There have been numerous books about the making of a film: from Final Cut, a book detailing the production history of Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980), to Picture, about the making of The Red Badge of Courage (John Huston, 1951). But doesn’t there appear something excessive about a 300-plus page book on a film that runs to only 32 minutes? Heaven’s Gate after all ran to almost four hours and the production problems were legendary. As director Michael Cimino’s film lost a fortune, it signified in the eyes of many the end of New Hollywood; there was no problem getting a book out of such material. Yet can similar page numbers be justified in writing about Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, 1955)?
Steven Bach’s book on Heaven’s Gate, was chiefly a work of anecdote and description: a book that wanted to understand the workings of Hollywood from the inside. Bach was a senior executive at United Artists, who funded the film, and had so much insider knowledge that theoretical inclinations would have been a distraction. In Sylvie Lindeperg’s book on Alain Resnais’ film the point lies partly in the theoretical and the researched. Here is a tome where the writer has spent a great deal of time both in the study and in the archive: in musing over what the film means and wondering over the years what people have said about it.
The book’s very strength rests on it being an archival project. It gives us a great deal of information on the genesis of the work, and especially the involvement of Olga Wormser-Migot, a researcher who explored the Holocaust and whose material (alongside colleague Henri Michel) provided the basis for the film. Michel was less happy with the result than Wormser-Migot, and distanced himself from Resnais’ documentary: “In Henri Michel’s eyes, the ‘historical value’ of a compilation film was based on the ‘authenticity’ of the archive footage and the factual rigor of the narration, which should be written by a historian whose competence and scientific authority would ensure the absence of any fictional tendencies.” (p. 33) Instead it was written by Jean Cayrol, a writer and Holocaust survivor who could only sit through the film once. Returning to his flat after the screening, Cayrol wrote: “When those unbearable images came up again at home, I was suddenly thrown back into the camp. It drove me mad.” (p. 115)
Thus Cayrol’s voice-over was written with a memory of the camps and a memory of the film, and would be the opposite of the narration Michel was seeking. Cayrol says he wished he had gone further. “In his autobiography Cayrol repeated this same regret at not having pushed the Kafkaesque caricature of the concentration camp.” “I would have liked a comédie-bouffe about that period during which I lost my youth. The film shows you a Dante-like vision where death stares you in the face.” (p. 121)
Never is the book more interesting than when rummaging around in the past to try and find aspects useful to the present, as it echoes the very work behind Resnais’ film. Just as those behind the facts of Night and Fog tried to find the information necessary to make it, so Lindeperg determines to look at the film as an event to be viewed from as many different perspectives as possible. The idea of who was behind the German translation of Cayrol’s words, for example, would not usually be of much interest, but in this instance it is fascinating. The German voice-over was written by Paul Celan, a figure of still greater significance than Cayrol in post-war literature. Celan was a poet Heidegger was drawn to invoking and whom George Steiner, in his brief book on the philosopher, describes as “one of the greatest voices in European poetry after Mallarmé and Rilke.”1 Celan and Cayrol first met when Celan began translating Cayrol’s All in a Night – even if the writers possessed very different sensibilities. “Many things separated their two oeuvres: opposite Celan’s ‘hermetic and opaque’ qualities stood Cayrol’s desire for simplicity and the rejection of ‘a poetry for those in the know’. Even the event that forms their subject is not the same: concentrationnat [sic] for one, extermination of the Jews for the other.” (p. 184) After all, Cayrol was sent to the camps because he was part of the French Resistance; Celan for his Jewishness.
As Lindeperg says: “when Jean-Pierre Lefebvre notes that Celan’s poetry is not about the camps but from them.” She sees similarities between the two writers, but few have denied the immense importance of Celan in 20th century literature partly because the very texture of the Holocaust affected his prose. When Heidegger writes, in On the Way to Language, “everything spoken stems in a variety of ways from the unspoken, whether this be something not yet spoken, or whether it be what must remain unspoken in the sense that it is beyond the reach of speaking”2, few writers more than Celan took this as a problem of literature. It was as though the Holocaust was unspeakable, an act which couldn’t easily be spoken of, and that of course has given birth to numerous discourses on the problem of poetry after the Holocaust. As J. M. Coetzee says, “Celan is the towering European poet of the middle decades of the twentieth century, one who, rather than transcending his times – he had no wish to transcend them – acted as a lightning rod for their most terrible discharges.”3
It is as if the polite, academic commentary Michel wished for would have done little to reflect the enormity of the subject: Cayrol and Celan’s voice-overs give the film an impact that is aesthetic, philosophical and ethical. They want to capture not history but pain, and find a manner in which to speak about an unspeakable act not just in a narrowly moral sense, but a broader ontological one. Here were two writers who aren’t only taking on a commission, but returning to their own nightmares.
