There is a degree of romanticism attached to the past. Stories of eras gone by tend to gloss over the minute details that history must remember in order to be unbiased and accurate. With careful creativity, almost any event can be retold from another perspective. Very few events suffer from the unfortunate nudity of singularity. This is perhaps a bold statement to make, considering that the history of human civilization is at the very least 6,000 years old. However, it cannot be denied that the dispassionate barbarity of the Holocaust is chilling beyond rational comprehension. Since the end of the World War II in 1945, various Social Sciences, like Politics, Sociology, and IR, have tried to analyze and make sense of not only the war itself but also the genocide that was its by-product. According to statistics, close to 11 Million people were killed during the Holocaust, out of which 6 Million were Jews and among them, 1.5 Million victims were children under the age of 15.
The Second World War lasted from 1939 to 1945 and it involved most of the countries of the world, barring some of the states in Africa and Latin America. The conflict was basically fought between two opposing groups of countries, the revisionist axis powers; Germany, Japan, and Italy, and the allied powers; which included France, Britain, USA, USSR, Canada, Belgium and a few other states. Among the things that set the World War two apart from many of its predecessors, are the nuclear bombings of the Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the civilian fatalities that took place systemically in German concentration camps like Bergen Belsen, Dachau, and Auschwitz etc. People of 22 different countries, intercepted at European cities captured by the Germans; Jews, Communists, Intellectuals, Homosexuals, Twin children, Trade unionists, People of color and common criminals were the major victims of the concentration camps.
Night and Fog, a documentary by Alain Resnais is a shocking and highly effective work of art, describing through speculation, the realities of life in Auschwitz and Majdanek. Filmed in 1955, a decade after the end of the WWII, the film walks its viewers through time as the camera makes its way deep into the now abandoned factories of death and despair.
No Place for being: Less than bare life
The documentary, Night and Fog (Originally in French, Nuit et Brouillard) has a fairly simple plot. It goes back and forth in time. Starting with a lonely walk through the compounds of Auschwitz and Majdanek, the narrator grants a powerful background to the desolate imagery. There is something immeasurably vile about a genocide conducted so bureaucratically that everyone involved can simply ease their conscience by telling themselves that they were just following orders. As the film takes us through the various blocks of the camp, the narrator describes how these camps were built like any other government project; with businessmen bidding for the contracts, architects, and laborers employed like for other public works and bribes paid in order to grease the system otherwise heavily loaded down with paperwork. Furthermore, the narrator says that while these camps were being built, their future inhabitants, separated by hundreds of miles and often sharing barely any common characteristics, had no idea that a place was being prepared for them.
Interspersed with the footage of the now abandoned camps, are stock photographs and original videos from the Nazi Germany. These old videos document the ‘efficient’ way in which people were brought into the concentration camps and exterminated in the most ‘productive’ ways possible. This is demonstrated through older black-and-white films from French, Soviet, and Polish newsreels, footage shot by detainees of the Westerbork internment camp in the Netherlands, or by the Allies’ “clean-up” operations.
A difficult film to watch, Night and Fog is moving and captivating. Co-written by Jean Cayrol, a personal friend of Resnais and a survivor of the Holocaust, the documentary uses strong graphic imagery in order to make a statement. Accentuated by a background score that perceptively echoes the emotions of the viewers as they watch the film, Night and Fog goes beyond being just a motion picture.
The film is divided into two sections. The first section deals with the rise of Nazi ideology, the course of the WWII and the sentencing of people to a fate in the camps. The second section deals with the inner realities of a typical camp. The years 1954 and 1955 were marked by a number of commemorations of the WWII. Among these was an exhibition, curated by Olga Wormser and Henri Michel, ‘Resistance, Liberation, Deportation’, which opened on 10 November 1954 at the Institut Pédagogique National (National Teaching Institute) in Paris. The first public announcement of a film dealing with the theme of the Holocaust, was first made on the radio in 1954, on the first day of the exhibition.
