How Resnais’s Night and Fog Influenced My Ph.D.

Wed, 03/05/2014 - 2:55pm

The other morning I checked the BBC News website like I always do only to discover that French film director Alain Resnais had passed away at the age of ninety-one. Resnais’s films frequently explored the relationship between memory, consciousness, and the imagination in a non-linear manner and his innovative method of filmmaking won him numerous awards and prestige throughout his prolific career. Though he lived into his nineties and had a career that spanned more than six decades, Resnais’s passing still filled me with a deep sense of loss when thinking of how much his cinematic style and body of work had influenced my intellectual trajectory and the paths of so many others.

Night and Fog  

When I was a sophomore at USC, I took a French New Wave Cinema class that initially exposed me to the work of Resnais and his film Night and Fog, a short documentary made ten years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps focusing on the treatment and living conditions of prisoners along with the role of memory in the aftermath of war. Resnais’s film was one of the first documentaries made about the concentration camps and features a narration by Jean Cayrol, himself a survivor of the camps.

Night and Fog had a profound impact on me, as I’m sure it did on many people. I was nineteen years old when I first watched it and, up until that time, the Holocaust had been something that seemed abstract – I was aware of the place of the Holocaust in history and the unfathomable horror of the Nazi genocide including the six million Jews that were murdered during this time.

However, I had not fully grasped the very depth of this systematic and calculated attempt at annihilation of a specific group of people for merely existing until I first watched Resnais’s Night and Fog. It was at that moment, when I watched the film’s footage of bulldozers shoveling the sprawling heap of emaciated, lifeless bodies of camp inmates into mass graves that the Holocaust ceased to be merely an intangible event that occurred in historical record. I felt the tears well up in my eyes and my chest tighten up as these images of mass destruction and trauma confronted me head on. “How could people be capable of such horrific and cruel actions toward their fellow man?” I wondered. This is when I first began to read more about the Holocaust and the role of collective memory in historical record.

Researching the Holocaust Through Testimony

When I began my doctoral studies at USC, I knew that I wanted to focus on the ethics and aesthetics of testimony and bearing witness to the Shoah in contemporary French films and literature. I am currently working on my dissertation that deals with memory transformations in postwar France and the ethical implications of contemporary Holocaust films and literature.

Last summer as a Fellow at the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History Education, I listened to testimonials from survivors of the Vél d’Hiv roundup in Paris that occurred in July 1942 and coded them based on several key areas relevant to my dissertation: the ability to forgive, the duty of memory, the message for future generations, and the psychological impact on survivors of French police and gendarmes carrying out the mass arrests. I chose survivors of the Vél d’Hiv because of the renewed coverage that it has gotten in France, particularly with the box office success of two recent French films, La Rafle (2010) and Elle s’appelait Sarah (2010) – both of which show French police and civil servants organizing and carrying out the roundups. The video testimonies in the Visual History Archive have been instrumental to my research on shifts in memory transformations in France and the varying role of the witness.

It was Resnais who said, “The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn't be in a flashback.” As I continue my dissertation research, I hope to continue this devoir de mémoire/ duty of memory, while exploring the politics of memory and the ethical debate surrounding the representability and pedagogical function of the Holocaust.

Leticia Villasenor