Nuit et brouillard (1956)
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It's probably considered a documentary masterpiece because of the fact that it manages to do in 30 minutes what few films (documentary or fiction) are able to do in four or five (or seven) times that length - there's a lot to be said for brevity, and this film manages to pack an enormous amount of power into its time length and never seems like it's misrepresenting or lessening the true horrors of the Holocaust.
It may also have to do with the fact that it's so very concise - it doesn't try to tackle the entirety of the Nazi machine, and it's better off for it. One still comes away with an incredibly clear view of how horrible human beings can be.
There have been a lot of Holocaust films made since, but few have had its power or immediacy. In 55 years of Holocaust filmmaking since, only "Shoah" has surpassed it.
Unlike so many other films on this important subject, it doesn't cop out. It doesn't interject personal stories or John Williams-esque scores - it simply relies on the inherent horror and tragedy of the subject to make us see and to make us feel. It's not "just not another Holocaust film" - I use that phrase not to suggest that the Holocaust itself could ever be a tired subject, but merely to point out that a lot of filmmakers seem to choose the subject as a shortcut to accomplish their goal of making an Important Film. They bombard us with overly sentimental, overly manipulative stories that are weirdly comforting to the audience – even as they present us with absolute horror they provide a nice emotional catharsis, cause us to think “Oh, it could never happen again” and then the audience feels better after the movie than they did before it started. That’s why so many people can now see a preview for the next Holocaust film and roll their eyes at yet another Oscar-bait film about a Very Important Subject – we’ve become inured to what should always be a raw and visceral reminder of man’s inhumanity.
But “Night and Fog” is different. It distinguishes itself by refusing to give us any comfort, by refusing to rely on cheap emotionalism. Its relentless narrative and carefully selected footage builds to a work of enormous, overwhelming resonance and power. It doesn’t offer comfort, it doesn’t allow us to distance ourselves from what we are seeing – it masterfully combines all the elements of the documentary form to blur the line between past and present, and to move and horrify even the most inured viewers.
So yeah - that's what makes it a documentary masterpiece. That's what makes it one of the two most visceral, groundbreaking, horrifying accounts of one of mankind's greatest atrocities.
Even scarier than this amazing documentary is the fact that some people claim that all of this never happened.
A very disturbing view of the most evil and darkest side of humanity. Although horrific, everyone should see this film.
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In 16 official lists
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This movie ranks #4 in Sight & Sound's The Greatest Documentaries of All Time
This movie ranks #5 in TSPDT's Brief Encounters
This movie ranks #7 in IMDb's Documentary Top 50
This movie ranks #20 in Arts & Faith's Top 100 Films
This movie ranks #36 in Harvard's Suggested Film Viewing: Non-Fiction Films
This movie ranks #76 in BFI's 100 Documentary Films
This movie ranks #89 in François Truffaut's The Films in My Life
This movie ranks #91 in The Times's 100 Best French Films
This movie ranks #96 in Cahiers du Cinéma's 100 Films for an Ideal Cinematheque
This movie ranks #180 in TSPDT's 1,000 Greatest Films
This movie ranks #224 in The Criterion Collection
This movie ranks #242 in Sight & Sound's The Greatest Films of All Time
This movie ranks #302 in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
This movie ranks #376 in Amos Vogel's Film as a Subversive Art
This movie ranks #390 in Jonathan Rosenbaum's Essential Cinema
This movie ranks #668 in Time Out's 1000 Films to Change Your Life