By Ed Staskus
The documentary film “Night and Fog” is 32 minutes long, unless it’s watched thirty times in a row, which makes it almost sixteen hours long. I was a film student at Cleveland State University in 1977 when I saw it for the first time and the thirtieth time. It was made by Jean Cayrol and Alain Resnais twenty years earlier. It is about the creation, existence, liberation, and legacy of the WW2 death camps, specifically Majdanek and Auschwitz.
Nazi Germany and its Axis allies built more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration and extermination sites between 1933 and 1945. They stayed busy as bees. Majdanek was outside Lublin, Poland and run by the SS. There were gallows and seven gas chambers. Auschwitz was also in Poland, a complex of forty camps. It was run by the SS, too. It had more gallows and more gas chambers. The camps were what the Germans called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” They were also the final solution for what to do with many Soviet prisoners and anybody else who got in the way of the Third Reich.
Between 1942 and 1944 freight trains delivered millions of people to the camps. They were abused, beaten, and tortured. Some of them died of exhaustion, starvation, and disease. Others were subjected to deadly medical experiments. A quarter million people were exterminated at Majdanek. Auschwitz operated on a more industrial scale. More than a million people were exterminated there.
The reason I watched “Night and Fog” thirty times by myself in a small dark room wasn’t because I was especially interested in World War Two or the Holocaust. Dennis Giles, the one and only professor of movies in the Communications Department at CSU, suggested I write a paper about the film. He made me a teacher’s assistant so I could have a closet-sized office on the 16th floor of Rhodes Tower down the hall from his office. I screened movies for his classes, which was hardly a chore. The rest of the time, which was most of the time, was my own.
I was given access to a 16mm projector and a clean copy of the documentary. It was the only thing clean about it. If the Germans thought they were cleaning up the world, they had a hell of a dirty way of doing it.
Dennis Giles graduated from the University of Texas with a master’s degree. His thesis was “The End of Cinema.” He got a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1976 and showed up at CSU the next year. He was tall thin lanky, dressed like a beatnik, and smoked incessantly. He lived in Ohio City near the West Side Market. The neighborhood was a mess, but in the past ten years the Ohio City Redevelopment Assn. had gotten more than a hundred structures restored or redeveloped. Houses were being refurbished by young upper middle-class folks, leading to complaints of gentrification. If he was part of the gentrification, he didn’t look the part.
He looked like he had spent too much time in dark rooms. He was a member of the National Film Society. He liked to say film was art and television was furniture. He didn’t mean the furniture was any good, either.
It took me a few days to figure out how to tackle the project. I finally decided to do a shot-by-shot analysis, zeroing in on how the shots were the brick and mortar of the scenes and sequences. If I tried writing about the gruesome nature of the subject, I would never get out of the weeds.
The film goes back and forth between past and present, between black-and-white and color, and between some of it shot by the filmmakers and some stock footage. The first shot is of a deadpan sky. The camera tracks downwards to a dreary landscape. It then tracks to the right and stops on strands of barbed wire. The second shot is of a field with a line of trees on the horizon. “An ordinary field with crows flying over it,” the narrator says. But it’s not an ordinary field. The camera again tracks to the right revealing posts with electrified barbed wire strung from post to post. The third shot tracks from an open road once more to the right to another tangle of barbed wire.
After a while the tracking shots to the right and the barbed wire all over the place start to become part of a normal landscape. “An ordinary village, a steeple, and a fairground. This is the way to a concentration camp,” the narrator says. When he says “steeple” the shot on screen is of an observation tower, machine guns at the ready.
My father was born in the mid-1920s and grew up in Siailiai, Lithuania. His father was a police chief who was swept up by the Russians in 1941 and deported to a Siberian labor camp. My grandfather died of starvation there the next year. My father was in his mid-teens. He had to take over the 100-acre family farm. When the Germans invaded, capturing, and imprisoning a great number of Red Army troops, he applied for and was granted labor rights to a dozen of them. They worked 14-hour days and slept locked up in the barn. When they complained, he passed out bottles of vodka. When they escaped the Germans shot the escapees and gave him more men.
Siaulai is in the north of the country. It is home to the Hill of Crosses. It is place of pilgrimage, established in the 19th century as a symbol of resistance to Russian rule. There are more than 100,000 big and small crosses on the hill. During World War Two almost every single Jew who lived in Siaulaii bore his own cross, either shot or railroaded.
The first part of “Night and Fog” is about the rise of fascist ideology in Germany. The next part contrasts the good life of loyal Germans to the travails of the concentration camp prisoners. The third part details the sadism of the captors. The fourth part, all in black-and-white, is about gas chambers and piles of bodies. It is nothing if not horrendous. Even the living are bags of bones in their dingy overcrowded barracks. The Germans shaved everybody’s heads before they gassed them. They said it was for lice prevention and that the gas chambers were showers. They collected and saved the hair. It was used to make textiles at factories in Nazi-occupied Poland. The last part is about the liberation of the camps and the hunt for who was responsible.
Everybody, even the next-door neighbors, said they didn’t know anything about the camps, or if they did, were just following orders.
