Hiroshima Documentary Review Essays

“You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.”
He (Eiji Okada) in Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

The importance of bearing witness preoccupied Alain Resnais (1922-2014) in the years prior to directing his first feature length film. Hiroshima mon amour, the result of that concern, remains one of cinema’s most profound meditations on the horror of war, suffering and forgetting.

Preceding his entry into fiction filmmaking Resnais had directed over 20 short documentaries, most extraordinary among them Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), a document of the legacy of the death camps Auschwitz and Majdanek. Hiroshima mon amour grew from a commission to make a documentary short about the atomic bomb, but Resnais found this an impossible task – how can one make a documentary about Hiroshima, the impossibility of speaking the unspeakable, imagining the unimaginable? Can we ever really see what happened in Hiroshima? Is seeing understanding? Can we only understand another’s suffering if we experience it ourselves? These are some of the questions that shaped Resnais’ narrative. The fictional love story he uses to frame Hiroshima mon amour enabled Resnais to present a more universal inquiry into the nature of suffering and remembrance.

A film of tremendous beauty and gravity, the experience of Hiroshima mon amour lasts long after the screen fades to black. Far less playful than many of the films that would follow it and announce the arrival of the nouvelle vague, including Jean Luc-Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) and François Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and Jules et Jim (1962), the strength of its impact lies primarily in the affecting juxtaposition of horrific imagery with rhythmic, poetic dialogue (written by Marguerite Duras). Its striking score, penned by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco, ties these haunting elements together.

Hiroshima mon amour is a film of bold contrasts. Its much-lauded opening scene stands as a testament to Hiroshima, the city, rebuilt after the cataclysm of the war, but unable to escape its past. But it’s also the story of two lovers who face similarly inescapable histories, and it’s into their story that Resnais immediately immerses us. Resnais presents a cropped image, a close-up of two bodies, naked and locked in an embrace. Dust showers down, covering them. It’s an image of doom, both beautiful and shocking, intended to draw us back in time, to remind us of the countless bodies like these, buried in the rubble of war, covered in the deadly atomic dust that rained over Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) at the close of World War II. And then the scene dissolves into the present. Two lovers, naked and locked in embrace, dust replaced now by less ominous beads of sweat.

From here, Resnais cuts to images at the hospital in Hiroshima and at the museum. The woman, a French actress in Hiroshima making a film “about peace”, known only in the credits as She (Emmanuelle Riva), recounts in voiceover what she saw there. She repeats, “I saw them…”, in an attempt to memorialise and make real her experience because she knows what it is to forget. Resnais presents a series of horrific images – loose human skin and hair, twisted metal, photos and moving images of scorched bodies, malformed children – “since there is nothing else”. But her Japanese lover, an architect, known only as He interrupts her narration, repeating the film’s most powerful, orienting line: “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.”

In Hiroshima mon amour suffering is both public and private, remembrance both collective and personal. But what can She really know? Later, She tells He the tale of her passionate love for a German soldier during the war in her home-town, Nevers – their discovery, his murder, her crippling grief and her humiliation at the hands of the townsfolk. She fears forgetting him. Telling their story is a way to keep him alive, while she is also aware that every step she takes into the future is a step further from her past. He tells her, encapsulating the whole film: “I shall remember you as love itself forgotten. I know now that I shall think of this story as of the horror of forgetting.” But She feels that in telling her story she has already forgotten the German man. The telling, the remembering, as essential as they are, feels like a betrayal.

Memories fade, people forget, people are forgotten. There is a melancholy inevitability to this. But to embrace the future, perhaps the past must be forsaken. Resnais, by the film’s moving finale, has not definitively resolved this dilemma and yet we are left with a feeling, as Eric Rohmer described it in a roundtable discussion on the film in 1959 with other Cahiers du cinéma editors, of the “anguish of the future”.

Resnais presents time in a circular fashion – past, present and future looping into each other. He achieves this through repeated dialogue and a wholly innovative film aesthetic. Hiroshima mon amour, debuting at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival alongside Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups, was immediately marked as a “different” kind of film, heralding a new, exciting cinematic language.

