Seeing Again Nuit et brouillardNacht und NebelNight and Fog

by Tobias Hering

The following text was written as an introduction to the double screening of the French and German versions of Alain Resnais’s 1956 film, Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog), at the 64th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in 2018. The screening took place in the Gloria Theater of the Lichtburg Cinema in Oberhausen on May 4th, 2018, and was attended by approximately one hundred people. It was also the public inauguration of “re-selected,” a research-based program series informed by the festival’s archives. At the core of the re-selected project lies the idea that the history not only of each film but of each print is rhizomatically connected with and entangled in the histories of its time, and that tracing these ties will lead to revelations that also concern the present: the politics of memory, what we think we know, what we appreciate and safeguard, how we remember, how we forget, and how one imagines that which one hasn’t witnessed.

The film that we are going to watch has been watched thousands of times by millions of people. I assume that more than half of us in this room today have seen it before at some point, willingly or accidentally. In the discussion that we will be able to have after the screening, it might be interesting to reflect on the expectations and memories with which you have come to see this film again, and what the re-encounter has meant to you.

I hope that I can start to explain a bit what this project, re-selected, is about by trying to answer a simple question: Why watch the film twice? We are going to watch Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard, first in the French original version with the text by Jean Cayrol spoken by Michel Bouquet, with English subtitles, and then in the German version with the translation by Paul Celan spoken by Kurt Glass. You will also notice that while in the original version of the film several sequences are in color, on the German 16mm print the film is entirely black-and-white.[1]

Watching the same film twice—the fact of the “two versions” should already raise the question if it is actually the same film that we are going to watch twice. I do not want to be blunt by saying that the different languages make what we are going to see two entirely different films. However, with this film—like with many others—it is worth paying attention to how it has been translated into another language.[2] In this particular case of a film that traces and analyzes the mass extermination system implemented by Nazi Germany all over Europe, the German translation by Paul Celan inherited from Cayrol’s original text the essential difficulty of having to break a silence. A silence that had been kept for reasons of shame, ignorance, or denial, but that also had to do with the fact that many of those who had witnessed and survived the horrors of the concentration camps had found themselves unable to speak about them. Both Cayrol and Celan had been affected by Nazi prosecution and deportation—Cayrol as a member of the French Résistance, Celan as a Jew. Cayrol and Celan were prolific poets of their time, and their texts are dense and complex literary works based on personal experiences. Nuit et brouillard was in fact the second text by Cayrol that Celan translated into German: in 1954, just prior to working on the film, he had already translated Cayrol’s novel L’espace d’une nuit.[3]

For Celan, translating Nuit et brouillard into German not only meant negotiating his own experience of the Nazi terror with Cayrol’s, but it also required him to translate the words of a resistance fighter into the language of the perpetrators. This aspect of the task loomed large for Celan and it must have made it a painful challenge for him. Accepting the task was consistent, however, with his resolution to continue writing in German even after the worst had happened; to bring about in his poetry a language that was marked and haunted by the atrocities it had witnessed and served, and to actually change the German language for good.

The very title of the film is a hint to the fact that translation is much more than a technical procedure, that every translation simultaneously uncovers and affects the body of a language. “Nuit et brouillard” is the literal translation for the common name of a decree enacted by Adolf Hitler in December 1941: the so-called Nacht-und-Nebel-Erlass, Night and Fog decree, provided the legal (if unlawful) base for the deportation of those who resisted German occupation in their countries of origin to be tried and sentenced by special courts on German or German-occupied territory. The decree explicitly aimed at making the victims disappear, if possible through a death penalty and its immediate execution, or through deportation without notification of relatives or legal institutions. Prisoners deported on the base of this decree were classified by the Nazi administration as NN, Nacht und Nebel, and the two letters would eventually also be stitched on their clothes, as can be seen in the film. By the end of the war, about 7,000 people had been victimized under this category. The Nacht-und-Nebel decree was dealt with during the Nuremberg Trials in 1947 and it was rated a Crime against Humanity.

