Hiroshima mon amour by Alain Resnais

Alain Resnais. Still do filme [Still from the film] <i>Hiroshima mon amour</i>, 1959. © Argos Films
Alain Resnais. Still do filme [Still from the film] Hiroshima mon amour, 1959. © Argos Films

A tree grows alongside a gas chamber in a former concentration camp; the unbearable heat of the sun is felt on the skin of someone at a public square/memorial built on the ruins of a nuclear explosion. What is there, in fact, to see and to understand in what survives tragedies, exterminations of populations and cultures? In light of the unspeakable trauma, what can be told by a museum, a monument, a ruin, or a scar? “The reconstructions, for lack of anything else,” “the explanations, for lack of anything else,” “the photographs, for lack of anything else,” says the (French) protagonist of Hiroshima mon amour, Elle, in the opening scene of the classic film directed by Alain Resnais in 1959. Elle is referring to what she found in Hiroshima nearly fifteen years after the bombing that killed more than 160 thousand people, but could also be talking about what would be found by anyone who visits the ruins of Nazi concentration camps, or even the museums full of the plunder of colonization – not by chance, themes of short films made by Resnais.

But no. The objects, the photographs, the explanations, the reconstructions are not enough for us to understand. “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing,” says the other (Japanese) protagonist, Lui: even with her efforts and good intentions Elle will not comprehend what happened in Hiroshima. This is the first phrase in the film, the leitmotiv that pervades it. It is not possible to see because it is not possible to understand. It is impossible to understand because there are things, perhaps the most important things, that are not visible. Hiroshima mon amour does not seek to explain nor to reconstruct, but rather to probe the opacity and untranslatability of what has remained as a witness of tragedy. Perhaps this is why the film does not begin with distancing, but with contact and proximity. The camera frames details of the intertwined bodies of the protagonists, covered with granulated ashes like those that cloaked the bombed bodies, and yet they are also gleaming, with a sparkle which then becomes the shine of the sweat of their encounter, of their exchange of heat.

Like Elle, sometimes we strive to understand, we seek to get closer in every possible way, from every angle: we read the explanations, we visit the wreckage, we look again at each twisted piece of metal, each old photograph. But no. It is impossible to get to know Hiroshima, just as it is impossible to understand the other acts of extreme violence from which our history is made. We will never be able to feel the heat of the sun over Peace Square, but we can try to get closer to the ineffable, try to give shape to what cannot be named. Art is, always, one of these paths along which one seeks the incomprehensible – not to reduce it to explanations, but to give it an outline, to draw the reach of what radiates. Because its translation, although impossible, is nonetheless necessary; because in this failed effort we learn about our desires and fears – the fear of not knowing, not understanding, or the fear of knowing that we are capable of acts that we can never understand.

  1. Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  2. Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
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