of man always existed in the background."
Just as with the music, the text and the narration of the text are characterized by contrasts as well. Resnais wrote in 1966:
I yearn for a cinema in which the text would play the role of true music…I dream of a great film in which we would hear a language that would be like Shakespeare's or Giraudoux's…I do not see why we should have the right to hear a text with true literary value, simply because we are sitting in a dark room
An example of this is when Resnais pans around Auschwitz and uses black and white footage to accompany it. The narration was is cold and so distant, the opposite of the provoking images. One specific example is a scene of the crematorium ruins, twisted wires, deteriorating watchtowers and chambers, worn down and cracked concrete of Auschwitz. With this scene is this text, read by the narrator: "those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened only once, at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see who do not hear the cry to the end of time."
In both Jean Cayrol's text and in the narrator's voice, there is no emotion, only the facts of misconceptions about the Holocaust held by people who lived close to the time of the actual event. The tone of the narrator's voice is monotone, chosen exactly for those qualities. As Resnais said in 1966, it "creates in and of itself an atmosphere of threatening fate," and "[t]he voice supports the text and insists on its meanings but creates no melody, leaving that to the musical series itself."
This documentary is short and powerful. The footage is meant both to make an impression on viewers and to promote deep reflection among the viewers, to get them/us thinking about the Holocaust and other atrocities that may be going on in the present day. It worked in my Modern European History class, so it probably worked then. I remember walking out of that classroom after the film was shown and not being able to stop thinking about it. Francois Trauffaut wrote, about two decades after the documentary was made, that he had a similar reaction to this film:
Night and Fog is a sublime film about which it is difficult to speak. Any adjective, any aesthetic judgment would be out of place in speaking of this work, which is not an "indictment or a "poem" but a "meditation" on the deportation. The film's impact lies entirely in the tone adopted by the filmmakers: a terrifying mildness. You leave the theater feeling "devastated" and not very happy with yourself.
Alain Resnais' documentary is meant to do that. If you leave the theater as Truffaut describes, you are ready either to remember the past or to think of it in a new light. This thinking then leads to other intellectual/scholarly work being produced; either agreeing and expounding on Holocaust remembrance or refuting a point and arguing a different side. Intellectual debate was needed during the 1950s and the 1960s, when France was engaged in two colonial wars, one with Indochina and one with Algeria.
France during the 1950s (back to top)
Within months of each other two major events in French history occurred: the fall of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam (7 May 1954) and the insurrection in Algeria (1 Nov. 1954). Those two events play a major role in the memories of people. French imperialism/colonialism in Indochina and Algeria trigger memories of the Nazi occupation of France during WWII and the Vichy Regime's collaboration with Hitler's Germany. France's position in Indochina was one of protecting French global power/influence abroad. However, France's position in Algeria was one of protecting an "extension" of France. For France had been in Algeria since the 1830s and actually had settlers living in Algeria, so the Fourth Republic's viewpoint was to keep safe France's colonies and territories so they could try and rival other world powers. The 1950s and 1960s were a time of decolonization, and many individuals, intellectuals and others, felt a growing political affinity for restructuring world power.
One such intellectual was Alain Resnais. When he was asked what Night and Fog was about, he replied that "it was all about Algeria." Resnais' film was short and quick so that the message of atrocities (Holocaust or not) could get transmitted to the public and generate questions for the audience to ponder and to try and search out the answers. For Resnais, he wanted his audience to question France's position in Indochina and in Algeria. Should France be sending troops there to quell the peoples in Indochina and in Algeria? Should France pull its troops out and let the Algerian people have an independent country like they want? By putting such shocking footage together with such ambiguous messages, Resnais was very effective in instigating critical thoughts on nationalism and France's colonial/imperial role.
Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985) (back to top)
Claude Lanzmann's documentary Shoah, with over nine hours of documentary and interview footage, is often praised as "the" masterpiece on the extermination of the European Jews. Whereas Resnais' Night and Fog is universal in its message with atrocities, Lanzmann's documentary deals specifically with the extermination of the European Jews in Poland. Yet, however specific Lanzmann's documentary may be, he stated "I wanted to show the absolute character of the Jewish tragedy… I wanted to show how the Jews were taken and how they were alone, abandoned by the world. That is the tragedy." Why pick Poland, of all places, over France? This is the question that Henry Rousso addresses: 
Why attach such importance to Polish anti-Semitism rather than to the anti-Semitism of other countries, such as France, that participated more or less voluntarily in the Final Solution?...What historical link is there between the undeniable anti-Semitism of the Poles and the location of Nazi death camps in Poland (occupied and partly annexed by the Third Reich)? Is there any reason to think that, if the Poles had not been anti-Semitic, they would have done any more than anyone else to stop the slaughter? These judgments are implicit in the editing and structure of the film it makes no difference that all the words are spoken by actual participants in the drama: victims, torturers, and "others." Yet the force of the film lies precisely in its subjectivity, in the filmmakers avowed partiality. The significance of the film would have been lost if it had tried to be "historical," which is to say didactic and impartial.
Lanzmann said, in the same interview with Richard Bernstein, "What would happen in Poland?...I thought I would see an absence…a void." He went there with nothing at first – no camera, no translator, just himself. He wanted Poland to be an example of the Jewish peoples' suffering during the Holocaust. In his documentary he asks the minute questions to get the bigger picture of the Holocaust, to show the mechanized nature of the Nazi plan to annihilate the Jewish peoples of Europe. Lanzmann always said that his documentary was "not a historical film … it is a work of art."  Because he asked such specific questions, he had to narrow the focus of his documentary, for it would have taken him many more years and hundreds more hours of film to travel about each country in Europe and interview dozens of witnesses. He zoomed in on the experiences that Polish Jews had during the Holocaust. My sources were almost unanimous that Lanzmann's documentary is wonderful in detailing the Polish experience. However, they also say that his only sin is the sin of omission. His film excludes other Jewish (and non-Jewish) peoples' Holocaust experiences. It is so specific that it leaves out the voices of gypsies, homosexuals, so-called asocials, criminals, and prisoners of war. However, what Lanzmann tries to document is extremely hard to capture. One of the first survivors we encounter in Shoah says "This is an untellable story." Instead of trying to universalize the interviews/situations he presents in Shoah, he keeps a tight reign on his documentary by keeping it focused on his subjects. To Lanzmann, and to others, his documentary is a mixture of artful footage and insightful testimonies by survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators. Simone de Beauvior, in her preface to the published screenplay, wrote: 
Through careful and methodical planning and questioning, Lanzmann was able to wrench out the stories that needed to be heard. His eleven years and 350 hours of footage attest to the thoroughness of his documentary. He modeled his interviewing style after Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity, made in 1969. Because that film deals with the French Resistance during the occupation and questions France's role as collaborator, the film had deep resonance with Claude Lanzmann, who had been an active member of the Resistance to Occupied France, and who had resisted France's role in Algeria. Marcel Ophuls himself said that Shoah "was the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made, bar none, and by far the greatest film I've ever seen about the Holocaust." 
Lanzmann has to nit-pick his every question and his every location, for he has a certain vision of what his "art" will look like. This paper was published on a website at UC Santa Barbara in 2004. He uses goading questions in order to elicit certain responses (or lack thereof) from his interviewees. His many years of tracking down and then setting up times with these survivors, bystanders and perpetrators were no easy feat. In his interviews, Lanzmann wastes no time. When he talks to Abraham Bomba, a barber who had to shave the heads of Jews who would be gassed, he had to prod out the rest of the man's testimony: 
(L) We have to do it. You know it.
Here Lanzmann was able to probe with small, pleading questions until Bomba acquiesced and allowed the interview about his traumatic experience continue. By asking the smaller questions to Bomba, Lanzmann was able to get further in the interview than another director would have. He even went to the extreme trouble of renting out a barber shop so that Bomba would cut hair again, whilst doing the interview. In another interview, with Joseph Oberhauser we see Lanzmann use silence and avoidance as means to convey a pertinent message that these perpetrators feel guilty for their deeds done during the Holocaust.