The French film historian Sylvie Lindeperg suggests that the Nazi bureaucracy borrowed the expression Night and Fog from Richard Wagner’s Rheingold libretto in which “Nacht und Nebel” is a magic formula to make someone invisible. However, the expression had an idiomatic meaning in German before, signifying that something happens unnoticed or in secret, when nobody is watching or under poor conditions of visibility. While for Germans, then, “Nacht und Nebel” had a common meaning before it was adopted for a particular form of deportation, the expression “nuit et brouillard” was new to the French language and exclusively referred to the experience of those who were deported and categorized NN. The cynicism of a picturesque term like “night and fog” being used to describe an instrument of terror became part of the experience of the victims. Some of them would later refer to the word play in their writings, among them journalist Odette Améry in her memoirs of deportation to Ravensbrück and Mauthausen, and Jean Cayrol himself, whose first volume of poetry published after the war, in 1946, was titled Poèmes de la nuit et du brouillard (Poems from Night and Fog). It comprised poems he had written during his imprisonment in Gusen and Mauthausen. When in the summer of 1956, the expression “Nacht und Nebel” returned to the German language in Celan’s translation of the film, its idiomatic function had forever changed, because it carried with it this history of violence and occupation. Those who didn’t know, would now learn.

Nuit et brouillard was screened at the 3rd edition of the Westdeutsche Kulturfilmtage Oberhausen and it was among the eight films that the jury honored as “particularly remarkable.”[4] Night and Fog was screened once, on 24th October, and it was part of a compilation program of ten films beginning at 10:30 pm at the Apollo theater. Night and Fog was the last film in the program, preceded by a 20th Century Fox documentary titled Volcanic Violence (German: Vulkanische Gewalten). This means that Night and Fog probably did not start before 11:30 pm or even midnight, which makes me wonder how many people actually saw the film on that day here in Oberhausen.

As is well known, the film’s world premiere at the festival in Cannes, a few weeks earlier, had caused a scandal because the festival had buckled to an intervention by the German ambassador not to screen the film in competition, arguing that it did not “serve the understanding between nations” (“dass er nicht der Völkerverständigung diene), which was a common lever to suppress a film for the uncomfortable facts it made public. One result of the affair was that the West German government, in order to make up for the embarrassment the scandal had caused, quickly decided to acquire the film for a wide non-commercial distribution in schools and public institutions. Thus, after being the first country to oppose Nuit et brouillard, West Germany became the first country in which it was widely seen. As early as December 1956, the West German language version was finished and the German Federal Press Office ordered 200 prints for its political education program. For budgetary reasons, these were 16mm black-and-white prints and it is a reprint of one of these which we are going to see in the second half of today’s program. At the very end the print contains a short trailer of the Federal Bureau for Political Education (Landeszentrale für politische Bildung) which we will get to see, if the projectionist lets us. In this form, Night and Fog became a common element in the curriculum of West German schools, on the program of film clubs and the political education of labor unions, cultural associations, and churches.

I haven’t yet been able to verify in which form the film was screened in Oberhausen in October 1956. This German version did not exist yet, but we can assume that a German translation of Jean Cayrol’s text had been produced by the festival and that the German text was read over loudspeakers during the projection. In fact, when the film was screened again at this festival in 1966 in a retrospective curated by Enno Patalas, the catalog featured an excerpt from the German commentary. This excerpt is not identical with Celan’s text and was probably quoted from the German dialogue list produced in 1956, which would still have existed in 1966 but appears to be lost now.

So why watch Night and Fog twice? Why watch it again in the first place? The idea first suggested itself by the fact that prints of these two versions exist in the archive of this festival. (They are of course not the only versions that exist of the film; there even exist two more German versions produced in East Germany in 1957, respectively in 1977, whose commentary differs distinctly from Celan’s. These will probably become a topic of this project, too, at some point, as their genesis can serve as a prism through which to explore the different politics and aesthetics of remembrance in East and West Germany.)[5] At the core of the re-selected project lies the idea that revisiting films from the past can be a rewarding experience in the present. That the history not only of each film but of each print is rhizomatically connected with and entangled in the histories of its time, and that tracing these ties will in the end lead to revelations that also concern the present: the politics of memory, what we think we know, what we appreciate and safeguard, how we remember and how we forget, and how one imagines that which one hasn’t witnessed—bearing in mind and holding dear an important idea of Walter Benjamin’s, noted in “The Task of the Translator,” that one can “speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten it” (1996, 254).

