Viewed 7 May 06 at Curzon Mayfair; double Resnais bill; ticket price - £6-50
One of Resnais’ protagonists is French from Nevers, staying at the New Hiroshima Hotel in Hiroshima whilst working as an actress making a movie about peace; the other is an architect from Hiroshima having an affair with her whilst his wife is away. There is no story as such - only a strip of action. Two people come together in this town 13 years after it was blasted by the atomic bomb.
The concern of Resnais (R ) is to probe into the mechanisms of deterritorialised memory. The first section of the film probes how memory when detached from its locus in the personal becomes the basis of new kinds of activities or even industries. The Auschwitz industry, the Hiroshima industry, industries based on the endless mechanical replay of atrocity footage, industries based on a certain assumptions about the nature of memory.
The opening sequence of HMA intercuts images of post bomb survivors with images of the couple entwined in bed: the interweaving of their arms and legs the sensuous patina of their skins providing ironic counterpoint to the burnt blistered twisted torsos of the victims. Resnais assembled this opening montage to shock. But not to shock with the intention of creating in the viewer pornographic retinal excitement. To shock in order to provoke us to think. To think about the nature of the victim imagery and how it is actually internalised by the watcher. The voices of the lovers intoning Duras’ singular script are laid over the visuals: she says, today I went to the museum, he replies, there is no museum; she says, I’ve seen everything, he replies you’ve seen nothing. Image generated consciousness cannot replace memory. In actual memory there is some essence that is generically somatic.
The opening sequence with visuals accompanied by a sound world of voices invokes the idea that mostly we do not have memory of terrible events; we only have received images derived from terrible events. We can respond by saying that from those images this was a terrible event. But how we incorporate these pictures into our beings or into our psyches is neither straight forward rational nor predictable. In the current state of an informational world overloaded with images competing to be part of our memories, R’s film uses images to question the validity of image as a source of derived memory of events. R has grasped the type of distortion that takes place when actual images of atrocity are exploited for their inherent potential to create a bank of memories representative of events for those who did not experience them. The intention and rationale of such a bank may be that these image derived experiences will act in the future as an atrocity prophylactic. In fact the detachment of the images from their anchoring in consciousness simply opens the door to manifold manipulations and banality. It is a short step to the ‘See it all Hiroshima Bus Tour’, and the souvenir shop. Detached from the individual minds and psyches of those who suffered such experiences, events as museum experiences, offer to the visitor’s gaze a series of emotional charges empty of primary signification and open to exploitation and manipulation. There is no evidence that individuals experiencing emotional arousal in the face of such stimuli connect with such stimuli in the prophylactic manner intended. There is no evidence that these institutions actually work to prevent further outrage.
By 1959 R has become aware that human memory has become subject to new and changed forms of appropriation. In a society characterised by control, memory is now something that is manufactured by the powerful forces of vested interest and large corporations. History becomes a theme park, part of the heritage industry. Auschwitz and Hiroshima are tourist destinations which people visit. When they visit they are presented with a certain account of the past. It is not that these accounts are certain types of constructs that is of concern. Everything said is probably true. Rather it’s that museum presentations, as public relations exercises will be mounted in such a way that certain types of questions cannot be asked of the event and that certain kinds of contradictions inherent in the events will be excised. The attraction will concentrate on exhibits arranged in a simple and emotionally charged form. They claim to promote understanding, but will guilefully suggest a single reading of the past and present of which the atrocity is the link. A visit to a tourist atrocity attraction will usually provide only an emotional account of an event; it will not address simple and real questions of why. Why questions don’t have easy answers, require context and lines of enquiry. Tourists demand an experience and in response to this demand they are given images that overwhelm and flatten leaving them emotionally drained and either oversensitised or insensate. Images manipulate us, use us and refer only to themselves. Suffering can only be suffering; death can only be death. Why? is too uncomfortable as a question and draws us into examination of ourselves.
In the age of mass communication memory is now a battleground. What dictates what we remember how we remember and why we remember? Resnais in Hiroshima Mon Amour is asking the questions and responding by pointing to the difference between human personal memory and the manufactured.
The second strand in the film develops the obverse story of the woman, opening out into the her remembered experience in Nevers as an ajudged wartime collaborator who is ritually humiliated and punished for loving a German soldier. Again we have to refer to memory and its linkage to the archive footage. We have all seen the footage of the Liberation of France in’44. If we haven’t it’s of HMA. At the core of this footage, after the tiumphant parade of the GI’s through the cheering crowds, comes the next bit of action: the moment of calling the guilty to account. And at this point in the archive memory movie we always see the fury of the woman as takes they take their revenge on sex. It’s like a ritualised response which has its roots in very early primitive European culture, the cult of the sacrifice of the young virgins - Iphigenia. The French vented their fury on the young girls who fucked the Bosch instead of fighting them. They are caste down by the female avenging furies, they are beaten, have their heads shaved and their brats taken from them. In the movies the presentation of righteous indignation complete with gloating male commentary tells the story and underlines its moral. There is no place for personal memory. And those who might have personal memory - of a young German boy - have no right to such memories. They only have a right to see themselves in the image of their shame. As sinners punished they see their role played out over and over again in the newsreel. The actress with her Japanese lover, the other enemy, calls up for him her personal memories in defiance of the images that control her past. This strand of the film with her personal memory actualised in flashbacks that are melodramatically realised, is less taut than the Hiroshima thread but critical to completing the thesis of R’s film.
From his experience in making documentary films, R realised that we were entering a completely new era in the relationship between individuals and the projected images amongst which they lived and believed. Images purporting to be actual were both defining of events and defining of the people caught up in those events.
The young woman has a collective memory of an event of which she as a young woman played a part. Her situation is that although she has images that are personal they do not reconcile with what happened to her. Memory cannot connect with event. She herself is deterritorialised from Nevers, alienated from herself as a child. This strand of HMA feels less at ease with itself than the Hiroshima strand because R the melodramatic nature of the images of the forbidden lovers sits less happily with the formal concerns of the film, and it is during these sequences that the film seems to waver in intensity. But for the film to be complete the two sides of the coin of memory need to be addressed. As the generalised somatic memory is distorted by its own images so personal memory with its own images can be distorted and twisted by the general.