Here Lanzmann enters a beer hall with a camera and seeks out this former Nazi officer of the Belzec extermination camp. He goes straight to the bar and begins the interview with a seemingly harmless question: 
(L) Excuse me. How many quarts of beer a day do you sell? You can't tell
Claude Lanzmann wanted to show, through Oberhauser's silences, his avoidance of the camera, and refusal to answer questions, that Oberhauser does indeed remember Belzec and the overflowing graves and that he feels shameful about his deeds. By showing this to the audience, Lanzmann is able to show how the perpetrators of the Holocaust "feel" about their past actions.
With a camera, himself, and at times a translator, Lanzmann is able to grab the attention of audiences by allowing survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators to tell their stories. The type of discourse created by Lanzmann in his documentary Shoah, which is transmitted by the interviewee to the audience members, is perfect for the times. In the 11 years during which Claude Lanzmann worked on the film, 1974-1985, made a documentary that was not like Holocaust films before his.
France during the late 1970s and early 1980s (back to top)
Anti-Semitism was still in existence in France after the war was over, even if those in France wanted to believe differently. There were many court scandals and pardons that occurred during the 1970s that put the spotlight on France and illuminated her anti-Semitism. The analyzation of the Touvier Affair will show that remembrance of the Holocaust was in jeopardy in France during the 1970s. By looking at this one can see what French intellectuals, such as Claude Lanzmann, had to try and disentangle from their society if the Holocaust wanted to remain untouched by revisionists' hands.
Paul Touvier became the first Frenchman ever to be found guilty of "crimes against humanity" for ordering the killing of seven Jews in 1944, while serving the collaborationist Vichy government. Touvier said this was for retaliation for the killing of Philippe Henriot, the Vichy minister of information, and that more Jews might have been killed if the Nazis had not been appeased. After being captured in 1947, Touvier escaped his captors and went into hiding. The statute of limitations for Touvier's crimes came up in 1967. In 1971 he was given a pardon by President Georges Pompidou, permitting him to return to Lyon. Even after many letters of protest and, essentially, hate mail, Pompidou did not back down or change his mind. Henry Rousso documents this speech in his book: 
Over the past thirty years or so, our country has lived through a series of dramatic events. The war, the defeat and its humiliations, the Occupation and its horrors, the Liberation, and in reaction the purge and -- let us be frank -- its excesses, the war in Indochina, and then the dreadful Algerian conflict and its horrors, on both sides, and the exodus of a million French citizens driven from their homes, followed immediately by the OAS and its murderous attacks and violence, and then, in reaction, the repression. As one who was denounced by the men of Vichy to the German police and who twice escaped assassination attempts by the OAS, once at General de Gaulle's side and once in attack aimed directly at me, I feel I have the right to ask if we are going to keep the wounds of our national discord bleeding eternally. Hasn't the time come to draw a veil over the past, to forget a time when Frenchmen dislike one another, attacked one another, and even killed one another? I say this not out of political calculation, although I see that there are some sharp minds here, but out of respect for France.
Rousso states that Pompidou's motives were to act out of clemency. After being indicted in 1973, he vanished. He evaded the law until 1989, when he was captured at a monastery in Nice. "I regret nothing," he said at his arrest. Touvier died from prostate cancer at the age of 81 in 1996, while incarcerated. This example shows that an important figure in French society was telling people they should lay the past to rest and move on. This is exactly what Lanzmann did not want to happen. In Annette Insdorf's book Lanzmann says, "I have a strong sense of urgency to relive all of it, to retrace the steps." Lanzmann, in a voice over in the film, says "I'll help you remember," and as Insdorf notes, it is a main theme in Shoah. Insdorf also recounts an interview with the director in which Lanzmann states "memories are full of holes…But if you re-create the scene in concrete conditions, you get not just memory but a re-living." 
Waves of anti-Semitic attacks began in the late 1980s, with those attacks being on synagogues and other demonstrations motivated by racial prejudice. Throughout 1980-81 there were attacks and counterdemonstrations that surrounded feelings of France at this time. In 1983 Klaus Barbie was charged for crimes against humanity and the German newsweekly Der Stern published Hitler's purported diaries, which later turned out to be forgeries. Of this Colombat writes: 
The impact of Shoah in the France of the late eighties was increased by Klaus Barbie's arrest and trial, the various anti-Semitic terrorist actions of the late seventies and early eighties (rue de Medicis, 1979; rue Copernic, 1980; and at Jo Golderberg's restaurant, 1982), the various scandals surrounding the "theses" of the revisionnistes (Faurisson's trial, 1983) as well as the announcement of the trial of various French Collaborators (Leguay, Touvier, Papon; 1979, 1981, 1983.)