Why the same film twice? As an archive project, re-selected is also in favor of the second look, even a third look, of a practice of repetition, rewinding, watching again and again, in an attempt to understand better, to see more clearly. At its core, this project is about recognizing and appreciating differences, about befriending the idea that films lead a very heterogeneous existence that cannot easily be homogenized to the concept of a one and only original. How can we ignore the different ways in which a film has met its audiences over the years? How can what we say about a film in history be said independently from its unfathomable existence in the memory of those who saw it, especially if they saw it in different versions? How can we really expect to see the same film twice?

One of the many who were marked by watching Nuit et Brouillard in school was French film critic Serge Daney. In his famous essay, “The Tracking Shot in Kapo,” he recalls how he was exposed to the film regularly when his literature teacher at the lycée Voltaire, Henri Agel, in order to spare himself and his students the burden of Latin lessons, turned the classroom into a cine-club:

Out of sadism and probably because he had the prints, Agel showed little films designed to seriously open the students’ eyes: Franju’s Le sang des bêtes and in particular Resnais’ Nuit et brouillard. Through cinema I learned that the human condition and industrial butchery were not incompatible and that the worst had just happened. (Daney 2007, 19)

In what was to become his last text on cinema, a long conversation with his friend and colleague Serge Toubiana, which took place in February 1992 in a hotel in Aix-en-Provence and which was published under the title “Perséverance” in 1994, Daney calls Nuit et brouillard “the film that marked me” (2007, 90). At this point in their conversation the film prompts an interesting remark about cinema as such. Daney says,

cinema can only bring back what has already been seen before: well seen, poorly seen, unseen. Ten years later Nuit et brouillard brings back what wasn’t seen, bearing in mind that the images of the camps filmed by George Stevens, or those assembled by Hitchcock, have been stashed away by the Americans and the British. (2007, 90)

Here is an idea that I find very important for this project re-selected, the idea that even when we see something in a film for the first time, we know that it has been seen before, that it was visible, even if only for a few, even if it was hidden, and even if too many people have tried very hard not to see it. And this is true for the things that Daney saw for the first time when watching Nuit et Brouillard. He says: “Ten years later Nuit et Brouillard returns what wasn’t seen,” pointing out that the images that were shot during the liberation of the concentration camps by American and British camera men had quickly been locked away as an early concession to Cold War politics.

When Daney says that the raison d’être not only of this film, but of cinema as such was to bring back what had already been seen before, he seems to be referring to the archival function of cinema, to the fact that films, whether fictional or documentary, always create a record of their times, of something that existed and of the ways in which it existed. I think however, that this was not the primary intention of what he said. For Daney, Nuit et Brouillard was the revelation that cinema could only bring back what had been seen beforenot only because it brought back images of what was already in the process of being forgotten, but also because the film helped him to understand the absence of his own father, whom he never knew, probably because he had been deported and murdered by the Germans before Daney was born. When seeing Nuit et brouillard for the first time, Daney did not expect to see his father in the images, but the film revealed to him the fact that someone had seen him, that what had happened to his father had been visible. For me, the essence of Daney’s thought is that seeing something in the cinema brings us in touch with what is visible and through it with the possible gaze of others, with the fact that not only has what we see been seen before, but also that we are usually not alone in seeing it again now. Watching a film, even if we watch it alone and in private, is always a shared experience, an experience that engages us with others who are often far away or not there anymore. And one of the questions re-selected can be understood to ask is, who they are.

Let me quote Serge Daney’s thought once again: “[C]inema can only bring back what has already been seen before: well seen, badly seen, unseen” (italics added). The possibilities opened up by “well seen, badly seen, unseen” suggest that a certain repetition or revisiting, for example when watching a film again, is not merely a thing for cinema nerds and film researchers, but that when watching a film again we are doing something that touches the core of what cinema is: the possibility to see again what has been seen before, to reflect on its earlier audiences, and to experience the same thing differently; to realize that while we think we are watching the same film again, it is actually us who have changed. The context is different and the same film appears to us in a new light, a light that is filtered through layers of time that have settled on it (and on us) like sediment. In a short note on memory titled “Ausgraben und Erinnern” (“Excavation and Memory”), Walter Benjamin suggests that history is never written once and for all, and that in order to find something out about the past, one “must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter” (1999, 400). I hope that this project, by recognizing that a film comes to an audience as a “copy,” and that each screening of it engages us with a repetition of something that will however never be the same thing twice, will help to bring about a more nuanced understanding of the practice of cinema, and that it will also create fruitful, revealing, and engaging encounters with ourselves, with others, with films that—as Daney also says somewhere—are watching us every time we are watching them.

