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Short of the Week: An innovative Holocaust documentary by Alain Resnais

'Night and Fog' - Alain Resnais

Alain Resnais was among the leading figures of the French New Wave, responsible for creating unforgettable masterpieces such as Hiroshima mon amour and Last Night at Marienbad among others. A true visionary belonging to the New Wave’s Left Bank (which consisted of other pioneers such as Agnès Varda and Chris Marker), Resnais’ influence can still be felt in the works of contemporary filmmakers.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, many artists and filmmakers tried to capture the horrors of the Nazi regime and their consequences on the collective psyche of humanity. Many documentaries also served as important historical records because they featured striking footage straight from the concentration camps.

The images of emaciated prisoners clinging to each other while being subjected to irrational, abrupt and devastating brutality remained firmly embedded in our consciousness, now acting as educational reminders for school students. Resnais made one of the most definitive documentaries on the Holocaust, only about 30 minutes in length but unparalleled in the scope of its philosophical investigations.

While Resnais made multiple documentary shorts over the course of his career, Night and Fog remains one of the most powerful cinematic experiences in the history of the medium. Only about a decade after the end of the war, Resnais used this short to explore the abandoned buildings in some of the most notorious concentration camps.

Resnais contrasts the black-and-white documents from those camps with the colour photography of the architecture of the camps that were left behind. He adopts a revolutionary approach, launching an investigation into how the memory of the most traumatic event in human history affects the future of our entire species.

The New Wave maestro did not want to make a film on the subject until Jean Cayrol – a concentration camp survivor – came on board as the screenwriter. Many cultural commentators have also noted that Night and Fog was especially important for the national consciousness of France because the persecution of Jewish prisoners remained a “blind spot”.

The film’s title itself is a reference to the eponymous program launched by Hitler to target and kidnap political activists who were part of the resistance. There were many attempts to censor Night and Fog because there was a shot of a French officer in the film and the German embassy also wanted Cannes to remove the film from the festival but Resnais’ masterpiece has endured the political conflicts and the test of time.

Watch Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog below.