“We SS men were not supposed to think about these things,” said Rudolf Hoss, the commandant at Auschwitz. “We were all trained to obey orders without even thinking, so that the thought of disobeying an order would simply never have occurred to anybody, and somebody else would have done it just as well if I hadn’t. I never gave much thought to whether it was wrong. It just seemed a necessity.”
The 23rd through 32nd shots of the film are of camps and their gates. “All those caught, wrongly arrested, or simply unlucky make their way towards the camps,” the narrator says. “They are gates which no one will enter more than once.”
After World War Two started and the Germans incorporated the Baltics into the Reich Commissariat Ostland, there were about 240,000 Jews in Lithuania, slightly less than 10% of the population. The first thing the Germans did was start gunning down Jews in the rural countryside, aided by Lithuanian auxiliaries. By August 1941 most of them were dead and gone. Then they started in the cities. There wasn’t a lot of search-and-destroy involved, so the business didn’t take long.
“Gangs of Lithuanians roamed the streets of Vilnius looking for Jews with beards to arrest,” said Efraim Zuroff. His great-uncle, wife, and two sons were taken to Likiskis Prison and shot the next week. Karl Jaeger, the SS commander of a killing unit that did its spadework in Vilnius kept an account book of their project. On September 1, 1941, he recorded those killed for the day as “1,404 Jewish children, 1,763 Jews, 1,812 Jewesses, 109 mentally sick people, and one German woman who was married to a Jew.”
When the war ended there were about 10,000 Jews left in Lithuania, slightly more than 0% of the population. It was the largest-ever loss of life in that short a period in the history of the country.
The 41st through 69th shots of the film are without narration. They show crowds of disheveled people being strong-armed into boxcars. The last shot is of a father leading his three children along a railroad platform. The father looks resigned, and the children look bewildered. They are shoved into a boxcar. “Anonymous trains, their doors well-locked, a hundred deportees to every wagon,” the narrator says, returning. “Neither night nor day, only hunger, thirst, asphyxia, and madness.”
The Nazis occupied Siauliai in 1941. All the Jews were made to wear a big yellow Star of David on their chests. Their children were forbidden to go to school. Their businesses were taken away from them. At the end of summer, the Einsatzgruppen and Lithuanian police rounded up more than a thousand Jews, took them to a forest, ordered them to strip, and shot them down like dogs. They shoved their naked bodies into open sand pits. When the shooters left, they took all the watches jewelry wallets purses and clothes with them.
“Today the sun shines,” the narrator says in the 70th shot of the film, tracking through the quiet trees. “Go slowly along, looking for what? Traces of the bodies that fell to the ground?”
The rest of the town’s Jews were made to move into the ghetto. A couple of years later two thousand adults and a thousand children were transported to Auschwitz and gassed. The next year the few of them left were sent to the Stutthof camp. That finished off the Jews in Siauliai, once and for all.
Nearing the end of the film the narrator asks, “How discover what remains of the reality of those camps, shrill with cries, alive with fleas, nights of chattering teeth, when they were despised by those who made them and eluded those who suffered there?” The 119th shot is of a macerated man lying on his side on the ground and drinking something from a bowl. “The deportee returns to the obsession of his life and dreams, food.” The 124th shot is of a dead man, legs akimbo on the ground, ignored by those around him. “Many are too weak to defend their ration against thieves and blows. They wait for the mud or snow. To lie down somewhere, anywhere, and die one’s own death.”
My father fled Siauliai for East Prussia when the Red Army swarmed the country in 1944. His two sisters and mother were already on the run. One of his sisters made it to Germany, the other sister went into hiding, while his mother was arrested and sent to Siberia, where she remained for the next ten years. Even though he fled with almost nothing except some cash, photographs, and a change of clothes, he had nothing to lose. The Communists would have shot him on the spot for employing Russians as slave labor.
Like most Lithuanians my father had no use for Jews. He never had a good word to say about them. He never let on to me, and never talked about went on in Siauliai, except as it related to his family, but I caught enough snatches of talk at picnics, parties, weddings, community events, and coffee klatches to know what the score was. He wasn’t a bad man, just like most Lithuanians weren’t bad. He worked hard to support his family community country. He was a Boy Scout leader and helped get the local church and parochial school built. He wasn’t any different than most people.
The film ends with aerial shots of Auschwitz. It is 1945. The war is almost over. “There is no coal for the incinerators The camp streets are strewn with corpses.” One of the last sequences shows German soldiers being led away from a camp by Allied forces. Many of the soldiers are sturdy sullen women. They carry rail thin corpses slung over their shoulders, throwing them into a pit, and going back for more. You never realize how thick the fog is until it lifts. Ghostly prisoners still alive and now suddenly free stand staring next to useless strands of rusting barbed wire.
In a Nuremberg courtroom one Nazi official after another says he was not responsible. “Who is responsible then?” the narrator asks. Nobody responsible says anything, although some at least were convicted of war crimes and hung. They should have been drawn and quartered.
Short of cannibalism, what the Germans did to those they herded into the camps was the worst thing they could have done. After I finished my thirtieth viewing of every sequence in the film, I wrote my paper and turned it in. I got an A- and got to keep my cubbyhole. Afterwards I thought, I’m glad that’s over.
I thought I wouldn’t watch “Night and Fog” again. One Groundhog Day after the other gets to be nerve wracking. Enough is enough.
A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist Magazine.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”