Night and Fog/Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945 “Humanity Lost” Night and Fog (by Alain Resnais) and Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945 (by Erik Barnouw) are two very different documentaries with two very similar messages. Though the task of viewing these films was quite difficult, both films conveyed a very strong message, the aftermath of human destruction. Resnais and Barnouw showed us the horrible capabilities of human beings at their worst and the result when humanity and morality is no longer present. Both filmmakers took the task of bringing the realities of these two disasters to life in two very different ways.
While Resnais and Barnouw differ a lot in their narrative and musical, chronology, and cinematography, structural and ethical choices, they do share slight similarities in each category. Separately, these two great directors produced two amazing documentaries. As different as the films are, the same message is effectively demonstrated in both pieces. Narration in a documentary is key to enhancing the story. In both films the narrations were effective in accomplishing this task, however in two very different manners.
While each narration was performed in 3rd person, one main difference was the reoccurring tense change in Resnais’s Night and Fog, which is absent from Barnouw’s Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945. The narrator in Night and Fog takes us on a journey through the concentration camps, first starting in present tense describing the scene and surrounding areas of a present day camp then taking us back through history in past tense. Hiroshima-Nagasaki was narrated completely in past tense. Night and Fog ‘s reoccurring changes helps to film stay interesting and engaging, comparing how things were to how they are now.
Another difference was the content of the text being narrated. Of course both films included horrifying factual texts describing the two travesties, however Night and Fog differed from Hiroshima-Nagasaki in that it had its poetic moments. For example the first scene of Night and Fog opens up with the text, “Even a peaceful landscape, even a meadow in harvest with crows circling overhead and grass fires. Even a road where cars and peasants and couples pass, even a resort village with a steeple and country fair can lead to a concentration camp. Although the last few words set up the disheartening subject matter of the documentary, the preceding text is very poetic. It gives Night and Fog a certain essence in narration that is lacking in Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945. Despite the inconceivable subject matter, the narrator of Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945 came across as a person with total knowledge about the matter being discussed. The only time a bit of doubt was expressed in either film was in Night and Fog while images of an abandoned concentration camp were being shown.
The narrator ponders, “The reality of these camps, despised by those who built them and unfathomable to those who endured them…what hope do we have of truly capturing this reality? ” Although he has an all-knowing attitude when dealing with the factual information, he has to admit that it would be impossible to truly capture the emotions of the prisoners and turmoil that they endured. The narrator in Hiroshima, however, appears to be “all-knowing” when discussing the subject matter of the injured and killed. Each narrator also shared some similarities in voice tone.
They both had more of a neutral tone as opposed to an overly emotional tone of voice, however the narration in Night and Fog was far more expressive in comparison. Another important aspect of a documentary is the musical selection, and Resnais and Barnouw had very different ways of using music throughout the films. In Hiroshima, Barnouw chose not to use a large variety of instruments. In fact, a single instrument, possibly a horn of some sort was used in the film. When the instrument played, the music stayed in a minor key producing a very eerie sound that effectively enhanced the disturbing images being shown.
One of the interesting aspects of the music in the film is that it rarely coincided with the narration. For the most part when the narrator spoke, the instrument was silent, coming in only towards the end of the vocal statements. The choice to not have the music play throughout the film was effective in its own way, since the absence of music can set a tone in and of itself. For example, after each bomb hits the earth, the narrator begins to describe the destruction felt in regards to the distance away from the center of the bomb (5,000 feet away from the center or the bomb, children sat at their school desks …etc. . After he makes the statement, “in the center there was no sound,” for a brief second there is complete silence. It is the only time in the sequence when either voice or instrument is heard. This is a remarkable use of silence and play on words. The use of music in Night and Fog is very different, however it is none-the-less effective in enhancing the images and text. Resnais choose to use a variety of different instrumentation throughout the film. Instead of a single instrument, he used a full orchestra, flute and oboe duets, violin with accompanying instruments, and a variety of other musical combinations.
Resnais also chose to have continuous music throughout the film, much different from Barnouw. While Barnouw used music and silence to affect the tone of the film, Resnais simply used the many different instrument combinations to do the exact same thing. Between the two films, the main similarity in music choice is that both consistently stayed in minor keys, which set the perfect disturbing and eerie tone. Another difference in the two documentaries is the chronology of the story lines.