The final product that came out of the hard work put in by Resnais, Michel, Wormser and other film crew members of Night and Fog, was stunning in its macabre beauty, sickening at times and mourning the lost souls of an era barely gone by.
Deconstructing Night and Fog: Of hurt personhood and shattered existence
While Night and Fog is brilliant in its simplicity, the compelling storyboard of the movie deals with a large number of themes. These themes often overlap each other and highlight areas otherwise seen as blind spots in the larger framework of history.
Ideology and Ethnic Cleansing
As mentioned before, the first part of the documentary deals with the spread of Nazi ideas. Steeped in Social Darwinism, pseudo-science and classic self-other stereotyping, Nazi ideas helped provide the moral justification for the Holocaust. These were applied through a complex procedure of stripping individuals down to bare life. In other words, people, particularly the Jews were slowly and steadily reduced to less than human, thereby making citizenship and human rights redundant in their case. Basically, a three step process, which began with segregation (wearing the star of David by all Jews), evolved into ghettoization (forcing Jews to live in crowded and limited areas, which they were forbidden to leave) and culminated into deportation to the concentration camps, for the ‘final solution’. Popularly, this process has been described in three sentences; ‘You have no right to live among us as citizens’, ‘You have no right to live among us’, and ‘You have no right to live’.
While the film does not explicitly talk about how inmates came to be in the concentration camps, it does deal with the ideas that justified these camps and the infamous ghost trains that brought people, stuffed in highly stifling and claustrophobic carriages, to the gates of their doom.
Among the most important themes that Night and Fog deals with, is the idea of Dehumanization. Dehumanization is not just stripping an individual down to bare life. It is that systematic process of breakdown, characterized by both, physical and psychological decay. In the concentration camps, neglect, hard labor, starvation, and abuse often drove prisoners to sickness and death. With many people committing suicide by flinging themselves into the barbed wires or sitting down in the snow to die alone, the concentration camps were spaces devoid of any hope or even wishful thinking.
The medical bays of the camps looked like real hospitals but were actually feared by the inmates. Illegal experimentation, amputations, mutilations, drug-trials, use of chemicals like phosphorous on the skin, people, like guinea pigs bought and paid for by pharmaceutical companies; this was but one of the aspects of camp life. In images shown in the film, it is remarkable how corpses and sick bodies blur into a mass of despairing humanity. However, it doesn’t end here.
In another section of the film, the viewer is walked through the process of killing. As soon as the inmates were brought to the camps, they were divided into two lines. Those on the left lived to fight for a miserable existence and those of the right were sentenced to die. Children, old and infirm people, pregnant women etc. were usually sent into the right line. They were sent in groups of tens to chambers that looked like bathing areas but out of whose showerheads flowed poisonous gas, killing everybody in the chamber. The film’s footage of the gas chamber in 1955, does little to reimagine the horror of the people who must have died in it. But a close-up of the fingernail scrapings on the concrete ceiling does an accurate job of capturing what must have been the last desperate moments of each group that was gassed to death.
Dead bodies from the gas chambers were disposed-off in crematoriums and industrial ovens set up within the camp precincts. Smoke in the distance and the stench of burnt flesh were a permanent fixture of the camps. However, that doesn’t mean that the Nazis did not try and optimize their ‘resources’. Nothing was wasted. As shown in the film, shoes, clothes and personal items of the dead inmates were taken and re- distributed. But that is not all. A section of the film shows mountains of human hair and heaps of human bones, which were apparently used to make carpets and fertilizers respectively. Similarly, the skin was used to make soap.
The Economics of making war in Europe
The Concentration Camps were not only used as extermination spaces. A by-product of the camps was the huge labor available to the Nazis. Nearly a 100,000 people lived in every camp at any given point in time, particularly in the intermediate phase of the WWII. Camp inmates were forced to work like slaves in all kinds of weather and with no proper clothing or equipment to protect them from the elements. Camp slave labor, starved and diseased, saw a large number of deaths each day, due to the taxing nature of the work and the poor rations that had left most people emaciated and sick. Even then, these workers worked to build pathways into mines, parts for machines, items for private companies like Siemens etc. And after all of this, they were frisked and sent for roll-calls which often lasted longer than four hours and had to account for even the people who had died that day. Taking their cue from the Nazis, a number of companies saw the concentration camps as a supply of never-ending free labor. Many of these companies opened their own concentration camps, over which the Nazis were given no authority.
