I’ve said this so many times and written it in reviews before, but it’s nevertheless the place I feel I must begin. In high school, I took a class on the Holocaust. At the time, it seemed like an interesting elective – certainly more exciting than wood shop. I often describe my reaction to the class as having been “semi-traumatized”, and then I worry that I’m making light of the nightmare of the events of 1933-1945. Can I really characterize my reaction to a high school elective as any kind of trauma when compared with the torture the Nazi’s victims endured? On the other hand, perhaps feeling so emotionally drained by the class was exactly the response that I should have to the Nazi campaign to exterminate Jewish persons, gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals… anybody and everybody who they felt were somehow unfit to live. “Exterminate” is almost too gentle a word for it. As the voice-over in Night and Fog continually asserts, there are no words to describe what a functioning concentration camp was really like – there is simply no way to sufficiently convey the inhumanity. Which is why a documentary is useful. Released a mere ten years after the Holocaust’s end, this short film (just 30 minutes long) includes actual footage from the camps, both before and after they were shut down, in gruesome and graphic detail.
What I mean when I say that I was “semi-traumatized” by the class is that for a long time, I saw concentration camps and murder devices everywhere I looked. The high school campus looked to me like the expansive grounds of an Auschwitz or Buchenwald. The cardboard crusher at the grocery store I worked in was in fact compacting the corpses of Holocaust victims. The image of extremely emaciated men, malnourished and exhausted, digging mass graves they themselves would soon fill was always in my head. It got so bad the teacher pulled me out of class one day to ask if I would like to be put in a different class. I don’t remember what signs I’d given, but apparently my condition was visible enough that the teacher was concerned. At the time, among the photographs I was shown of the Holocaust, the one that struck the deepest chord with me was of an idyllic countryside in Springtime. The flowers were in bloom, the warmth of the bright sun easily felt even through a black and white photo, but off in the distance was the tell-tale black smoke of a crematorium. Bodies were being destroyed while still others awaited a similar fate, and it was happening in the middle of a beautifully tranquil scene.
Night and Fog tries to make use of this contrast, although it didn’t make as large of an impression on me today as it did ten years ago. In color, the camera tracks through the abandoned camps, gazing silently at electrified fences long out of use, tall grass grown over cracked pavement, the soft sun overhead. The voice-over notes that prisoners at the concentration camps could maybe see a town beyond the fences, a reminder of the real world that they were unlikely to ever actually inhabit again. This is clearly meant to wring an emotional response from the viewer, but that sickening thought – of unspeakable evil hiding just behind seeming peacefulness – didn’t get me as much as it used to. More chilling to me was the narrator’s description of tourists who now take self-photographs next to the defunct crematoria. This movie was released in 1955; is a decade enough time to return to the sites of unspeakable atrocities without silent solemnity? For that matter, is 60 years?
What was more incredible to me was the actual footage taken during the Holocaust. Who recorded these videos? The human beings standing naked in rows, literally little more than skeletons, it’s an unbearable sight. The movie tries to give a sense of the living conditions, but again no words can put the cramped, diseased, starving, frightened lives of camp prisoners into perspective. The images shown on-screen, like the skinless foot of a woman who was experimented on when she went to the camp’s “hospital”, can shock the viewer but they cannot communicate what it was actually like. Perhaps being cognizant of the fact that even the most horrific imagery shown in the film is just “the tip of the iceberg” is the best that contemporary audiences can achieve. That any viewer could achieve, who hadn’t experienced the events first-hand.
I don’t know what other people’s experiences with the Holocaust are like. Have most people seen pictures of mass graves, or do they even realize that pictures exist? You’ve likely seen the piles of shoes or glasses taken from the victims when stripped of their possessions at the camp gates, but it’s still a staggering sight. One of the images that sticks in my mind is a pile of women’s hair (the prisoners were all shaved, the hair sold to make cloth); the camera pulls back, panning outward and upward, slowly, slowly, revealing that this pile of hair is more accurately described as a mountain. It’s unbelievable. Then there are the more stomach-churning scenes, most notably the image that greeted the Allied liberators when the got to the camps – huge fields, strewn with dead bodies. Soldiers carry nude corpses on their backs, tossing human bodies haphazardly into huge pits: there are just so many bodies to deal with, anything more is too large a task. Men carry skulls and other bones to add to the pile. There is a basket brimming with severed heads. In one particularly grim shot, a bulldozer pushes a path through scores of corpses, lifeless bodies staring at the camera and tumbling over atop one another.
So. There is no doubt that, if nothing else, Night and Fog shows the effects of the Holocaust with an unflinching eye. It’s tough to see, but it’s better to understand the extent of what man is capable of as best we can than to pretend it’s not real. The film is “good”, then, in the sense that it captures on camera a relatively fresh wound in world history – by putting it on film, it preserves the evidence for posterity. This is in no way to be considered entertainment: it’s information; it’s condemnation; it’s a warning to future generations. I don’t know that it can be considered a good movie by merely documenting history (though this has for too long been thought the only function of the ‘documentary’ genre), but it’s without a doubt a tremendously important movie for that same reason. The Holocaust needs to be seen, and seen for what it was; it’s too easy to say “millions of people were killed” and feel nothing, but Night and Fog puts the sentiment into perspective. Or, again, as much perspective as is possible.