A linguistics professor of mine once told me: “One of the hardest things in life is to tell someone what a film is about”. If one were to believe him, it is all the more challenging when it comes to a landmark of cinematic art such as French film-maker Alain Resnais’ first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour(1959).
After having been given a Kodak 8 mm camera by his parents, and after having watched Jean Cocteau’s “Le Sange d’un poète”, Resnais was eventually inspired to investigate the art, techniques, limits and possibilities of cinema. The first part of his career was dedicated to the production of short documentaries, which mainly dealt with the relationship between art and time (“Van Gogh”, “Guernica“, “Statues also die”, “All the memory of the world”), and culminated with “Night and Fog”(1956), one of the first documentaries about Nazi concentration camps.
The creation of “Night and Fog” questioned the creator itself. How can one show the horror of the unimaginable? How can one imagine the horror of the unseeable? When true horror looks into our eyes, do our eyes have enough imagination to imagine that they are truly seeing it?
A few years later, Resnais was commissioned to make a documentary on the aftermath of the atomic bomb that had devastated the city of Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945. The process of the documentary’s creation was a troublesome one, and nearly led Resnais to abandon the project.
On one hand, he thought he might be destined to repeat the professional experience of “Night and Fog”. On the other, he still hadn’t managed to find answers to the questions which had emerged during its creation.
However, during a conversation with French author and film-maker Marguerite Duras, he realized that it could be possible to create a hybrid, a cinematic product which blended reality and imagination, alternating the use of archive footage with fictional scenes.
The two agreed that it was “impossible to talk about Hiroshima. One can only talk about the impossibility of speaking about Hiroshima”. Hence, a collaboration was born between Duras and Resnais: the former would write a screenplay, the latter would film it. That very film, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, would become one of the masterpieces of modern cinema.
“As the film opens, two pairs of bare shoulders appear, little by little. All we see are these shoulders – cut off from the body at the height of the head and hips – in an embrace, and as if drenched with ashes, rain, dew, or sweat, whichever is preferred. The main thing is that we get the feeling that this dew, this perspiration, has been deposited by the atomic ‘mushroom’ as it moves away and evaporates”.
In the opening scene of the film, as described by Duras, two bodies – woman and man – are passionately embracing with “blind movements, like those of jellyfish, snakes, or leaves moved by the wind”, covered by atomic ashes, which melt into perspiration in a subsequent frame. One could believe that, remarkably, the first few seconds of the film already hint to the theoretical core of the theme the film will proceed to explore: the blind, snake-like movements of the embrace between memory and oblivion.
The following sequences show archive footage of the aftermath of the Hiroshima, while the woman’s voice is heard speaking off-screen of that August day, as if she were there, when the atomic bomb was dropped by the United States during the conflict with Japan in World War II.
The attack on Hiroshima, which was followed by another nuclear attack on the city of Nagasaki three days later, claimed 200.000 lives, 80.000 wounded, and the total destruction of 90 % of the city. The nuclear bombardments led Japan to announce its unconditional surrender on the 15th of August 1945 through a radio announce of the then Emperor Hirohito.
In scenes that ensue after the documentary footage, we discover that the woman speaking is an unnamed French actress, who is having an affair with the man she is speaking to, an unnamed Japanese architect. The two – played respectively by French actress Emanuelle Riva and Japanese actor Eiji Okada – are meeting in post-war Hiroshima in the late 50’s.
The unnamed French actress has come to the city to play a part in an international film advocating peace after the dropping of the bomb, and the film shooting is nearly over. She and the Japanese architect live in different parts of the world, they are both married with other people, and aware that their brief yet very intense love is destined to impossibility. They will have to part, and forget.
The basic frame of the storyline – in itself quite conventional – contains a multitude of stories, which Resnais visits a-chronologically, as memory does when it presents us with spontaneous, unrelated memories.
Together with the French woman, we are trying to remember what happened to her when she was young and lived in the French city of Nevers, before moving to Paris, and becoming an actress. She wants to tell the Japanese man. She needs to tell him.
We share the woman’s efforts. Her effort to remember, her effort to forget, her need to remember, her need to forget, her being torn between memory and oblivion, the impulse towards death, and the impulse towards life, the desire towards the past, and the desire towards the future.
“Like you”, she says, ” I have fought with all my strength against oblivion. Like you, I forgot. Like you, I have desired an inconsolable memory..a memory of shadows and stones. I have fought alone, with all my strength, every day against the horror of not understanding anymore the reason to remember”.
With her, we eventually remember that she had fallen in love, aged 18, with a German soldier, who was at that point an enemy to the French people. It was her first love. They were going to escape to Germany. He got shot. Killed. The day before the war ended. As she had deeply fallen in love, after his death she fell ever more deeply into madness. Or, as she says, “into eternity”.
In a 1959 interview, Resnais stated: “I read with surprise that some people thought there was a relation between the atomic explosion and the dramatic episode in Nevers, as if they were intended as equivalent to one another. On the contrary, the immense experience of Hiroshima is confronted with the tiny story in Nevers, which is proposed through Hiroshima, like the light of a candle is perceived enlarged and overturned by a lens”.
Similarly, the conflicting impulses that dictate our existences are depicted in the film through the lens of memory. Then again, in another interview, Resnais states that “instead of memory and oblivion, I prefer talking about conscious and unconscious”.
“I loved Vercors very much when he said that man is the only being in the world who protests against his condition, because he is the only conscious one. To remember, is to be conscious”. At the same time, “if we don’t forget, we cannot live, nor act(…)in Hiroshima, more than in other places, what matters is to live. The presence of death is everywhere. As a reaction, one feels a violent desire for life, a will of sudden sensations”.
It would seem that history, all along, has been confronting us with a dilemma. We can’t live in the present without forgetting the past. But if we don’t remember the past, we also forget the future.
Following “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, Resnais made several other remarkable feature films and incarnates to this day one of the most influential film-makers of our time.