Night and Fog is easily my favorite short film. Certainly, any film dealing with the Holocaust is likely to evoke strong emotions. However, the way in which this film deals with the Holocaust is potent because the film’s probing of the human reaction to it. That is to say, humans like to detach themselves from tragic events and the perpetrators of those tragic events. One only has to listen to the discourse in the way society labels perpetrators; they are evil, monsters, and inhuman. In other words, labels that attempt to distance so-called normal humans from those people. I feel like Night and Fog attacks that distancing attempt throughout the narrative.
Of course, I ought to make a difference apparent. There is a difference between recognizing the humanness of the perpetrators and humanizing the perpetrators. For instance, the Nazis were human beings that after they guarded the concentration camps would go home to their wives and children. Essentially, in pointing out the obvious point that the Nazis were human does not serve to downplay the atrocities they committed and inflate the humanness of their home life. It does not matter that someone that was hoping to kill six million Jews was also reading bedtime stories to his eight-year-old kid. The core point that the film is pointing out is that humans did this and humans can do it again. Not only that, but also others ought to not sit idly by while it happens or in any way give rise to it.
That is another fundamental flaw in society’s attempt to understand tragic events. Society likes to view the events in isolation. For instance, the rise of Nazism was the creation of a perfect storm of events from angst over Germany losing WW1 to economic woes; such an event cannot occur again. That is not true. The film’s narrator even says (what I consider the most poignant question he poses), “Are their faces really different from our own?” Such a point harkens back to the mater of distancing. It also alludes to something else; there is nothing to suggest that human beings in the twenty-first century cannot succumb to such a perfect storm, as the German people (and others) did in the twentieth century. Certainly, it may manifest differently, but the fundamental aspects that gave rise to it – irrationally, hate, fear, and desperation – are just as prevalent today and as likely to erode social institutions as in any other time.
Outside of those problems, the film also addresses something else. Whether it was people in Western countries and democracies at the time of the film or people now, the Holocaust is difficult to grasp. At the time and event today, there is a racist point to it. For starters, people find it hard to believe cultured white people in a European country could commit genocide. That aside, the film juxtaposes this complexity with colored images of the concentration camps with black and white images of stock footage of the concentration camps’ atrocities. When looking at those colorful landscapes, almost serene landscapes, it is difficult to imagine something like a dump of collected dead people’s hair once sat there or that the smell of burning flesh from the ovens once permeated the air. We cannot grasp the magnitude of what occurred in those concentration camps. The Holocaust is so abstract to people, and to me, that I would not say empathy for what occurred is implausible, but that truly understanding it is. I do not think you can and as such, we do things like distancing, labeling, and isolating the event in history.
Such a lack of understanding leaves society with a conundrum; something we cannot possibly understand in its truest reality and something we try not to anyways by all the aforementioned techniques; how then does society stay vigilant against such a thing arising again? Maybe we are not vigilant enough, as the film tries to stress. Maybe we, given that our faces are not very different from the Nazis, are susceptible to it.
I appreciate this thoughtful review. It definitely makes me want to see the film.
If there is one thing the Holocaust should teach us – that is, what human beings (who may even appear to be good, kind, and caring) are capable of when the sin/evil within them goes unchecked (and is instead tapped with such things as prejudice and false patriotism).
I look forward to reading more of your posts.
I appreciate the feedback, thank you!
I would highly recommend The Reader by Bernard Schlink, as it also addresses this idea of detachment from the Holocaust in a very unique, complex and thought-provoking manner. The film adaptation wasn’t too bad either.