This is an important documentary for two reasons: it is one of the first “holocaust” documentaries ever made (1955 or 1956), and several of the images (whether created by picture or word) have proven quite durable. It is also blessedly short, coming in at just over a half-hour. For these reasons, it should be seen by everyone.
The narration is in French, but the poetic tone is universal. “Oranienburg, Auschwitz, Neuengamme, Belsen, Ravensbrück, Dachau… The blood has dried, the tongues have fallen silent. The only visitor to the blocks now is the camera,” intones the mesmerizing voice.
The structure is to approach from outside and gradually burrow in to the depths of the camps. On first approach to the camps, the architecture of the guard towers is compared: Alpine, Japanese, “garage,” none. Aspects of construction are alluded to sarcastically: “Bids, businessmen, bribes.”
Boxcars loaded with people are shown. “Nudity strips the inmates of all pride in one stroke. Shaved. Tattooed. Numbered.” The problem of ungenerous food rations is discussed; the role of the latrine as place for discussion; the ill-supplied clinics, where “the same ointment is used for every wound.” Indeed, “chemical companies send poisons to be tested.” Finally, the gas chambers, including the “shower rooms.” Fingernail scratchings on the concrete ceiling are shown. Pyres are shown “where crematoriums fell short.” Pictures of half-burned bodied lying everywhere. “But the ovens can handle thousands of bodies a day.”
“Everything was saved.” There are pictures of huge heaps of eyeglasses, combs, shaving brushes, bowls and plates, shoes, and hair, each in its own pile.
Soap is asserted to have been made from the bodies. What is done with the skin is not stated, but “shown.”
At 28:00, the Allies are shown opening the gates. There are corpses everywhere, placed in intertwined, dramatic poses. There is the famous bulldozer shot. Then, the deliberate placing of skulls in a field of skulls [but why?] is shown.
It concludes, ever poetic, that nine million dead haunt this countryside [which countryside?]. The threat still surrounds us all, and is closing in. We ignore the cries of humanity. The capos and informants and reinstated officers are still at large. “There are those that refused to believe, or believed only for brief moments.”
In evaluation, we must observe that mere video is quite unsuitable to “document” this kind of thing, for a variety of reasons. There is the problem of identification and authentication. You see a movie clip of people in a boxcar for example. Then, you see a clip of a boxcar door open, and a heap of bodies. In an age long before ubiquitous home movies, who took the picture? Where? When? Given the absence of documentation, how do we know it wasn’t staged for a fictional movie? Likewise, at 22:13 some pictures “were taken moments before a mass killing.” Nothing is really shown. How do they know that’s what it is? Where was it? When? We are never told. At 21:45, “deportation from every city.” But the city looks bombed out; maybe the citizens are being evacuated from the destruction wrought by the Allies? And so forth.
As to the heaps of material, we need to examine each one from two perspectives: (1) is the story rational? does it make sense? does it match human nature? (2) is the footage credible in itself?
As an example of (1), consider the heap of eyeglasses. The motive, of course, would be to provide spare eyeglasses in a time of national shortages such as are common in wartime. But what good would the massive, jumbled heap of glasses accomplish? Why would they not be sorted in famous Germanic manner — by strength, size, sex, and style, and shipped off to a distribution point?
Both criteria can be examined in connection with the mountain of hair. (1) The motive is alleged to be this: “at 50 Pfennig a kilo, it’s used to make cloth,” and reams of cloth, like rolls of carpet are shown. (Other accounts of the hair claim it was for mattresses.) And indeed, a google search turns up a picture of an invoice for “250 kilos of hair” from some company or other. But is this credible?
a. If you were trying to start a program of recycling human hair, would you not start with the ordinary civilian barbers? First, their customers are a gift that keeps giving. Second, the cleanness of the hair would naturally be much higher — hair would typically be washed, and above all, lice-free. Yet I have never heard a claim of a civilian barber hair-recapturing program.
b. If you were to start such a camp-program, why would you heap the hair up like a mountain, outdoors, where wind, sun, and rain would continue to dirty and spoil it (beyond the existing filth and lice that would have been there to begin with)?
(2) Now, freeze the frame at 25:42. The hair looks suspiciously like wigs — i.e. clusters of hair that belong together, like a wig — overlaid with some kind of glittery tinsel. What is the chance of hair shavings staying together like that after being swept up and carted? (But if they were wigs used as stage-props…) Then, as the camera pans back, it is a literal mountain. And some of the mountain just looks like sod.
The pile of combs — why? Why not distribute them or burn and bury them with the victims? Same with the mountain of shaving brushes — as if the men would have brought such an extensive shaving kit with them. The bowls and plates — where did they come from? and why?
Again, the place, time, and photographers are not identified for us. Are these films from the Soviet film-making machine? We really need to know.
The macabre rack of five decapitated bodies next to the basket of heads is particularly odd. As to criterion (1) — If the point of the gas-chambers was mass-production (itself a dubious thesis — why not use the Jewish-Bolshevik method of a bullet to the back of the head? Bullets at such a high rate of efficiency are quite cheap), then why single out five for the guillotine? Why line their naked bodies up in a display rack? with a wooden baffle to conveniently disguise the neck hole?
Likewise, why the basket of heads? If they are for study, would they not be separated out and put on a shelf, not jumbled on top of each other? If for public desecration, would they not be pilloried or spindled in public?
As to criterion (2), stop the film at 26:50. Several of the heads have normal musculature, as if still attached to a body. The closest one’s neck is snipped neatly off, like one might do with a photo; the same with one furthest away: it’s chin is fully intact. Some of the heads seem almost to be floating. A few seconds later, the camera pans back again — but the heads are clearly not the same as in the first shot. They are made up differently.
The tendentious nature of the film is revealed in vicious little phrases thrown in gratuitously. At 7:50, with the flames of the crematorium in the distance, the voice explains, “one of those night scenes so dear to a Nazi’s heart.”
The allusion to soap and tattooed lamp shades endure in the popular mind, but apparently are quietly disappearing from serious studies. And of the list of camps that opens the film, at least some are now known to have had no gas chambers. Did the producers know that in 1955? If not, then what was the evidentiary basis for their insinuations?
Finally, the interview with director Alain Resnais gives further proof of the propagandistic nature of this film.They worked fast, Resnais says, and “without much documentation.”
Obviously; but documentation should be the heart of a documentary.
Apparently, the scenes in the French relocation camp in Pithiviers (a town about 40 mi S of Paris) showed the complicity of a French policeman in the deportation. So, the French censors refused to approve the film at first. It is unclear whether this obstacle was cleared up by deliberately painting in a beam to obscure the French cap, or if by luck the editing “just happened” to obscure it. But in either case, think about it:
Any made-up vicious insinuation can be made about your enemy and historical continental rival, but nothing negative, even something indisputably factual, may be shown about your own people.
I think that recipe is known as propaganda.
We are assured by good men like Steve Schlissel and Carl Trueman that the “holocaust” is the most thoroughly documented event in history. So much so that only loony-tunes or men filled with malice could conclude otherwise. It is obvious to even an amateur like myself, however, that documentation such as this film hardly counts at all — indeed, it can only raise suspicions.
You might have thought documentation would be better the closer in time it was produced to the event.
The title, in German Nacht und Nebel, allegedly referring to the way some inmates were categorized, is also appropriate to the obscurantism of the film itself.