A man and a woman are seen wrapped, almost tangled, in an embrace, their bodies covered in what may be sand or atomic ash. Sweat sparkles on their skin, the woman’s nails dig into the man’s back, passion indistinguishable from agony. Eventually, the man speaks: “You saw nothing in Hiroshima.”
It stands that these first words spoken in director Alain Resnais’s 1959 landmark film (available for the first time on Blu ray this year) should resonate with even greater power today, suggesting one’s inability to fully comprehend the devastation wrought on August 6, 1945, the day the United States used an atomic bomb to level Hiroshima. How can one possibly see with your own eyes the emotional and literal fallout of that day?
This is one of the questions posed by “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” which is heavy with the burden of personal and social trauma. It’s the sort of burden not many films since have been willing to carry. Too much of recent cinema escapes from burden, from history, from memory itself (you think those guys over at Marvel actually care whether you remember the events of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” or not?).
Memory plagues the characters at the center of “Hiroshima.” The woman (an extraordinary Emmanuelle Riva) is a French actress in Hiroshima making a movie about peace. She has an affair with the man, a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada), and their passion reawakens memories of her past experiences living in Nazi-occupied France, experiences both magnified and rendered feeble by the ruin before her.
“Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” like many important post-war films made in Europe, was a direct response to that terrible period. Resnais, who among his contemporaries was most preoccupied with memory (see also his ‘55 Holocaust doc “Night and Fog”), so insisted on the past’s presence in the now that he fractures and splinters time in his film; past and the present commingle and interrupt each other with a sense of construction and composition both musical and poetic.
Aided by the literary, incantatory power of the Oscar nominated screenplay from French novelist Marguerite Duras [link], “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” is seen as a breakthrough in modern filmmaking. Yet its value is as much moral as it is formal. Everyone knows that famous (often misunderstood) remark by German sociologist Theodor Adorno: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Resnais, and also filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, were either directly or obliquely responding to this statement. They made films with an ethical and historical imperative, a far cry from Hollywood’s quick erasure of shots of the World Trade Center from movies filmed before 9/11, and then the tasteless aping of imagery that recalled that horrible day.
“Hiroshima’s” greatest lesson is that the magnitude and unknowability of history is unavoidable, the sheer incomprehensibility of something like Hiroshima or the Holocaust nearly insurmountable, yet it must be faced and explored. There is of course no end in sight in such an exploration (the film’s cyclical nature suggests as much), but “Hiroshima” serves as a vital blueprint for navigating the burden of history, the nightmare we can’t awake from, or fully see.