Night and Fog is one of the most important documentaries ever made. Alain Resnais’ unflinching look into the atrocities committed by the Nazi Party during the Second World War shocked audiences worldwide and continues to make shockwaves today. After a film of such caliber, Resnais’ next project was expected to be equally earth-shattering. The seeds for Resnais’ sophomore effort were planted when he was commissioned to make a short documentary on the atomic bomb that rocked Hiroshima in 1945. Conflicted on how he would pull this off without retreading cinematic ground covered in Night and Fog, Resnais enlisted the help of French author Marguerite Duras. What they crafted warped Resnais’ initial documentary concept into something more cinematic, and ostensibly more audacious. The film in question is the 1959 masterpiece, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.
What makes Hiroshima, Mon Amour such a fascinating film to analyze is how it presents itself. Resnais’ subtle visual cues such as crossed watches and entwined lovers covered in ash beg for further insight. Yet, the substance of the film admonishes the entire concept of understanding. As a result, in picking apart the intricacies of Hiroshima, Mon Amour we are following the film’s breadcrumb trail while also neglecting its warning. This fascinating paradox makes Hiroshima, Mon Amour one of my favorite films to think and talk about since there isn’t any simplicity to be seen.
The major theme of Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a theme that Resnais would frequently dabble with, that being the fallibility of human memory. The film follows two individuals in post-war Hiroshima as they begin a passionate, yet fleeting romance. The film begins with the two lovers entwined in bed juxtaposed with images from Hiroshima. The sequence is scored with off-kilter jazz and punctuated by a poetic voiceover courtesy of the two lovers. This voiceover is a back and forth between a woman and a man as the woman attempts to explain how much she knows about the tragedy at Hiroshima. She cites television, readings, museums, and more to demonstrate how she understands the toll of Hiroshima, but the man replies every time with “You know nothing about Hiroshima.” This poetic montage begins the film while also brazenly stating the presumed thesis of the film. The woman, Elle, insists that her knowledge is amicable. She states over and over how her research and experiences equate to her understanding the horrors of Hiroshima. The man, Lui, doesn’t entertain her, shutting her down time and time again. We as the audience presumably begin the film as Elle does. We are all familiar with Hiroshima, the horrors of war, the consequences of the atomic bomb, etc. We want to say we get it because we’ve seen movies, read books, observed photographs, what more could we do? The visuals show us the things we know, the ravages of violence and the evils of war captured in photos and museums. Yet, Lui tells us we’re wrong. We don’t understand Hiroshima, we will never understand Hiroshima.
This montage effectively spoils the theme of the film while also fulfilling the documentary section Resnais was tasked to make. We’re shown all the sights and sounds a Hiroshima documentary would show, but Resnais exposes the futility of them all the same. We don’t get it, and a documentary, as informative as it can be, won’t change a thing. Hiroshima acts as a greater catalyst for the idea of human memory and differing experiences. These themes are more closely examined through the relationship between Elle and Lui. An actress and an architect respectively, Elle and Lui strike up a passionate romance while Elle is filming a movie abroad. Their romance is extremely physical, but a deep emotional attachment exists as well, an attachment that is continuously tested throughout the film. As their relationship progresses, we learn of Elle’s past, specifically her first love with a German soldier back in Nevers, France. We discover the anguish and trauma Elle endured in her hometown, which explains her complex relationship to her native land.
Elle and Lui spend the film exploring each other, but never unlocking the secrets they desire. Elle’s insistence of her understanding of Hiroshima and Lui’s persistence on discovering more about Elle’s tragic past are the same emotional journey. The journey to understanding, and the fact that it never ends. While the lovers thoroughly explore each other in mind and body, mystery remains. They cannot fully understand each other, nor can they understand themselves. Elle’s story of Nevers highlights how fragile human memory can be. She experienced this event and attempts to explain it, but as she gets older details begin to disappear. In a rather dark way, Hiroshima Mon Amour illustrates how fallible human memory is. She’s been affected by these events that transpired, but they fade anyways. Her and Lui’s affair is one that is fleeting, and it will be over when she leaves Japan. On a dour note, Hiroshima, Mon Amour reminds us of our mortality, reminding us that no matter how hard we try, or how much we love, memories will fade.
But Resnais and Duras are not ones to make a film as simple as that. While Hiroshima, Mon Amour can be construed as a pessimistic lament, I thoroughly believe there’s much more under the surface. While the film illustrates that we may never understand nor grasp the past, it also posits that we must embrace the present. Elle and Lui are two broken individuals each carrying their own trauma. Yet, through the muck and sadness of life, they find one another. They can’t change the past, they can’t live the life of the other, what they can do is bolster the storm together. They embrace one another, and the poignancy is unmatched. They can’t possibly understand what it means, but they know that they need each other. Nobody is immune to the passage of time and at the end of the day while names and faces may fade, feelings do not. The sensation of sadness, joy, and especially love will remain prominent until the very end.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour turns away the audience. We know nothing about Hiroshima, we couldn’t ever. Similarly, we don’t understand others' past experiences. We can spend hours listening to people attempt to explain, but when all is said and done, we still know nothing. In a sense, poring over a film like Hiroshima, Mon Amour betrays its ideals. We won’t ever get it, so why even bother. But at the same time the film says the opposite. Experience the film. Get wrapped up in these characters and these emotions, because while it may not last forever, there’s so much beauty in art and stories that disregarding it would be a disservice to humanity. It’s a film that shatters cinematic conventions with a double-sided, almost contradictory theme. It invites you in but casts you out. It’s a movie that values the intangible elements of humanity, we could never understand it, but we can feel it, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour is an otherworldly sensation that I will certainly never forget.