The trial of Klaus Barbie happened during the mid to late 1980s, a time when many survivors were facing their historicization through the processes of the courts. The courtroom served as somewhat of an "educator" an avenue for national memory of France's Vichy past and deeds done by Nazis to the Holocaust victims and survivors. The Klaus Barbie trial, and others trials, allowed Holocaust survivors to come forward and tell their stories. Because people were moving away from "simple" discussion to violent/radical actions, new means of information on the Jewish tragedies in the Holocaust needed to be created and distributed. Lanzmann's Shoah had to show this because he "felt that archive film of the death camps was losing its impact upon audiences."  Shoah's film style of interviews was needed during this time to juxtapose the violent attacks going on in France.
The court ruling on whether Klaus Barbie would be tried took place in 1985, the same time that Lanzmann's Shoah was released. He was charged with "crimes against humanity," and the actual trial took place from May to July of 1987. Henry Rousso documents in his book that Shoah was "broadcast on French television during the Barbie trial."  Claude Lanzmann's documentary is similar to the court testimonies given by Barbie's victims. As Lanzmann himself said at the time of the Barbie trial, about the remembrance of atrocities: 
What counts is not education, which is teaching of lifeless knowledge. It is transmission, resurrection, abolition of the distance between past and present. Trials are not memorials…. If what is at stake is transmission, in the sense of transmitting what actually happened, it was more important to make Shoah than to have a trial forty years after the fact.
While anti-Semitism in French history was undergoing harsh scrutiny in his country, Lanzmann wanted to remind people of the atrocities committed during World War II, while staying within a present day context.
Conclusion (back to top)
The atmosphere surrounding Night and Fog was the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the liberation of the camps, and the France's wars in Indochina and Algeria. Knowledge of the camps was disseminated to the public right after liberation and in the years following, but it was not until years later that actual critical discussion of the Holocaust took place. I believe that Resnais set out, with his documentary, to instigate a need for discussion of the Holocaust and apply its lessons to the present. With Shoah, Lanzmann wanted to let the audience hear the words of the people directly involved in the Holocaust, in a more personal setting (as opposed to viewing historical footage). Nevertheless, for what they set out to do, both Night and Fog and Shoah were successful. Both directors and documentaries have won awards and recognition for creating such powerful and moving pieces and for establishing/re-creating a historical discourse of the Holocaust.
Primary Sources (back to top)
Lanzmann, Claude, Shoah (1985) New Yorker Films: 503 minutes.
Resnais, Alain, Night and Fog (1955) 31 minutes.
Secondary Sources (back to top)
Armes, Roy, The Cinema of Alain Resnais. (New York: A. Zwemmer
Austin, Guy, Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction. (Manchester,
New York: Manchester University Press: 1996).
Avisar, Ilan, Screening the Holocaust: Cinema's Images of the Unimaginable.
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988).
Colombat, Andre Pierre, The Holocaust in French Film. (London: The Scarecrow Press, 1993). This book looks at the representations of the Holocaust in films from Occupation to the present day. The author does this by looking at Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity, and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. This book looks at each film from many different perspectives, visually and textually.
Hirsch, Joshua, After Image: Film, Trauma, and the Holocaust (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 1-87. Hirsch's book focuses specifically on Holocaust documentaries. It has three chapters of relevance here: "Introduction to Film, Trauma, and the Holocaust" (chapter one), "Night and Fog and the Origins of Posttraumatic Cinema" (chapter two), and "Shoah and the Posttraumatic Documentary after Cinema Verité" (chapter three).
Insdorf, Annette, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust
(Cambridge, UK: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2003),
Lanzmann, Claude, Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust.
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1985).
Rousso, Henry, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France
since 1944, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1994, 237-239.
Schreivogel, Paul. A., Night and Fog: A Film Study. (Dayton,
OH: A. Pfaulm Publisher, 1970).
Wilson, Emma, French Cinema Since 1950: Personal Histories
(Lanham, Maryland and Boulder, New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,
Inc., 1999), 83-88.
Notes (back to top)