Using multiple flashbacks, ellipses and voiceover narration, Resnais presented a challenge to classical narrative cinema forms. Here, as in much of the New Wave that he was both a part of and apart from (he was more closely aligned with the “Left Bank” group early in his career), was a cinema of images and ideas, evolving with little reverence for the conventions of plot and story development that cinema audiences had grown comfortable with. In Hiroshima mon amour linear construction is abandoned; storytelling is circular and unresolved.

For all its weighty ideas, Hiroshima mon amour is also a deeply intimate film. The repetition of dialogue affects this familiarity, as does the framing of shots at angles and distances that trap us within the frame. But it is not claustrophobic so much as immersive and dreamlike and images gain a strangely musical, hypnotic quality. Despite this, it always feels like a film that exists in the real world; not quite neo-realist but certainly revealing something of its conceptual origins as a documentary.

The film’s final lines suggest not only a story with no end but also a new beginning. “Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name,” She tells him. And He replies, “It’s my name. Yes. Your name is Nevers. Ne-vers in France.” Each body forever located in the suffering of the place from which they come; enabling the other to never forget.

If it was and remains impossible to speak of what happened in Hiroshima it is less difficult to imagine something of the impact of what happened through our own experiences of loss, grief and forgetting. And this, ultimately, is what we take with us when we view Resnais’ film – a feeling of the weight of time and how we go on living, sometimes, against insurmountable odds. Hiroshima mon amour is one of the most important films of the 20th century and certainly one of its cinematic milestones, but also one of its most emotionally devastating.

Hiroshima mon amour (1959 France/Japan 90mins)

Prod Co: Argos Films/Como Films/Daiei/Pathé Entertainment Prod: Anatole Dauman, Samy Halfon Dir: Alain Resnais Scr: Marguerite Duras Phot: Sacha Vierny, Michio Takahashi Ed: Henri Colpi, Jasmine Chasney, Anne Sarraute Prod Des: Esaka, Mayo, Petri Mus: Georges Delerue, Giovanni Fusco

Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas, Pierre Barbaud, Bernard Fresson

“I think that in a few years, in ten, in twenty, or thirty years, we shall know whether Hiroshima mon amour was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema.” That was Eric Rohmer, in a July 1959 roundtable discussion between the members of Cahiers du cinéma’s editorial staff, devoted to Alain Resnais’s groundbreaking first feature, which had just come out. Rohmer’s remark is in perfect sync with the spirit of the film, which, as he says later in the discussion, “has a very strong sense of the future, particularly the anguish of the future.” Read half a century later, “anguish of the future” describes the peculiar sensation that runs through all of Resnais’s films, before and after Hiroshima. In fact, it’s the anguish of past, present, and future: the need to understand exactly who and where we are in time, a need that goes perpetually unsatisfied.

Is Rohmer’s hypothesis a useful one? Can it even be proven? Many would offer alternative candidates for the first modern film of the sound era—Citizen Kane, perhaps, or Journey to Italy, or maybe a dark horse like His Girl Friday or Les dames du bois de Boulogne. Or, for that matter, Resnais’s own Night and Fog (1955). But it’s possible that Hiroshima mon amour is the first modern sound film in every aspect of its conception and execution—construction, rhythm, dialogue, performance style, philosophical outlook, and even musical score.

Whether it’s the most important film since the war is another question altogether, and an oddly poignant one. Because looking for a “most important film since the war” may strike many of us today, in our spectacle-saturated world of capitalism unbound, as a quaint enterprise. Those among us who recognize “the war” as a historical benchmark, without a reminder from Hollywood or the Discovery Channel, are dwindling. In 1959, just fourteen years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Rohmer and his estimable cohorts (including Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette) probably had something quite specific in mind with their quest to find a genuinely modern postwar cinema, one that would respond to the moral imperative of the moment (exemplified by Theodor Adorno’s famous banishment of lyricism after the Holocaust) and then somehow define that moment for all time. A tall order. The fact that Resnais’s unflinching film comes within hailing distance of accomplishing such an impossible task is a tribute to its greatness.

