We were shown this documentary in junior high, and I remember that some girls walked out of the auditorium crying. The images were not so familiar in 1970: the famous photograph of the little boy raising his hands in the Warsaw Ghetto as a German soldier aims a machine gun at his small body. The piles of shoes confiscated from dead Jews, the mountains of women’s hair. The bodies spilling out of open boxcars, skeletal corpses piled helter-skelter in fields. Inmates in their striped pajama-like clothing standing vacant-eyed behind the barbed-wire.
I felt obligated to watch the film all the way through, and I’ll never forget the scene of the bulldozer pushing a stack of corpses into a mass grave, then covering them with earth. Other scenes I seem to have blocked from my memory. Viewing the documentary again, some forty years later, I’m shocked anew by the footage of medical experiments, the machinery for amputations and “experimental mutilations,” the home movies (taken by whom?) of three castrated men seated in an examining room. Of a woman who rolls up her sleeve while answering the questions of some off-screen interrogator. Matter-of-factly, she displays her left arm, “marked for life,” the narrator informs us, although we cannot see the marks.
But more than the images, I am struck, this time, by the accusatory tone of the narration. Poet Jean Cayrol, a survivor of Mauthausen whose memoir provided the basis for the screenplay, did not mince words. In one passage, we’re shown what’s left of the gas chambers at Auschwitz in a tracking shot. The camera pans in, to focus on the ceiling. It all looks ordinary today, the narrator informs us. “The only sign, but you have to know, are the fingernail scratches on the ceiling. Even the cement is scraped up.”
Alain Resnais made “Night and Fog” in 1955, during the painful period of decolonization, when French soldiers were accused of “doing over there [in Algeria] what the Germans had done over here.” The narrator’s final words evoke this controversy, warning of new executioners. “We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.”
(30 November 2011)