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Night and Fog: The Criterion Collection

The genre of Holocaust documentaries is a critical minefield — by chronicling a great and awful tragedy, any film in the genre gets an artistic pass as long as it's considered "important" (and by now the whole thing has inspired a running gag about the Academy Award for Best Documentary). But how many of these films are actually worth such praise? Alain Resnais' 1955 Night and Fog still holds high-water mark — it manages to have a forceful impact in 32 minutes without ever resorting to melodrama or obvious heart-tugging. Narrated by Michel Bouquet, with text by writer and survivor Jean Cayrol, the picture begins with color footage of a preserved concentration camp and then walks the viewer through the events of the construction of the camps to the end of World War II. This color footage is then intertwined with period pictures and film clips that document how the camps were put into work, the eventual installment of the gas chambers, and then how the goods and bodies of the victims were used and sorted. What is most notable about Night and Fog is its cold tone: Resnais is not trying to sell us on the repugnance of the events, yet before he shows the footage of a bulldozer pouring emaciated bodies into a mass grave there is no doubting the horror. The film exists as an essay that has no interest in documenting one or the entire experience, but wonders why it happened as it simultaneously covers the how it happened. It also stops occasionally to muse on small tangents of the experience (such as how the hospitals in the camps were run, and the commanders' wives reactions to being there). But, by not trying to hammer away at the obvious tragedies, the lasting power of the film and its images are all the stronger — the audience is allowed to fill in the blanks. Criterion presents Night and Fog in a full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with the original monaural French audio (DD 1.0), optional English subtitles, and an optional music-only track. Supplements include a five-minute radio interview with Resnais from 1995 and a crew bio written by Peter Cowie. Also included (as with all Criterion releases) is a handsome booklet including essays by Cowie, Phillip Lopathe, and Russell Lack. Keep-case.

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