History and memory go hand in hand. We can never escape our memories that are steeped in history. We have to live with it, whether it’s bitter or sweet. Alain Resnais was a French film director and screenwriter who adopted unconventional narrative techniques to deal with themes of troubled memories and the imagined past. Resnais, one of the French New Wave pioneers, linked history with memory in “Night and Fog“(1956), an influential documentary on Nazi concentration camps. In “Hiroshima Mon Amour”(1959) as well, he intermingled memory and history together. The film grew from a commission to make a short documentary about the atomic bomb and its aftermath in Hiroshima. However, no one closely witnessed what happened in Hiroshima. The only testimony to this cataclysmic event was time, and Resnais challenged this notion of space and time using a circular narrative in this film.
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“You saw nothing in Hiroshima
I saw everything”
The opening sequence merged narrative storytelling with a documentary style of filmmaking. The visual of a man and woman holding each other in a tight embrace, their bodies wrapped in atomic dust, echoing those bodies covered in deadly atomic dust that rained over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by the spine-chilling montages of “hospitals in Hiroshima treating several people with asphalt burns,” “a museum consisting of scorched metals, bricks as remains of the destroyed city, loose hair of women,” “weeping tourists” and “deformed babies.”
The whole montage is followed by the woman’s voice saying, “I saw everything in Hiroshima,” which might metaphorically symbolize the time that witnessed the aftermath of this catastrophe. Still, she was constantly interrupted by an authoritarian voice telling her, “You saw nothing in Hiroshima.” This voice, on the other hand, might symbolize the capitalistic powermongers of the world who wanted to deny the atrocious crime they committed upon humanity, or it might also indicate that the woman could never feel what the victims of Hiroshima had undergone. She might empathize with their situation but could never relate since she wasn’t there with them.
“You’re destroying me.
You’re good for me.”
At the heart of the film, a love sparkles between a French actress and a Japanese architect who, after their one-night stand, gradually start to fall for each other. The screenplay written by the French author Marguerite Duras was like Post-Modern poetry reflecting the process of thought or organic speaking through a stream-of-consciousness style. They were united by suffering that wasn’t only personal but also the world’s suffering after the two World Wars. The architect soon becomes a confidant of the actress who came to Hiroshima to make a film “about peace,” which was quite ironical and was a reminder of the white man’s burden to some extent.
The woman narrates her passionate love story with a German soldier during the Second World War in her hometown, Never. His death by gunshot while he was waiting for her on the day Nevers was liberated, the excruciating pain that pierced her heart over the loss of the only love of her life, the humiliation she and her family faced at the hands of their townsfolk after they discovered her love towards their enemy, her imprisonment in a cellar and the scorns of society she endured, all these reflected the collective misery, disillusionment of the people during and after the Second World War.
While the Japanese architect who lost his family in the Hiroshima bombing doesn’t open up, he could empathize with the woman towards whom he developed a strong affinity as she rekindles the desire to love again. The two lovers strived hard to get rid of their past. However, memory is a curse; no matter how many times the man implored her to stay in Hiroshima, she always replied, “No” and requested him to “Go away” because she couldn’t afford to betray the memory of the love of her life, the German soldier whom she loved so dearly.
A recurrent line in the film is, “You’re destroying me/You’re good for me.” The woman’s utterance of the same lines in the narrative might indicate that by narrating her woeful tale to the man, she was trying to destroy the memory that was an inseparable part of her life that kept her away from love for fourteen years. Yet she yearned for love and felt it was good for her to move on since she experienced anew the essence of her lost love in the Japanese architect.
“I’ll remember you as
the symbol of love’s forgetfulness.”
The woman wanted to keep her lover alive in her memory, but she felt that by telling the story, she had already forgotten him. Nevertheless, she tried to remember him as the “symbol of love’s forgetfulness.” Her memories of Nevers were that of her youth, which shaped her future; she couldn’t possibly escape that past. She is stuck in the dilemma of letting go and holding on. But at times, we can’t choose, we can’t take sides, however much we have to desert our past to embrace the future.
The man who was ready to shower her with love and care also knew the melancholy that tied them together was eternal, and it would keep coming back like waves with their indelible memories. But when he knew that he couldn’t possibly make her stay, he was ready to remember her as the “symbol of love’s forgetfulness” because even though both of them initially claimed that they were happily married, in reality, they weren’t. There was this unquenchable void that lurks inside both of them. It’s an emptiness created by the bitter memories of their past, and they both wonder if only love could fill that void.
Resnais constantly juxtaposes past, present, and future throughout the film using multiple flashbacks, creative and powerful background scores, and voice-over narration of poetry accompanied by visuals depicting the deconstruction and reconstruction of Hiroshima. The film, for instance, yielded the audience a hypnotic experience as if they were encapsulated in a dream. Nonetheless, the film is grounded in reality and the issues of the real world. It’s just that Resnais said in one of his interviews, “Yes, in my film, time is shattered” he not only subverted the notion of linear narrative, but through shattered time he reflected a broken world consisting of people with shattered beliefs after the two World Wars.
“But unfortunately, man’s political intelligence is a hundred times less developed
than his scientific intelligence.”
Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is a visionary work that envisioned the crisis of the post-WWII world. Eric Rohmer, in a July 1959 roundtable discussion between the members of Cahiers du cinéma’s editorial staff devoted to Alain Resnais’s groundbreaking feature, said, “The film has a very strong sense of the future, particularly the anguish of the future.” In a peaceful protest against thermonuclear testing, the film depicts a crowd of people marching with placards carrying particular messages. Though man’s scientific intelligence has reached its zenith, their political intelligence is still at its nadir. In fact, there’s a dichotomy between scientific progress and the application of that alleged progress which Nolan recently explicates in Oppenheimer.
“Hiroshima Mon Amour” is a timeless masterpiece that raises specific questions regarding history and memory – “Can we ever escape history?” or “Do we have to live with it ?” as it’s rooted in our present since it is constantly evolving like present, “Can humankind ever redeem themselves from the shackles of their past?” And even if they do, “Do they have to carry this guilt of parting with the memories of their past that paved their way into the future?” the same guilt the actress was afraid to experience when she envisaged her future with the Japanese architect.
But memories are treacherous. They are like a shadow that never leaves one’s side. One has to negate them to move ahead. The woman, after a tormenting night that oscillates between past and present (Nevers and Hiroshima), becomes aware of the fact that she could never shrug off her past. She, therefore, reunited with the architect at dawn in her hotel room. He states that his name is “Hiroshima,” and she responds that her name is “Nevers.” She tells him that she has already started to forget him, but deep down, we know that in forgetting lies eternal remembrance. The more we try to forget, the more vividly we remember.
The fact that the two lovers had no names and were denoted by the names of their dwelling cities signifies a cultural union of The East and The West, The Orient and The Occident, bridging the barriers evident even in the hybrid title of the film. The film is highly existential and complex, just like the people residing in our post-modern society, but it has its own emotional appeal that makes it linger in our hearts for eons to come.