Alain Resnais - Alain Resnais Holocaust documentary Night...

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Alain Resnais’ Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1955) is stated to be “the most powerful film on the concentration camp experience” (Insdorf, 1983), “the Holocaust film of all Holocaust films” (Gonzales, 2001), “possibly the single most powerful documentary ever made” (Rabinger, 1992). But it is also a very unusual documentary in terms of modes and conventions (note, that critics still are not sure calling it a documentary or a film) A camera always frames reality. But while in a fiction film the action takes place primarily within the frame, the frame in the documentary stands synonymous for all that is outside the frame as well. As the documentary has an obligation to telling reality and truth, the attention is drawn away from the stylistic uses of the camera – often its shakiness presents an immediacy placing the viewer right into the action just behind the camera and thus breaking the fourth wall, the screen, a style that has now found its way into fiction productions as well. This cannot necessarily be based on production budgets, but the camera in a documentary is part of the event itself. For example, people can look straight into the lens, something unthinkable in a fiction production. Consequently, the truth claim of the image in a documentary is far more authoritative than in any fiction production. These are real people, their memories and emotions are present in their very eyes, and these places cannot be blurred and distanced through the thought that this is ‘only a film’. Events are not being acted out for the camera, which records, reveals and preserves (Renov, 1993). As for Night and Fog, these corpses are real corpses. They are significant not in narrative terms, but each single one has an impact on reality, on the real world. Documentaries present and do not represent. (Yet again, when taking a documentary as Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, 1935) assumptions can be made that the event portrayed has been staged for the camera on purpose; documentaries remain problematic). Furthermore, the footage is being ‘manipulated’ by a film-maker, edited and ordered into a presentable form (I will talk about narrative further down the page). Most of what we see in Resnais’ documentary are images taken by the Nazis, who most probably had a very different purpose for recording them and would have presented them in a very different light. And these images themselves (and do not get me wrong) are shockingly, well, innocent, as we see people getting on trains, people being classified, numbered, recorded, as we see the whole coldness of bureaucracy. But we know, and that makes it so unbearable to watch. Resnais contrasts the newsreel footage and photographs with contemporary images he shot in Auschwitz ten years after the war. These shots are in colour and the use of the camera is strikingly obvious and controlled, therefore rather ‘fictional’, as every shot tracks, pans or tilts, floating over the remains of the concentration camp. This ‘poetic’ and creative use of the camera
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Alain Resnais - Alain Resnais Holocaust documentary Night...

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