The Right To Question: Resnais And Memory

[Nuit et Brouillard, photography by Sacha Vierny & Ghislain Cloquet]
In April of 2018, the United States issued a “zero tolerance” policy towards the flow of illegal immigrants seeking asylum, whether personal or political.  The result is the incarceration of these adults and the separation from their children in other facilities within a cage.  It has produced a firestorm of controversy calling for change everywhere from some upper levels of Washington D.C. all the way down to the men and women of the street.  It has also engaged people to think of the past and how history should be one of the great teachers for us all, but we somehow still tend to turn a blind eye to.  It led me to review once again a short film that seems eerily prescient in today’s events.  It is the complicit rationalization of words and positions for an event that would have enormous consequences later in time.  I am not arguing that this is the same event.  I am merely suggesting that we need to open our eyes more to history and its lessons.

In a film that runs just thirty one minutes, director Alain Resnais produced a work that glides between memory and reality with a gruesome past and an uncertain present.  Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) was completed in 1955 to controversy and acclaim.  The short film depicts the atrocities of Hitler’s concentration camps just 10 years after the end of that world war.  As heart wrenching a subject this can be, Resnais presents a lyrical and transcendent treatise on which the viewer is left to question the how and the why.  We are left with those searing images.  We are left with ourselves to answer for what has happened.

[Nuit et Brouillard, archival footage]
Our memories can sometimes color the past by softening the acute pain or embed rationalizations to account for certain behaviors and reactions.  Director Resnais boldly (in the context of the times, for we are talking about 1955) uses the archival black and white footage of the camps and its aftermath with the color of present day photography that remains to remind us of such a monstrously brutual past.  As we see footage of the captured and incarcerated German camp overseers in the photo above, if they are not responsible, the film asks who is?  Nuit et Brouillard begs the viewer to look around them.  Although this time has passed, the remnants of it still lurk around us in survivors, conspirators, and perhaps the very people involved with it.  It intensely begs us to look into ourselves more than anything.  We can be complicit in these actions when we choose to ignore or deny their very existence.  Present day footage shows how close some of these camps were to nearby townships and villages.  The camp’s very existence could not be denied.

[Nuit et Brouillard, present day footage]
When we chose not to act, or get involved, knowing full well an event that goes against human decency at its core, is to stand right alongside the wrongdoers as if you are a part of that machine.  The film begins with the words, “1933.  The machine gets underway.  The nation must all sing the same song, with no wrong notes…” which in hindsight lends us exactly what this machine would soon be capable of.  The very thought of laws put into place to be obeyed under any circumstance, an act which would lead to the deaths of over nine million people, sends chills of recognition with today’s history.  Resnais does not present statistics or cold historical facts.  His purpose is to let the viewer discover for themselves how something like this could have begun,  then agreed upon, and ultimately supported to its twisted end.

Which leads us back to today and the lightening rod which is the zero tolerance immigration policy and is reported to use these separated and incarcerated children as bargaining chips in a macabre political dance between rival parties.  What does history teach us about today?  Do we idly stand by, such as many of the villages and townships near those camps did?  Or do we voice our outrage, our distrust, our disgust at such actions?  Of course, the consequences of raising a voice would have been quite different during the war, as opposed to today.  Or would it?  Nuit et Brouillard  questions that very thing in such a subtle way.  What does it take in each of us to recognize the monster inside of us?  How far must something evil go before we stop being complicit on the sidelines and begin to question it?  The film raises many conundrums such as these in viewers minds, but again, leaves it to us to contemplate and come to our own conclusions.

Our connection with history becomes more and more vital in this fast paced world.  The overabundance of information has progressively struck a blind eye towards critical thinking in many of us.  If the great director, Alain Resnais, were alive today, I fully believe he would raise his voice, much as he did back in 1955.

[director Alain Resnais, 1955]

Nuit et Brouillard (Night And Fog) [Alain Resnais-director, 1955]