Hiroshima mon amour’s status as a milestone in film history is both a blessing and a curse. It can be hard for new audiences to find their way to the actual movie, buried as it is beneath its own daunting reputation, monumental subject matter, and high-cultural pedigree. Unlike Breathless, with its jump cuts and light, spontaneous feel, Hiroshima is deliberate, highly constructed, decidedly grave, and emotionally devastating. Where Godard is loose-limbed, Resnais has a spine of modernist steel. Where the Godard film feels like a free-jazz improvisation, the Resnais feels like a piece of atonal music with the weight of history on its shoulders—Ornette Coleman versus Anton Webern. Such seriousness of purpose is now considered a high crime in most critical circles. But that’s a passing fad, and no allowances or apologies are needed for the terrible beauty wrought by Resnais and his key collaborator, the great writer Marguerite Duras.

It’s difficult to quantify the breadth of Hiroshima’s impact. It remains one of the most influential films in the short history of the medium, first of all because it liberated moviemakers from linear construction. Without Hiroshima, many films thereafter would have been unthinkable, from I fidanzati to The Pawnbroker to Point Blank to Petulia to Don’t Look Now (and almost every other Nicolas Roeg movie) to Out of Sight and The Limey. After he screened the answer print, Anatole Dauman, one of the film’s producers, told Resnais, “I’ve seen all this before, in Citizen Kane, a film that breaks chronology and reverses the flow of time.” To which Resnais replied, “Yes, but in my film time is shattered.” As it is, often for less dramatically compelling or more fanciful reasons, in many of the above films.

But Hiroshima has also had another kind of impact, one less easy to trace. In laying out the particulars of this wholly new film and its relationship to the nouveau roman, Rivette made a very important point. He compared Resnais to novelist Pierre Klossowski—author of The Baphomet and Roberte ce soir, brother of the painter Balthus, and actor, or “model,” in Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar: “For Klossowski and for Resnais,” he said, “the problem is to give the readers or the viewers the sensation that what they are going to read or see is not an author’s creation but an element of the real world.” This is, once again, a postwar aspiration, completely in keeping with Adorno’s dictum, which ran through all the arts. In cinema, there had already been many films (such as Citizen Kane) that had used reality effects to enhance the impact of their fictions. In the postwar era, beginning with neorealism, certain key filmmakers worked so that reality might maintain its integrity and declare its presence without having to blend into an artificially constructed fiction. Godard took the road staked out by Roberto Rossellini, dissolving the barriers between film time and real time, fictional space and real space, stories and documentaries. But Resnais worked in a vein more reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein, erecting a complex, rhythmically precise fictional construction in which pieces of reality are caught and allowed to retain their essential strangeness and ominous neutrality. Resnais has always been recognized as an innovator, but the term has a hollow ring. As a morally responsible artist committed to catching those pieces of unaltered reality in a carefully constructed net of fiction, he has paved the way for many filmmakers, from the Francesco Rosi of Salvatore Giuliano to the Dušan Makavejev of WR: Mysteries of the Organism to the Martin Scorsese of Goodfellas and Casino to the Terrence Malick of The Thin Red Line.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Hiroshima mon amour began not as a fiction but as a documentary. Dauman had successfully pitched the idea of a project about the bomb and its impact to Daiei studios, and it was to be the first Japanese-French coproduction. The title would be Picadon, for the “flash” of the A-bomb explosion. It was only after months of reflection that Resnais settled on the idea that Picadon should be a fiction, and that the impact of Hiroshima would be refracted through the viewpoint of a foreign woman. It was Resnais who brought Duras to the project, at the end of the decade in which she had achieved literary stardom with The Sea Wall and Moderato Cantabile. It took Duras all of two months to turn out a finished script, all the while working closely with the director. Although Resnais’s links to Eisenstein seem obvious (Rivette: “It’s a film that recalls Eisenstein, in the sense that you can see some of Eisenstein’s ideas put into practice . . . in a very new way”), D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance was the film he and Duras had in their heads. “Marguerite Duras and I had this idea of working in two tenses,” he told Paris journalist Joan Dupont in an interview years later. “The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback . . . You might even imagine that everything the Emmanuelle Riva character narrated was false; there’s no proof that the story she recites really happened. On a formal level, I found that ambiguity interesting.”