Hovering over the book’s intensely researched account, though, is perhaps a fear that Lindeperg could be accused of slipshod archiving: Lindeperg does see Night and Fog: A Film in History as a thoroughly professional job of work. The writer is never more sensitive to the events explored in the film and in its making than when talking about Olga Wormser-Migot, who received some terrible responses for not quite getting her facts right. This incorporates both the work she did on the Holocaust that proved useful to the film, and also her dissertation on the Holocaust and that was published years later, in 1969. While Le Monde noted Wormser-Migot “has demonstrated the exceptional courage in completing her research” (p. 264), others were less happy. One former detainee responded by commenting on its “subjective affirmations and considerations.” (p266) A bigger problem lay in those who associated Wormser-Migot with Holocaust denial. With Wormser-Migot wondering whether gas chambers were used in certain camps, others thus placed her in the same group as people she would loathe. In response to an article Olga was “devastated and furious”, demanding the right to retort “which she managed to get in an abridged form.” (273) Lindeperg concludes that “Olga Wormser would never fully recover from the affair that, in spite of occasional appeasement, would not stop rebounding.” (276)
Covering the Holocaust, after all, is for many a moral affair: a subject that seems to ask questions of representation in relation to the question of ethics. Lindeperg invokes for example Serge Daney’s remarks on Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo, a fiction film about the camps made several years after Rensais’s documentary, and one in which he sees a moral emptiness more than met by Resnais’ work. “Night and Fog is not a ‘beautiful film’ it is a ‘righteous’ film. It was Kapo that wanted to be a beautiful film, and that isn’t one.” (p. 251)
This issue of beauty and aesthetics continues to haunt filmic questions over the Holocaust, and Lindeperg quotes Claude Lanzmann on his own work Shoah: “If Shoah is woven from the present only, if the past seems to melt away and disappear, this is because the order that governs and accentuates the entire film is that of the immemorial.” (p. 254) Is there something about the Holocaust that insists upon this reserve, and if a film must counter the demand for solemnity should it do so with irreverence rather than respect, formal innovation over formal convention? If for many Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) remains an astonishingly trivial film it isn’t at all because Spielberg lacks respect for the victims or has no interest in the camps. It is more that he seems to have asked so few questions about the issue of representation that anyone from Resnais to Lanzmann and others before Spielberg insisted upon.
Some of the criticisms Daney levels at Kapo he would presumably have levelled at Spielberg’s film too if he hadn’t died not many years before its making. Could we say of Schindler’s List that it wished too much to be a beautiful film and failed, finally, to be a righteous one? Cayrol’s earlier remarks are interesting here, when he talks of comédie-bouffe. How to take responsibility for the Holocaust as aesthetic organisation is one of the pressing questions it seems when thinking of Holocaust cinema. Whether this is justified is another issue: why have the same questions less pressingly been asked over other atrocities: the Gulags, the massacres in Cambodia or the atrocities in Rwanda? The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984) and Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004) for example are made in a more or less Hollywood idiom, but they don’t invoke the range of intellectual responses Schindler’s List drew to it.
That is not a question the book chooses to address, but it is one that we might muse over in reading this tome. We might wonder whether a 300-page work be published on a 32-minute documentary on Rwanda or Cambodia, and we do so not to undermine the importance of the Holocaust, which for very good reasons is seen as the crater at the centre of the 20th century, but to accept that the discourse surrounding the Holocaust has become in itself monumental. When Jean-Michel Frodon says in his foreword that the book “is like a constellation constructed around a single film, yet it radiates in innumerable directions” (p. xv), he appears to be acknowledging the importance not just of the book, but the echoes any work approaching the Holocaust seems to carry. Frodon goes so far as to call the book an archaeology, invoking Michel Foucault. “Being a historian, Lindeperg approaches this story by revealing the workings of layers upon layers of process.”
That might be giving the book more credit than it deserves, but this is a whole lot more than an account of the film’s background: the book is an enquiry into the documentary as an ethical project and an historical work, a sociological examination and an investigation into a film’s formal properties too, a point Frodon makes when saying that, despite Lindeperg’s professional background as an historian, she does not ignore specifics such as the “choice of framing and editing, the connection between words and image, between monochrome and colour, between silence and speech.” (p. xi)
An association set up for the remembrance of the deported “wanted Night and Fog to be made as a means of eternalizing the memory of its dead and to hand the ‘flame of memory’ down to younger generations.” (p. 232) Perhaps at the time this would have seemed a useful ambition, but there have been numerous other works in fictional and documentary form that accompany it along a particularly awful memory lane: some great, some good, some indifferent. From Andrzej Munk’s Pasazerka (Passenger, 1963) to the Kertész adaptation Sorstalanság (Fateless, Lajos Koltai, 2005), from Schindler’s List to Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), from The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002) to The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls, 1969). Night and Fog is now just as memorable for being the first important work of Alain Resnais’ career as it is as an account of the Holocaust, and we might think of how many books and films on the subject turn the figures writing and making films about it into something more than someone memorializing an atrocity. It is as though the subject itself turns them into artists as well: Munk, Lanzmann, Ophuls in film; Borowski and Primo Levi for example in literature.
Lindeperg’s book isn’t so important a work as these: it still remains very much within the realm of the well-researched and well-documented, with none of the subjective ferocity found in Cayrol’s voiceover to the film. But it does justify its own length, explains and explores why more than 300 pages can be written on a work that in its 32 minutes takes in much that makes the 20th century a museum of atrocities, with the Holocaust as its prime exhibit.
Sylvie Lindeperg, Night and Fog: A Film in History, trans. Tom Mes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).