The Trick of Good Narration: An In Depth Review of Night and Fog
The Narrative Voice
The nature of the narrative voice in Night and Fog (Resnais, 1955) is a poetic, yet ironic look at the horrors of the Nazi’s concentration camps. This voice embodies the film’s perspective, not simply from a narrator’s point of view, but to ask the question: “What is this movie saying?”
In this somber documentary, the voice seems to come through very early in the movie. From the description of the types of camps Hitler created to the description of those victims who will eventually fill them. The different components (narrator, shot choice, music) that make up the voice can conflict with one another, but the battle resembles a well choreographed fight that is both beautiful and horrifying.
Film Review and Facts about Night and Fog
- Film Review: Night and Fog
This is a film review for Alain Resnais' documentary Night and Fog. Read about the movie, learn some interesting facts about how the film took shape. It's not just a movie, it's a piece of history.
The narrative voice should not be confused with the narrator, who is only a section (albeit important) of a film. Night and Fog uses narration in the Griersonian tradition of direct address or the “Voice of God”. This type of narrator speaks directly to the viewer, but is rarely, if ever, seen. They are the eyes of the camera and the voice in our head, telling us about the world we are entering in the film.
There is an assumption that what the viewer is watching, hearing and experiencing is the truth. This isn’t always the case. The viewer should always ask, “Do I believe the narrator?” It is easy to watch and believe instead of question and reject. It is easy for viewer’s to do this for directors or subject matter they already know they must question. Michael Moore would expect nothing less of someone watching any one of his films.
Las Huerdes: Tierra Sin Pan
To Believe or Not to Believe?
There are other documentaries, however, that can easily fool the viewer, because that is their intention. Take, for example, Luis Buñuel’s 1933 Las Huerdes: Tierra Sin Pan or Land Without Bread.
Many people took this as an honest documentary about the impoverished people of Las Huerdes without fully grasping the source of the information or surrealist Buñuel’s intention. They didn’t question narrator who spoke so matter of fact, the film resembled an odd travelogue. They didn’t question the content of the information given by the director and then corroborated by the narrator. It was a land so destitute and dangerous that a mountain goat slipped off the cliffs. It was a surrealist at work; Buñuel had that goat shot and shoved off the mountain.
Not that the film isn’t important. It is brilliant as a surrealist depiction of an era and the perception of a place. That is what documentaries can do, but it is important to look deeper, even if we aren’t expected to.
Las Huerdes: Tierra Sin Pan Section
In Erik Barnouw’s Documentary, he places film in categories such as prophet, explorer, reporter, with Night and Fog falling into the position of prosecutor. Though he doesn’t specifically bring up the term voice, it is clear that he deems the movie an indictment on the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Therefore the movie’s ‘bigger picture’ is that of a prosecutor, a designation that is highlighted in the following sequence.
German Cinema During the Nazis regime
- German Cinema: Nazi Films and the Lessons We Can Learn
This is an overview of few of the films that arose from the Nazi Regime. It overviews some of the directors and their work.
Imagery Is Everything
Not quite three minutes into the film, the narrator states the date, 1933, and footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) is shown. Shots of the Nazi ‘machine’: soldiers marching and carrying swastikas, Hitler saluting and the hordes of German citizens, are tied with words like unison and work with the almost playful sounds of a pinging guitar and the contemplative notes of a violin. There is a shot of Goebbels giving a speech and a seemingly endless supply of soldiers parading through the streets of Germany. A boy from the Hitler Youth pounds on his drum to announce the ‘job has begun’.
There is a cut showing stills displaying the different styles of the concentration camps in a factual, but lighthearted and funny way. It presents the many different camps to a lull of music in the background, and then suddenly reminds the viewer how funny the buildings aren’t by stating, “Which no one will enter more than once.”
The sequence is about one minute long, but it is clear ‘the voice’ is both mocking and condemning the Nazi ‘machine’ in a way that appears factual, yet poetic. Resnais cleverly uses the Reich’s most famous propaganda film to not only highlight the immense military power of the regime, but it’s extensive reach, embracing much of Germany, including the children.
