“You remember nothing,” a male voice replies to her. He says it again. “Nothing.”
The opening minutes of Alain Resnais’ 1959 debut feature Hiroshima, Mon Amour are arguably the most interesting, as they explore the irrevocable damage caused by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Bobbing in and out of hospital corridors, museum exhibits, and looking at survivors on the city streets, the themes of this opening ripple throughout the film. It is the film at its most potent and, in a way, most prescient. What is the difference between sympathy and empathy? Where is it useful and where is it dangerous? What is the difference between memory and experience, and memory and third hand witness?
Nearly 60 years after Resnais’ film, we are living in a fairly interesting age where not only where mass media can cover international and domestic tragedies with immediate turnaround, even on the front lines, as it were. On Twitter, you could follow the events of Ferguson, MO or the events in Middle East, all in front of you in an instant. But the internet has also allowed this illusion of the eye witness account to proliferate exponentially. This has made sympathy and empathy, and the experience of tragedy, blurred and muddled, also making the questioning of those emotions more relevant.
It’s hard to argue that this awareness is a bad thing. But at what point do people who are not experiencing these tragedies begin to co-opt them as their own? And is that a bad thing? Serving as a blueprint for his documentary Night and Fog, which explored the Concentration Camps in detail that had not been shown up to that point, Hiroshima, Mon Amour oscillates between contemporary footage of certain areas of Hiroshima and pieces of archival footage. Complicating this allusion to the intersection of past and present, Resnais includes footage that recreates what victims experienced when the A-Bomb dropped.
Each frame, each image, is sobering to ingest and even harder to digest. A doctor tries to gently peel shrapnel away from the skin of a young child. Another nurse examines the burnt eyeball of a young woman. The camera walks through a museum, observing leftover pieces of hair (an entire scalp, actually) and relics from the wreckage.
And yet, however horrifying these things are, Resnais’ very point is that this is nothing compares to the actual experience itself. Absolutely nothing. He seemingly acknowledges himself, within the text, that this film, regardless of its exploration of how memory and trauma exist in symbiosis with one another, is nothing compared to living through those events. Throughout the opening, though, there is soft protestation between Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada, lovers for a moment and forever. She digs her nails into his back as he is on top of her, ashes falling on the two of them at first, and then disappearing. She loosens her grip, becoming less tense. She insists that having seen the horrors of Hiroshima on television, on the news, being in that immediacy, that she has remembered these events. But Okada combats this idea, asserting that this is not memory; it is not experience.
It’s easy to lose oneself in that kind of cataclysmic event of real world news occurring at one’s finger tips, streaming a live feed on your computer or watching as your Twitter timeline begins to cascade with in the moment accounts. Experience, reality, memory; these have always been subjects that are muddled by perception, and the Internet has accentuated that. What’s fascinating, though, is that the barrier between encounter and observation is withering away. As platforms like Twitter and Facebook continue to change and shape modern journalism, soon enough, with something like Google Glass, the wall between those two perceptions may nearly dissolve altogether.
The rest of the film, which tracks the sexual and romantic relationship between Riva and Okada through a nonlinear trajectory, acts like an allegory about these dynamics: Riva’s firmness in memory could mean she represents that concept, while Okada could represent experience. And such a tumultuous affair they have; so in love, so apart, so close. Though each word is easily allegorical, it resonates with honesty and rawness. Their nearness is as romantic and complex as it is symbolic of other things.
Written by Marguerite Duras, this Nouvelle Vague tone poem has been gorgeously restored, rendering every image by cinematographers Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi a sight to behold. It’s important to be aware, to care about these issues. And the line between watching tragedies and being a part of them is quickly disappearing.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour will be shown as part of the Revivals section of the 52nd annual New York Film Festival on October 10th.