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Good Letters

20110926-then-who-is-responsible-by-richard-chessMost days he’s not there, standing just this side of the traffic light, his flimsy cardboard sign asking for help for a person down on his luck.

When I do see him on my way home from big-boxville, I always pay more attention to the letters—the childish scrawl—on his sign than I do to him. When he is there, I try to recall: any singles in my wallet? Is there a pack of peanut butter crackers—in case of emergency! teenage boy attacked by hunger!—in the car?

And I quickly run through the arguments for and against giving him a little something. What’s that Talmudic teaching about the Messiah, unrecognized among the lepers at the gates of Rome, unwrapping and wrapping his bandages, one at a time?

“I am not responsible.”

That’s the Kapo’s courtroom statement, says the narrator of Alain Renais’s 1955 film Night and Fog. “I am not responsible,” says an officer of a death camp.

As we listen to the narrator’s words (in French) and read the English subtitles, we also watch the lips and gestures of the two men on trial, and we see they are saying more than what we’ve just been told. But the filmmaker isn’t interested in what this Kapo and this officer actually say, the literal words of their defense. Reducing their machinations to their essence, the narrator merely notes: “I am not responsible.”

I watched Night and Fog the other night with my undergraduates. The class: The Holocaust and the Arts. Why did they choose this class, I asked them on the first night. Why have I chosen to teach this class again…and again over the last ten years?

Night and Fog begins and ends in the present (1955), and it cuts between present and past several times throughout its thirty minutes. Present footage is in color; archival footage, from the events of 1933 through 1945, is in black and white.

In its final minutes, immediately after black and white close ups of corpses strewn in mass graves, the film cuts to an indecipherable color image. We see what could be a non-representational painting, its colors muted blues and mossy greens, filmed from above but not directly above, from an angle that causes me to lose my sense of balance: what am I’m looking at? Where am I positioned in relation to it?

I know we’ve reached the end of this particular telling of the story: the camps have been liberated, the horrific imagery, almost unbearable to watch—even today, fifty-six years after the film was produced, sixty-six years after the end of the Holocaust—is behind us.

Somehow, however, this image without a human figure in it, this apparently tranquil nature imagery, is, for me, among the most unnerving moments of the film. As the camera pans right, some clearly defined objects enter the frame, but what are they? Is that a stick, a broken tree limb, a human bone?

At last the narrator speaks, a few words to help us regain our bearings: “As I speak to you now, the icy water of the ponds and ruins fills the hollows of the mass graves, a frigid and muddy water as murky as our memory.”

But even with this information, the shot remains vertiginous. The camera continues panning right across the pond. Then, after a moment of silence, the narrator continues, “War nods off to sleep, but keeps one eye always open.”

Is this pond, this muddy water, a visual metaphor for war’s open eye? And why does it sleep with one eye open? On guard against what? Who?

This reminds me. The film begins with pastoral imagery of a former death camp in spring, ten years after its liberation, the grassy field marred only by a few ruins—a chimney, a barbed wire fence. We know what the ruins signify. Did the viewers in 1955 know?

Then the film cuts to 1933, black and white, a regiment of meticulously uniformed Nazi soldiers marching straight toward the camera’s eye. The narrator informs us: “The machine goes into action.”

The machine? Is that what the hundreds of soldiers, thousands of cheering men, women, and children are? Parts of a machine? A machine has no conscience. No compassion. A machine does only what it’s been designed to do. What has become of human agency?

A few days later, I’m in my car, on the way home from America, waiting for the light to change. I’ve made my purchases. I’ve used the coupons and gotten my discount. I’m a smart consumer—good to the environment, too: my Prius, silent, burns no fuel as it waits for the green light.

Today, he’s not here, a few cars ahead of me, the one down on his luck or reaping the consequences of his own bad choices, his irresponsible life.

Because I’ve never looked closely at him, because even on those occasions when my electric window opens and I lean away as I extend a dollar, I make sure his skin doesn’t come into contact with mine, afraid of…what—catching a disease from him? smelling him?—he’s an interchangeable man, he’s just a beggar.

Even if he were here, and even if today were the day to give a little, my gesture would be merely an expression of my generosity. It wouldn’t have been an act borne of a sense of responsibility.

What will it take for me to feel as responsible for his well being, his life, as I am for mine, my wife’s, my children’s, my…students’?

How many times will I have to watch Night and Fog before I can see its face, its “sincere gaze” now turned away from the horrors of 1933–1945 and toward me in my comfortable, fuel efficient machine, distractedly looking at the vacant shoulder of the road.

I am not responsible, says the Kapo. I am not responsible, says the officer. Then who is responsible, asks the narrator.

I know who: the Kapo, the officer, not me.

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