In many ways, this presentation makes Germany, as a whole, look like a mob that is directly linked to Hitler and the military he controlled.Though history has shown that not all Germans followed Hitler, the movie seems to charge them all in the offenses that occurred in the camps.According to the film, Germany was united and worked as one before the building of the concentration camps.
The Nazis Take Control of the German Film Industry
- German Cinema: Nazi Control Reshapes the Industry
This is an overview of the impact the Nazis had on German Cinema. It highlights some of the motivations and consequences of the regime takeover and how it impacted the then booming industry.
Seeing is Believing, Right?
In many ways, this presentation makes Germany, as a whole, look like a mob that is directly linked to Hitler and the military he controlled. Though history has shown that not all Germans followed Hitler, the movie seems to charge them all in the offenses that occurred in the camps.
According to the film, Germany was united and worked as one before the building of the concentration camps. The concentration camps are presented almost like flipping through a real estate magazine for new homes. Resnais mentions contractors, estimates and a bidding process. This factual approach sets a definite tone similar to that of the ‘Voice of God’. It defines the narrator’s position in the film not only as a giver of facts, but one that can and should be trusted.
The film continues to define the relationship between the narrator and viewer by getting us comfortable with the narrator’s style: factual, yet charming and witty. The film accomplishes this by showing stills of concentration camps and describing them: “The Swiss style”, “The garage style”, “A Japanese model” and “No style at all”. Who knows what the architects that designed them referred to them as. The narrator’s description is amusing and seems to fit. The trust between narrator and viewer is built with his actual voice working together with the ‘voice of’ Night and Fog to convey the truth about the concentration camps.
Breaking Down What Is Said vs What is Meant
The last line of the sequence highlights ‘the voice’ of the film about the concentration camps. It states, “Which no one will enter more than once.” After the comedic look on how the concentration camps were created, the line is a splash of water on the face of the viewer, jolting us back to the horrors that occurred in the camps.
The line, however poignant, is flawed. It is clear that people (such as the S.S., Goebbels and the like) entered and exited from the camps. Someone had to run the camps. But the line wouldn’t have the same impact. “Which no one will enter more than once, unless you’re the S.S., military or Goebbels,” doesn’t have the same effect.
One might argue that the film’s positioning is that from the perspective of the victims of the concentration camps and that the line was meant from their point of view. I agree that could be the case, but the discourse between the film and the viewer seems to be from the “Let me show you” point of view. This is conveyed at the end of the film in the line “As I speak to you now, icy waters lies in the hollows of the carnal houses,” expresses a ‘me’ (the movie), ‘you’ (the viewer) and ‘them’ (the keepers of the concentrations camps) discourse. It continues with the line, “Somewhere in our misty life, Kapos survive…” placing me and you together against them.
- Film Review: Grizzly Man
This is a review for the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man. Read the review and learn some fun facts about the film, then watch the trailer.
- How to Document A Violent Death: An In Depth Review of Grizzly Man and The Bridge
This is an in depth review comparing Herzog's Grizzly Man with Steele's The Bridge. Both tackle death, but in which ways do they differ and how do these differences alter the way the audience experiences documentary?
It isn’t a horrible place to experience the film, but it should be noted that these subtleties can alter any documentary. Every film does it, but there is a fine line for the viewer to watch out for.
Grizzly Man’s (2005) Werner Herzog inserted his opinions and final judgment into the film, forcing his morality onto his subject and the viewers by literally placing himself into the film and dictating what we deserved to hear. It is easy to spot the narrative manipulation in films like Grizzly Man and countless from director Michael Moore, but it is clear that this is a method of documentary, they just magnify it.
The viewer must pick apart every documentary film to find the truth, the documentation and the reality of the subject behind the narrator and beyond the narrative voice. The trick is to try to find out “what the movie is saying,” and draw your conclusions afterwards. I chose to believe the narrator and the narrative voice in Night and Fog, not just because I agree with “what the movie is saying”, but also because after the movie is done I am left to question a sentence here or a wording choice there, but little else.