I thank the staff of this festival for making these screenings, this re-visiting possible.


Améry, Odette. 1945. Nuit et brouillard. Paris: Berger-Levrault.

Benjamin, Walter. 1996 [1923]. “The Task of the Translator.” In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1: 1913-1926. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Benjamin, Walter. 1999 [1932]. “Excavation and Memory.” In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 2: 1927-1934. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cayrol, Jean. 1946. Poèmes de la Nuit et du Brouillard. Paris: Seuil.

Cayrol, Jean. 1954. L’espace d’une nuit. Paris: Seuil.

Daney, Serge. 2007 [1994]. Postcards from the Cinema. Oxford/New York: Berg.

Lindeperg, Sylvie. 2007. Nuit et Brouillard. Un film dans l’histoire. Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob.

van de Knaap, Ewout. 2008. Nacht und Nebel: Gedächtnis des Holocaust und internationale Wirkungsgeschichte. Göttingen: Wallstein.


[1] The French version screened was the digitally restored version, provided on DCP by Tamasa Distribution under license from Argos Films. The German version was a worn black-and-white 16mm print from the archive of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. A 35mm print of the French version is also kept at the festival archive, but has turned entirely red.

[2] Primary sources for information on the production and reception history of the film are Sylvie Lindeperg’s Nuit et brouillard, Un film dans l’histoire, published in French in 2007 and in a slightly extended German version in 2010, as well as Ewout van de Knaap’s Nacht und Nebel: Gedächtnis des Holocaust und internationale Wirkungsgeschichte from 2008; see references at the end of the text.

[3] Published in German as Im Bereich einer Nacht, in English as All in a Night.

[4] At the time, there were no competition programs in Oberhausen yet and no awards were given.

[5] Since then, two comparative screenings of the East and West German versions of Night and Fog have taken place, one as part of the re-selected project in collaboration with Mareike Bernien and Nicole Wolf in May 2019 in the context of the first “The Whole Life” congress at the Lipsiusbau in Dresden; another in 2021, together with Jörg Frieß at the Documentary Film Festival in Leipzig within the retrospective, “Die Juden der Anderen” (“The Jews of the Others”), curated by Ralph Eue. A comparative screening of the French and the Dutch versions of the film took place at the Brussels Cinematek in January 2019 as a re-selected project presentation. These screenings were occasions to discuss how each version of the film had its distinct history of reception and to what extent the circumstances under which these different versions have been archived and are still accessible are also quite different. The discussion after the screening in Brussels concerned the fact that the two languages, French and Dutch, represent an ongoing dichotomy within Belgian society, the quite different ways in which the years under German occupation have been commemorated in these respective communities, and how questions of collaboration and complicity in the deportation system have been dealt with by post-war generations. Likewise, the comparative screenings of the two German versions provided grounds for a debate on the stark differences in East and West German “commemoration culture” (Erinnerungskultur) in relation to the Nazi period and the Shoah. They also made overtly visible how the wholesale delegitimizing of the GDR and its institutions after reunification has affected archival policies: while the West German version of Night and Fog with the translation by Paul Celan is readily available from various digital and analogue sources, the DEFA version of the film has only been preserved at the Federal Film Archive (Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv) as what is reported to be a “unique 35mm archive print.” This print was not available for the screening in Dresden in 2019; the only form in which the archive would make this version of the film accessible to us was a digital file made from a time-coded VHS tape. The squalid impression thus brought to the screen could be seen as symptomatic for the devaluation of specifically East German perspectives on history and was commented as such during the discussion. Thanks to additional efforts by Ralph Eue, the Federal Archive made the 35mm print available for the screening in Leipzig in 2021. The screening experience was entirely different and in the ensuing discussion archival politics played a less important role than the differences in tone and vocabulary between the two versions and how they reflect the different “readings” of the fascist era in East and West Germany in the 1950s.