In Night and Fog a fluid storyline is told from beginning to end, however present day film shots and narration are mixed in with archival shots and narration. For example, after archival images are shown of the captured being taken away by train, a present day tracking shot of an abandoned railroad track is shown. Another example of the mixing of images and narration can be seen later in the film. A present day point-of-view shot taken from inside an abandoned command post is paired with narration describing how S. S officers would sometimes shoot prisoners for fun.
This pov film shot is immediately followed by archival still images of prisoners shot to death by the previously described officers. All of the present day shots were in color, while all of the archival shots were in black and white, making the mixture of past and present very effective in enhancing the story line. The mixed film shots continue throughout the film as the story unfolds. On the contrary, Hiroshima-Nagasaki is a story told completely in black and white from start to finish, with only archival shots used to show the devastation.
It is set up in simple chronological fashion. From the beginning when the bomb hits Hiroshima to the catastrophe it caused both structurally and physically, the black and white archival images help portray a complete story. While Night and Fog deals with the memory of the past by showing present day images of concentration camps in an effort to remember those who once occupied them, Hiroshima-Nagasaki deals with memory a bit differently. Since there are no present day images seen, Barnouw chose to use the voice of a bomb victim/witness as a present day memory of the events.
The female gives her accounts of what happened on that fateful day and the horrors that she and others experienced. Her voice gives the audience a lasting and haunting memory of the bombing on Hiroshima. Cinematography was also very different in the two films. While Hiroshima-Nagasaki included no archival photographs, Night and Fog was full of pictures. For example, pictures of nude and sick prisoners, and S. S officers beating a prisoner were seen in the film. Although the pictures were disturbing, moving images seemed to be more effective in really evoking viewer emotion.
As gruesome as the thought may be, hearing the whip hitting flesh and seeing the actual movement of the prisoner and officer would have induced an even greater reaction than a still picture. The same can be said about the hospital images in both Night and Fog and Hiroshima-Nagasaki. Seeing a still picture of an emaciated sick prisoner or a Hiroshima bomb victim cannot compare to the moving images of the prisoners and bomb victims on their sick beds. From the simplicity of seeing a sick patients eye blink to seeing their chest rise, the moving images made their turmoil even more real.
Resnais’s decision to mix a lot of still images in with the more disturbing moving images (shoveling of dead prisoners, etc. ) in Night and Fog may have been an ethical decision and an attempt to not overly exploit the victims. Another cinematography/editing choice that stood out in the film Hiroshima-Nagasaki that was completely absent from Night and Fog was the rare use of dissolve between frames. The majority of the film’s shots were joined by straight cuts, however one shot in particular dissolved between frames and had an amazing effect.
The shot was of a woman dressed in a traditional kimono. As the shot dissolves, the immediate shot of a kimono pattern burnt into the female’s skin is shown. It is not only heart wrenching, but also an excellent editing choice by Barnouw. On top of the emotions evoked by seeing the victim’s images in both films, one is certain to become disgusted after finding out exactly who shot the archival film shots in Night and Fog. Knowing that the Nazi’s taped their indescribable acts for their personal record keeping and entertainment makes a lot of the scenes even harder to watch.
While one make cringe at the thought of the Nazi’s taping their crude acts, others may applaud the efforts of the Japanese film students who documented the archival film shots in Hiroshima-Nagasaki. The students were on a mission to document the destruction caused by the United States. With the purposes of revealing the truth, the students were successful in capturing a reality. Because of the origin of the Hiroshima shots, the affect of watching the documentary does not change. If anything its makes one grateful that the truth was recorded to later be shown to all.
When working with such disturbing subject matter, both Barnouw and Resnais had to make touch decisions on how to construct films that would not only evoke emotion, but that would start conversation about human nature and morality. Although each film told a story in two very different ways, the message was very clear. Human beings are capable of committing the most unforgivable acts. With both films rendering viewers silent, we must ask ourselves,” Where is the humanity in it all. ”