"[Un film] contraire à l'esprit même du festival"Isn't it a truism that the Cannes film festival likes nothing better than to screen (and to reward) movies that take a stand and are courageous in opposing the powers that be?
— Robert Favre Le Bret, délégué
général du Festival de Cannes, 1956
"[Il eût été] souverainement inconvenant de présenter un tel document dans l'atmosphère de festivité internationale qui est celle des rencontres internationales de Cannes"
— Maurice Lemaire, secrétaire d'Etat
à l'industrie et au commerce, 1956
A couple of years ago, we got Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911. This year the winner is The Wind that Shakes the Barley, the critique of the Iraq war via the Irish revolution by Ken Loach who, in a memorable acceptance speech, managed to bash George W Bush and the war in Iraq to lots of applause and ear-to-ear smiles.
Well, it ain't always so. When the target is America, then all and well. But when France is in the sights — even indirectly — the film is censored and removed from competition. Then we are suddenly told that that kind of film is not in the spirit of Cannes and that that type of documents does not fit in with the atmosphere of international festivities that belong in a film festival like France's.
What is ironic, Jacques Mandelbaum points out, is that Alain Resnais's Nuit et Brouillard was not even meant to be a blistering attack on any French institution; the theme of French collaboration was entirely secondary, even involuntary, in a film about the horrors of Nazi Concentration Camps.
"For motives of political opportunity", wrote former concentration camp detainee Alain Cayrol to the Monde at the time, France "tears out the pages of history that do not suit it, she prevents witnesses from speaking".
Just as Stanley Kubrick's 1957 Paths of Glory would remain banned from France for decades, another Resnais film, Les Statues Meurent Aussi, remained banned from 1953 to 1964.
Moreover, more than political sensitivity was the issue in 1956. As is so often the case with European moralizers, commercial interests were involved (see a long and full list in La Bannière Étalée). People involved voiced fears as to whether the presence of the movie might entail "trade reprisals" from France's first and foremost trade partners: the Germans. (Although the film was taken out of competition, the German delegation to the festival nonetheless walked out in a sign of protest.)
In a double irony regarding the hush-up surrounding Night and Fog, the 1956 Palme d'Or went to Jacques-Yves Cousteau's …Le Monde du Silence.
It happened in another era? What a convenient excuse. How many motion pictures castigating France (or French policies) has the state-sponsored film festival shown since then?
Not a whole hell of a lot…
But : not to worry. As Mandelbaum tells us, this no longer holds true for a festival "that was then the vassal of the imperatives of international diplomacy".
In any case, we are still waiting for films like Buried in the Sand to be shown at the independent Cannes film festival, not to mention in France as a whole.
Those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not hear the cry to the end of time.