A Comparison of Two Documentaries

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Night and Fog/Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945
“Humanity Lost”

Night and Fog (by Alain Resnais) and Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945 (by Erik Barnouw) are two very different documentaries with two very similar messages. Though the task of viewing these films was quite difficult, both films conveyed a very strong message, the aftermath of human destruction. Resnais and Barnouw showed us the horrible capabilities of human beings at their worst and the result when humanity and morality is no longer present. Both filmmakers took the task of bringing the realities of these two disasters to life in two very different ways. While Resnais and Barnouw differ a lot in their narrative and musical, chronology, and cinematography, structural and ethical choices, they do share slight similarities in each category. Separately, these two great directors produced two amazing documentaries. As different as the films are, the same message is effectively demonstrated in both pieces.

Narration in a documentary is key to enhancing the story. In both films the narrations were effective in accomplishing this task, however in two very different manners. While each narration was performed in 3rd person, one main difference was the reoccurring tense change in Resnais's Night and Fog, which is absent from Barnouw's Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945. The narrator in Night and Fog takes us on a journey through the concentration camps, first starting in present tense describing the scene and surrounding areas of a present day camp then taking us back through history in past tense. Hiroshima-Nagasaki was narrated completely in past tense. Night and Fog ‘s reoccurring changes helps to film stay interesting and engaging, comparing how things were to how they are now. Another difference was the content of the text being narrated. Of course both films included horrifying factual texts describing the two travesties, however Night and Fog differed from Hiroshima-Nagasaki in that it had its poetic moments. For example the first scene of Night and Fog opens up with the text, “Even a peaceful landscape, even a meadow in harvest with crows circling overhead and grass fires. Even a road where cars and peasants and couples pass, even a resort village with a steeple and country fair can lead to a concentration camp.” Although the last few words set up the disheartening subject matter of the documentary, the preceding text is very poetic. It gives Night and Fog a certain essence in narration that is lacking in Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945. Despite the inconceivable subject matter, the narrator of Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945 came across as a person with total knowledge about the matter being discussed. The only time a bit of doubt was expressed in either film was in Night and Fog while images of an abandoned concentration camp were being shown. The narrator ponders, “The reality of these camps, despised by those who built them and unfathomable to those who endured them…what hope do we have of truly capturing this reality?” Although he has an all-knowing attitude when dealing with the factual information, he has to admit that it would be impossible to truly capture the emotions of the prisoners and turmoil that they endured. The narrator in Hiroshima, however, appears to be “all-knowing” when discussing the subject matter of the injured and killed. Each narrator also shared some similarities in voice tone. They both had more of a neutral tone as opposed to an overly emotional tone of voice, however the narration in Night and Fog was far more expressive in comparison. Another important aspect of a documentary is the musical selection, and Resnais and Barnouw had very different ways of using music throughout the films. In Hiroshima, Barnouw chose not to use a large variety of instruments. In fact, a single instrument, possibly a horn of some sort was used in the film. When the instrument played, the music stayed in a minor key producing a very eerie sound that effectively enhanced...
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