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The Trick of Good Narration: An In Depth Review of Night and Fog

Updated on March 31, 2013

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.

The Narrator

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

The caption says: She's only 32 years old.
The caption says: She's only 32 years old.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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    • vmartinezwilson profile image

      Vanessa Martinez Wilson 6 years ago from Vancouver, WA

      There were two movies my professors never made us watch: The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will. Instead, they told us about it, showed us a few clips and then opted for a similar movie in the genre. One day, I asked my prof why, because we're all adults (for the most part) and these are landmark films. Her response was that though we need to know about them and study them, their content was too much. I decided to watch them on my own, then when back to discuss it with my prof. After our discussion of the film, she told she was glad I watched it, because it allowed to learn more since the films were from a perspective opposite of my own. And let's face it: D.W. Griffith changed the way movies were made and still influences filmmakers today, whether they know it or not. And Triumph of the Will changed the way documentaries were used as propaganda pieces, something the English picked up on, but Americans seemed to have lacked. And the shots Leni Riefenstahl used were so, so, so good. It really is a shame, they were in that film, yet so effective.

      Beautiful Life made me cry, until I was the lead actor get his Oscar and that's all I can see now, lol.

      I usually read about these eras from a filmic perspective, so I read a lot of Robert Stam, Bill Nichols, Jay Ruby, Andre Bazin, the Montage manifestos, Tom Gunning and one of my old professors Linda Williams, who apparently has some notoriety for teaching The Wire, a class I should have taken, but couldn't because it didn't fit my schedule. I get to learn a lot about history, but more in the way if affect film processes, subject matter and technology. This sort of thing is crazy exciting for me!

      I hope I haven't tainted the way you watch films. They should be enjoyed, but it never hurts to see the underlying meanings, issues and drivers within a film.

      I appreciate your input!

    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      Nope, not long winded at all and most fascinating!!! I find it amazing that you went deeper and deeper due to Tim Burton, but I am not surprised. You are obviously a very gifted individual and I cannot wait to have more time to read your work. I am not knowledgeable about German films at all and find the idea of them abhorrent; certainly I do not wish to intellectualize a regime so violent and horrific. Yet the technique of revealing this work intrigues me. Perhaps being less emotional about something that has already occurred can give me fresh perspective on it and allow me to learn from this terrible time in history.

      I must say, I watched Beautiful Life only once and sobbed through most of it, considering the relationship between the father and son and how the father tried to cover it all up for his boy, to reassure him that this is indeed A Beautiful Life.

      Anyway, that is me. I have gotten very little into German Expressionism. Of course, I think of The Scream, when I think of it. I have not read Nietzsche, though Gunther was required high school reading. The more I read about it as a literary form, the more intrigued I am with it. I might like to write something in that form as an experiment. I am uncertain, though. I need to read more about Expressionism and its influence on fascism- is there any connection?

      Thanks so much for the new ideas! I love ideas...

    • vmartinezwilson profile image

      Vanessa Martinez Wilson 6 years ago from Vancouver, WA

      Hi Storytellers!

      I learned about the narrative voice and discussed it at length with my then professor Linda Williams at Cal. She was interested in the ramification of who produced what documentary film, though discussing the narrative voice is essential to understand a documentary.

      My heritage isn't German, but instead I was a huge fan of Tim Burton. After doing research, I found that he wasn't as original as I had argued that he was. I delved into German Expressionism and took every class, went to every lecture and discussion on the matter. At my school, there were a lot. Though there was more emphasis on Russian film since the film stock from that era was just being restored, rolled out and my professors had all been writing books about it.

      The deeper I studied German cinema, the more I found an interest in the ramifications of the Fascist regime on that period of film. It was destroyed rather quickly and it intrigues me why many of these directors were such a success in Germany, but never found that sort of success in Hollywood.

      My focus is rather narrow, however, since there were thousands of films during that period that I have yet to watch. I tend to focus on the visual films, such expressionism. Right now, I switch from watching German films to Japanese films, which was another genre I studied, though my focus was on horror. That was more difficult since I would follow one professor each time he decided to teach a class on it, since he was the only one who did. So, most of my studies for that have come after the fact, since I'm still reading about their progression.

      Hope that wasn't too long winded.

      Thanks a bunch!

    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      Hello V! I find this fascinating. I have never thought much about the narrative voice in film. Of course I have experienced it, but I have never thought of it as a comparative event. I think you have changed my way of listening to that voice. Most often, I immerse myself in film and become part of the experience versus dissect it- well, I am not studied in film so have nothing but my limited perspective. I like having additional input to consider.

      I am curious about all your WW2 German hubs and studies. Is this a specialization you have pursued in school, i.e., a dissertation sort of exploration? What made you so interested in this period? Is it your family heritage? Something else that inspired? I am always wondering what makes subjects this compelling to individuals and hope you don't mind me asking. Perhaps you have described the reason in a hub or your profile. If so, I apologize for not having read anything but this hub!

      Voted up and interesting! Much to learn, here.

    • vmartinezwilson profile image

      Vanessa Martinez Wilson 6 years ago from Vancouver, WA

      Thanks a bunch Gus!

      I'm not fond of comedy, but I really have a soft spot for Charlie Chaplin films. He was able to portray so much with his facial expressions it is easy to see why so many people followed him. No narration and only sparse titles were needed in his films for that reason. He was indeed brilliant.

      Much appreciated!

    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 6 years ago from USA

      Hello vmartinezwilson - You did a really good job of detailing some different narrating methods (styles?). I had not thought of this sort of thing earlier, but that "Voice of God" deal brought forth the memory of having heard the like of that from time to time, particularly along with historical motion pix and the like.

      Back when I was a child in WW-2 times we had the Charlie Chaplin movie, "The Great Dictator," to watch - both as entertainment and somewhat as a duty. There was not really any narration involved unless you could say that the comedic ridicule put onto the "pseudo-Nazis" was a non-narrated form of narration.

      Interesting stuff in your fine article, and I thank you for detailing it all so well.

      Gus :-)))