It has often been said that Resnais is not an auteur in the proper sense, since the presence of his writers—Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Semprún, David Mercer, Jacques Sternberg, Jean Gruault, Jules Feiffer—is so deeply embedded in the finished products. But Resnais’s relationship with his writers is not very different from the relationship between, say, Howard Hawks and Jules Furthman. Only the sensibilities differ. “I’m always in search of special nonrealistic language that has musicality,” Resnais told Dupont, and he has gone out of his way to find writers with distinctively musical voices, many of them with little if any previous experience in movies. In a sense, Resnais could be thought of as the Pierre Boulez of cinema, a brilliant impresario with a mission to attune our eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of modernism (that would be Boulez the conductor, not the composer). But this “conductor” has always worked closely with his “composers” on shaping an object of which they are finally the cocreators. Resnais’s imagination is obviously sparked by sound, by music and words, and by the music of words. The musical speech of memory that emanates from Duras’s characters sets a dominant tone against which the jagged ruptures in time and visual rhythm—sometimes like cut crystal, sometimes like rushing water—form a precise, often mysterious, always dynamic counterpoint.

Is Hiroshima mon amour the story of a woman? Or is it the story of a place where a tragedy has occurred? Or of two places, housing two separate tragedies, one massive and the other private? In a sense, these questions belong to the film itself. The fact that Hiroshima continues to resist a comforting sense of definition fifty years after its release may help to account for Resnais’s nervousness when he set off for the shoot in Japan. He was convinced that his film was going to fall apart, but the irony is that he and Duras had never meant for it to come together in the first place. What they created, with the greatest delicacy and emotional and physical precision, was an anxious aesthetic object, as unsettled over its own identity and sense of direction as the world was unsettled over how to go about its business after the cataclysmic horror of World War II. With its narrative of an actress going to Hiroshima (to play a part in a film “about peace”) expecting to erase her tragic past, only to see her memories magnified by the greater collective memory of atomic destruction, Hiroshima never locates a fixed point toward which emotion, morality, and ethics can gravitate. The magnificent Riva is less the “star” of the film than its primary “soloist,” to extend the musical metaphor—in comparison, Eiji Okada’s architect-lover is more of a first-violin type. There is a dominant motif, which is the sense of being overpowered, ravished, taken—in a French woman who wants to be overpowered by her Japanese lover (“Take me. Deform me, make me ugly”), an Asian man who is consumed by his Western lover’s beauty and unknowability, a fictional peace rally overwhelmed by its real-life antecedent, everyday reality drowned out by a flood of memories, a city devastated by nuclear force.

“Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name.” “That’s my name. Yes. Your name is Nevers. Ne-vers in France.” Appropriately for a film about the anxiety of irresolution, the end doesn’t tie up loose ends as much as it suggests a new and sober starting point. It’s a moment of realization that feels neither tragic nor affirmative, just crushingly exact. But there is another end point, a spiritual one, and it comes early—the final statement of the film’s famous and eternally alarming opening section. We are looking at shots of a rebuilt Hiroshima, a tourist attraction less than fifteen years after it had been leveled, probably filled with people like Riva’s actress, unconsciously and mistakenly expecting to see their own personal tragedies rendered insignificant in the shadow of a monumental tragedy. Resnais’s beautifully calibrated images move in sinuous counterpoint to Duras’s—and Riva’s—verbal music. And we hear the actress’s sad voice carefully reciting the words that still ring true today, and probably always will:

Listen to me. I know something else. It will begin again. Two hundred thousand dead and eighty thousand wounded in nine seconds. Those are the official figures. It will begin again. It will be ten thousand degrees on the earth. Ten thousand suns, people will say. The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. An entire city will be lifted off the ground, then fall back to earth in ashes.

Writer, filmmaker, and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, a volume of his writings, and the editor of a collection of essays on Olivier Assayas. His latest film project is a documentary based on the book Hitchcock/Truffaut. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2003 release of Hiroshima mon amour.

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