Chris Honoré: ‘Night and Fog’ and Ukraine

A still image from "Night and Fog."
April 23, 2022

Watching the apocalyptic invasion unfold

By Chris Honoré

“Night and Fog,” is a deeply moving French documentary film, released in 1956, 10 years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. It was directed by Alain Resnais and written by Jean Cayrol, with voiceover by Michael Bouquet. The title in German is “Nacht und Nebel,” and derived from Kristlelnacht, which is German for crystal night (broken glass), a reference to a 1938 pogrom against the Jews, carried out by the Nazi Party paramilitary forces, along with civilians, throughout Nazi Germany. Jewish businesses, synagogues, homes and hospitals were smashed, and some 30,000 Jews were beaten or arrested, with many placed in concentration camps.

Chris Honoré

The stark black-and-white film (with more contemporary color shots) was set in the Polish death camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek. The narrative begins with Bouquet describing the rise of Nazi ideology and goes on to reveal stock footage of starving, doomed prisoners who were subjected to unspeakable medical experiments, sadistic beatings, arbitrary executions and merciless torture. The archival film pans across mounds of human hair, luggage, glasses, shoes and jewelry, followed by images of lifeless, pale bodies stacked on carts, waiting to be taken to nearby burning pits. The grainy footage and harrowing still shots then slowly reveal what were euphemistically called “showers,” but were instead death chambers filled with lethal gas, and we are shown rows of cremation ovens, the burned human remains turned to bone and ash. The murderous cruelty and remorseless inhumanity are unimaginable, and I try not to look away as smoke billows from tall chimneys and falls like snow.

Film critic Todd Gitlin described “Night and Fog” as an “unbearable apotheosis of desolation that speaks to the necessity of our making a mental effort to grasp what is impossible to grasp — a duty that has been imposed upon us by history.”

It is with that similar “mental effort,” and that sense of “duty,” that I watch the apocalyptic invasion of Ukraine unfold. And I find myself searching for elusive words to describe the Russian depravity, the carnage, the charred destruction of buildings and houses, and the unprovoked executions of the innocent, all left in the wake of the Russian forces as they retreated. In the town of Bucha, north of Kyiv, there were streets littered with the dead: men, women, and children, some with their hands tied behind their backs, others shot in the head.

In a scathing speech to the United Nations, Ukrainian President Zelensky made an appeal for help, accusing the Russians of a level of barbarity not known since World War II. He paused and then said, “They killed entire families, adults and children, and they tried to burn the bodies. Civilians were crushed by tanks while siting in their cars in the middle of the road.” He went on to assert that “Women were raped and killed in front of their children; their tongues were pulled out.”

And then the U.N. chamber fell silent as Zelensky screened a video depicting Russia’s grim scorched earth policy, images that revealed the death and destruction visited on the Ukrainians, not by rogue soldiers, but as an indiscriminant strategy intended to terrorize and demoralize the civilians who inhabited Nova Basan, Mariupol, and Mykolani, where the dead number in the thousands. And there are those countless innocents who took shelter in basements and now remain buried beneath the rubble, their fates unknown.

I search for an analog to what is taking place and I keep returning to the film “Night and Fog,” and I find that I am at a loss to comprehend the bleak cruelty, the evil that took place then and is taking place now.

I am not saying that there is an equivalency between the Holocaust and its sheer, systematic iniquity, and what we now watch on our screens. However, if we consider the unrepentant atrocities taking place in Ukraine, it is all but impossible not to recognize a familiar, malignant immorality that seems ever to be with us, thereby causing the words, “Never again,” to ring hollow. And once more we bear witness to what can only be defined as genocide.

Email Ashland resident Chris Honoré at honore307@gmail.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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