Illusions of Normalcy
The concentration camps were practically little cities. The hierarchy was incomprehensible to the inmates, but at the top of the inmates, were the Kapos, usually inmates who had been common criminals. The inmates at the bottom of the hierarchy usually included Communists and Intellectuals. While the Kapo was also doomed to die like the others, he was offered a better life in the camp. A room of his own, a few personal artifacts, a certain degree of ease with the SS officers and the liberty to have sex with his chosen women were among the privileges granted to the Kapo, in exchange for his help in accomplishing the less savory tasks of the camp and in managing the other inmates.
At the top of the hierarchy was the Commandant, who pretended to not know about the goings-on in the camp. In a twisted sense of the everyday, his wife was expected to maintain a respectable family life, like in any normal garrison town. In addition to the houses of the commandant and the other officers, the camp area also consisted of its own orphanage, an infirmary for the disabled, a brothel and even a prison. While the orphanage and the infirmary catered to children and sick people who did not fall in either category (full blooded Germans citizens or camp inmates), the brothel housed better fed women who were also ultimately doomed to die. The prison, on the other hand, was a torture chamber where people were tortured endlessly for days and nights. The film mentions that the air vents of the prison were not sound proofed.
The most bizarre features of the camps, however, were the orchestras that were a part of everyday camp life. The film mentions how each day inmates woke up and worked to the rhythm of the melodies played by the orchestra. Playing popular tunes from wildly successful operas like ‘Tristan Und Isolde’ and ‘Lohengrin’, one can only wonder about what went through the minds of the musicians, and their unlikely, weary, and dehumanized listeners.
The last spectacle of life in the camps
The reason why most people find Night and Fog difficult to watch is due to the graphic images of emaciated dead bodies, severed heads, and other human remains. In the last few minutes of the film, the viewers are shown what exactly greeted the liberating armies as they marched into the camps– corpses strewn across the streets, people dead of diseases like Typhus, partially burnt corpses in the crematoria, human body parts, ill inmates miraculously alive, people carrying their sick and dead loved ones on their backs, mass graves of skeletons and of course, articles made and/or secretly preserved by prisoners. These final images speak of unspeakable brutality, carried out in an almost impersonal, sterile manner. While the cramped bunkers of the camp, the hole in the ground toilets and the rotting food rations indicate the horrendous nature of camp life, it is the images of the consequences of these that make the viewer sick to his or her stomach. That the human spirit refuses to be broken despite such abuse, is characterized by the journals, the poetry collections written and hidden by prisoners in the walls of the camp compound. That belief and faith remain potent forces in the face of utter desolation can be seen from how some people held on tenaciously to their religious books while others gave up on the very idea of God. That the world can stomach something like the Holocaust and move on; there is no better example than this film itself.
Night and Fog does a monumental job of documenting the realities of the concentration camps. It deals with the sensitive subject matter in the most balanced of ways. While some of its elements are disturbing, others are reflective and oddly enough, almost certain that the shadows of war are never behind us.
Treating peace as only a pipe dream, the film warns the viewers that what seems lost in the past, may still be lurking at the edges of our consciousness. In its last frames, Night and Fog becomes a gentle sermon to the viewers, beseeching them to acknowledge that the next Holocaust may just be round the corner and the only way to prevent it, lies in the collective ethical responsibility that the world must take for what happened in the past.
Because only then can we hope to learn from our blunders and refrain from committing them again. Meanwhile, the spirits of the Holocaust victims continue to haunt the ruins of Auschwitz, Belsen and other camps. There can be no justification for what transpired in those compounds, and perhaps, there can be no pardon either.