Written by: Jean Cayrol
Directed by: Alain Resnais
Narrated by: Michel Bouquet
- Excerpt from an audio interview with director Resnais
- Optional music only track
- New essay by Phillip Lopate
- Essay about composer Hanns Eisler
- Crew profiles
Released by: Criterion
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.
My Advice: Own it.
The Holocaust. You know it happened. Even the people who claim that it was all a hoax deep down know it happened, or so I believe. Perhaps that’s just my optimism that nobody in the same species as myself could be so utterly sub-moronic. But regardless. It was there. Films have been that try to deal, cinematically, with the horrors that occurred in the concentration camps. I’ve seen several of them, and it’s hard for them to not affect you in some way or another. However, Resnais’ film is the one that they all go back to for imagery, the one that they all try to borrow power from. So we’re dealing with the primary source material.
It’s not just the information that Resnais and Cayrol are passing along, both through images and the narration of Bouquet–though that’s enough. How can you not be affected by images of a bulldozer moving piles of stick-limbed corpses like they were just hunks of dirt and gravel? No, it’s much more.
The composition of the film is masterful. It begins with the camps in the present day, takes you through their construction at the time, then as they began to be used, and so forth and so on. Before you realize what’s happening, you’re looking at the concrete ceilings of the “showers,” torn by fingernails. You’re looking at a shot of piles of human hair that keeps pulling up to reveal more…and more…and more…and still more. You know the horrors that were there, but coupled with the handling by Resnais and company, they put it all into a human context. The ending question of who is responsible haunts the viewer long after the film has ended.
Criterion has given this an excellent DVD edition, with a transfer that allows the colors to look just as alive as the black and white footage looks grainy and disturbing. The one feature that comes on the disc itself is five minutes of an audio interview with Resnais where he discusses briefly the controversy that erupted after footage in the film was found to have a French officer guarding prisoners about to be shipped off to the camps. They doctored the footage to obscure the Frenchman’s cap and thus saved French sensibilities about their culpability in the millions of deaths that resulted from the camps. If anything, I wish there had been some more about the dispute over the film–granted, Peter Cowie has an essay in the booklet that briefly goes over it–but I wanted to know more.
There’s also an essay on the film itself and information on the musical composer, Hanns Eisler. Still, I can’t help but wonder why we weren’t given a commentary by Cowie or, hell, even by Resnais, who’s still around. With such an amazing film as this, I wanted something even more stacked that Criterion had at their disposal, which is truly saying something.
Regardless, this is a film that must be viewed. It’s almost a prerequisite to being human to have to come face to face with your own capacity for inhumanity. Only after you recognize it can you deal with it. The fact that you need this film around to show your kids when they’re old enough is more than enough reason to purchase a copy for yourself. Granted, it’s not the kind of film you enjoy, it’s the kind you simply have to see.