erik lundegaard

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Nuit et Brouillard (1955)

A few years ago somebody urged Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) on me and I finally got around to it. Now I’m urging it on you.

It’s a 31-minute, 1955 French documentary on the Holocaust — one of the first — and it intersperses black-and-white footage of the Nazi era with color footage of the then-present day. We see, for example, those familiar shots of Jewish citizens being loaded into cattle cars for the camps; then we cut to those same railroad tracks in 1955. They look unused, grass grows in patches, and Michel Bouquet, the narrator, intones (in French), “The sun shines. We go slowly along them. Looking for what?” Footage of Himmler and the crematoriums leads to the empty camps of 1955. “A crematorium from the outside can look like a picture postcard,” Bouquet says. “Today tourists have their snapshots taken in front of them.”

The 1955 color footage is still bleak. The sky is overcast and autumnal, the grass sparse, the people… You quickly realize there are no people. Not one person is shown in the present day. All empty.

The narration, beautifully understated and matter-of-fact, was written by poet Jean Cayrol, a resistance fighter who was betrayed, arrested and sent to Gusen concentration camp in 1943, where he nearly died:

A concentration camp is built the way a stadium or hotel is built, with businessmen, estimates, competitive bids, and no doubt a bribe or two... Architects calmly designed the gates meant to be passed through only once. Meanwhile, Berger, a German worker, Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam, Schmulski, a merchant in Krakow, and Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux, go about their daily lives, not knowing a place is being prepared for them hundreds of miles away. One day their quarters are finished. All that’s missing is them.

How many books have I read now, movies and documentaries and mini-series seen, about the Holocaust? I should be inured. Yet it still has the power to horrify. Lessons are still imparted. Art Spiegelman’s Maus made me realize I never would have survived it, while Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz taught me that the system was set up for you not to survive it — i.e., follow the rules, do the work they tell you, eat what they give you, and you die. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist reinforced the sudden, by-the-way violence and degradation of it all without even getting into the camps.

And Nuit et Brouillard? In some ways the world recoiled from the Holocaust because they saw their own anti-Semitism taken to its logical extreme. Each of the Allies had its fascist, anti-Semitic wing. The Nazis just kept going.

But in Night and Fog I felt something else being taken to its logical extreme — and, unlike anti-Semitism, it’s something generally viewed positively. It’s heard in the above narration about competitive bids. It’s in Himmler’s line in 1942 when he told the camp commanders, “We must destroy, but productively.” You see it in the piles of eyeglasses and combs, of shaving brushes and shoes, and in that infamous, impossible pile of human hair. The hair becomes cloth, we are told, and the camera focuses on a rolled-up version of same, with stray threads resembling stray hairs. The animate has become inanimate.

“From the bones, fertilizer,” Bouquet tells us. “From the bodies, they make soap. As for the skin…?” Cut to: sheets of paper.

It’s the production line. It’s human resources taken to its final solution. After we strip you of your identity, your individuality, your personality, after we work what’s left until it can hardly work, what else? How much can we take from you? The answer is everything.

I already knew the assembly-line aspect of the Holocaust — truly, it’s what distinguishes this particular horror from the many horrors of human history — but Nuit et Brouillard made me feel it on a deeper level.

Something else you take away from this documentary: a sense of the arbitrariness of borders. Out there you can be a person, but in here, no. The 1955 footage accentuates this disconnect because the arbitrary borders of the Nazis have disappeared with the Nazis. Now we can film along the tracks that once transported us. Now we can film outside the camps that once held us. There’s been no horror like the Holocaust, but other horrors continue; and other borders, just as arbitrary, dehumanize the people within.

—May 2, 2008

© 2008 Erik Lundegaard