I placed a visit to The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles a couple of months ago and found, to my surprise, that rather than being a detailed litany of Holocaust horrors that it was truly as its name implies: a museum dedicated to unmasking bigotry and hatred throughout history, and offering, if you'll excuse the expression, "paths to understanding" in order to overcome it. A well put-together, scholarly museum - even uplifting and hopeful in its way. Also well put-together in a dramatic and moving sense is the classic 1955 documentary film by Alain Resnais, "NIGHT AND FOG", which was for sale in stacks in the museum's gift shop, which reminded me that I needed to finally see it after having seen reference to it for years. The film was, in fact, the first widely-seen litany of horrors from the Holocaust, and yet it differs from the museum greatly in its tone and confidence in humanity's ability to redeem itself from its murderous and bigoted nature.
One is surprised to learn that this film, with its large historical significance, is only a mere 31 minutes, and is mostly comprised of well-edited black-and-white newsreel and found footage from the death and concentration camps. Resnais juxtaposes scenes of horrific cruelty and starvation with banal, full-color tracking shots of what camps like Auschwitz looked like in 1955, only 10 years post-liberation. As his camera moves close to the ground and films the worn, peeling buildings and gates, a narrator calmly tries to make sense of what went on in these places not so long before. As the news and documentary footage from a decade before is then spliced in, it builds in intensity. First, the construction of the "work camps" themselves. Next, the "transportation" of the Jews to the their supposed new life in these work camps.
Slowly, he unpeels the images, saving the very worst for the last five minutes - the images that shocked the world and helped give rise to consciousness about what had happened in Europe the previous decade (to read an amazing piece about how slowly it took for "Holocaust consciousness" to develop among the non-Jewish world, check out Tony Judt's excellent epilogue to his magnum opus "POSTWAR", which I reviewed here). These are the images of the starving, the shaved, the sick - and later, the bulldozed corpses into mass pits and the piles of skeletal remains. Of course they shock and horrify still, no matter how many times you've seen them or how closely you've studied this disgraceful period of human history.
In the final minute the narrator, in so many words, expresses not simply his contempt at the Nazis but at the world - not for letting this happen, but for his belief that the world hasn't and won't learn from its mistakes. It's a bleak close, after a bleak but necessary barrage of imagery. With 57 years of hindsight between us and this film, we can of course say that there has been no comparable atrocity on that scale, certainly, but that humanity has not redeemed in full due to subsequent actions in China, Bosnia, across Africa, Argentina, Cambodia and in the minds and actions of Islamic fundamentalists today. "NIGHT AND FOG" is an intense and masterful piece of documentary filmmaking that quite obviously set the standard for many years of advocacy and humanitarian filmmaking that followed.