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One of the 20th Century's Most Powerful Films Is Being Forgotten

Zenith International Films/Photofest

What did people see in Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959? When the picture opened, it was acclaimed as a renewal of love and surrealism on screen, and a portent of where the world was going. The Soviet Union and the United States were playing ping-pong over nuclear tests in the atmosphere, but if you’d called it ping-pong you’d have been denounced as tasteless and facetious. In 1958, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had staged the first Easter march from central London to the research facility at Aldermaston to protest the poisoning of our air. Today, of course, we believe we are ending ourselves in a quite different way.

Hiroshima had been at Cannes in the spring of 1959, though it was withdrawn from competition to assuage American sensitivities. (We might be hurt at its account of that startling morning in Hiroshima.) So the excitement at Cannes fixed on two other films, Black Orpheus (it won the Palme d’Or, but is unseen now) and Les 400 Coups by Francois Truffaut, a lovely film that was hailed as the first unfurling of the New Wave on the shore. It was cheap, quick, fresh, and it came from a young critic who had been ripping up the French film establishment. Hiroshima Mon Amour was a first feature film, too, by an older man. Truffaut was the imp of the moment and a flag for the future. But Hiroshima was so much more as a film.

I have named it one of my ten best films of all time, in that absurd craze for ranking that tries to turn history into a list. But such claims easily turn unexamined and pointless. I have a smart young editor at The New Republic who admitted that she had not seen the film. I spoke at a college recently where no student had heard of it. You must not expect the young to remember. I am nervous about asking eighteen-year-olds what happened on August 5, 1945, though it was actually August 6 in Japan.

At 8:15 on that morning, “Little Boy” was exploded over the city at about two thousand feet. About seventy thousand people were killed immediately, and another fifty thousand are thought to have died from the consequences of the bomb, or the Bomb, as it would be known. Not that the numbers are precise or decisive. Conventional raids on Hamburg and Dresden had produced terrible losses. But the numerology of bodies made into vapor is beyond comprehension. (Six million in the camps: would five million be more manageable?) So numbers are as nebulous as the alleged 500,000 casualties avoided in bypassing a land invasion of Japan. It was the promise or the threat of Little Boy that hung over us, and made the cogent reason for demonstrating the atom bomb. 

The New Republic is now a hundred. It began before America had summoned the need to enter one Great War; and it will end ... no, of course it won’t end. In all the celebrations, it is tempting to think back on what film critics have said in this magazine, though I’m not sure that it encourages an idea of progress. One of the haunting refrains in Hiroshima is the talk between the man and the woman. They are voices only at first, speaking French, and in 1959, it was a surprise to discover they were an Asian man and a European woman. I wondered, was theirs a cultural dispute, or just two lovers arguing? But now I think it is pure poetry, the rhythmic balancing of two voices, with Resnais and screenwriter Marguerite Duras addressing the possibility that none of us is blessed to see the real thing all the time. In the dark, the lovers speak but hardly understand each other. What’s so unusual in that?

One of the film critics The New Republic has enjoyed in its century was Manny Farber. He wrote here between 1942 and 1947. His reviews can be found in Farber on Film, edited by Robert Polito for the Library of America. Much that he wrote is crackling, edgy, and uneasy, probing issues larger than any one film. But you do Farber and yourself a disservice if you read to see if he was “right.” So when it comes to Otto Preminger’s Laura, for example, Farber calls it “a movie exposé of society people that is more awed with them than critical. The ignoble facts it finds—promiscuity, deceit, cowardliness and small-mindedness—are treated with a disinterest that is almost boredom, while it views their wit, fastidiousness, snobbery, splendid clothes and environment with the kind of gaga-eyed reverence that you find in perfume ads.”

I think that’s bonkers (quite apart from the misuse of “disinterest”). Laura is founded on a rough cop who despises the artifice in a dame he has fallen for who is trying to aspire to a stupid classiness. The film dissects the effete poses in advertising, so far from a perfume ad that I have to laugh. But then, within a few lines, Manny catches the rat he had sniffed. (He hunted it most of his life.) He notes the melodrama suffusing the film and this carries him to a magnificent overview: “It has to do with a refusal to take any kind of fact about a person plain, but to make the fact more special, perfect and of equal importance with everything else in the picture. It is one reason for the absence of unpleasantness in our films. ...” Out of what I call error, Farber has become magisterial. But, in honesty and in personal sadness over the question, I wonder who reads him on Laura any more.

Still, looking at that review of Laura helped me with Hiroshima. The start of Resnais’s film is peerless and piercing still. We are in a dark place where light falls on the bodies of two lovers. We see them without faces—it might be one body or many more in a heady tangle; and the images dissolve through stages in which the bodies are coated in thick dust, then the crystalline glitter that might be irradiated, and then the sweat of lovers on a hot night. The erotic stealth has never been surpassed on screen. It is made more beautiful by the call and response in which the man says, “You saw nothing in Hiroshima...,” and the woman makes her valiant claim, “I saw everything...” As the film breaks into a meticulous documentary on the Hiroshima museum, so a sparse, lyrical counterpoint flowers between woodwind and piano (music by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco). Moving in so many directions, this was a remaking of cinema.

Already the curious origins of the film are evident. This was a project for Resnais, the celebrated documentarian—he had made Night and Fog (about Auschwitz), and just as significantly Toute la Memoire du Monde (about the Bibliothèque Nationale and its accumulation of an unexplored past). He wanted to make a film in France and Japan, but was uncertain how to proceed. Then he thought of the novelist Duras and they collaborated. You can feel Duras in the erotics and in the association of Hiroshima and Nevers, the French town where the woman had a German soldier as a lover. And you feel Resnais in the command of shooting and editing, and in the larger anxiety over how even the most precious and dire things are never entirely remembered. Twenty or so years later, in Providence, Resnais made a picture in which a novelist, played unforgettably by John Gielgud, makes stories out of his companions in life.

I love Hiroshima for what it meant in a discovery of cinema, but even in 1959, I wondered if the second half was or could be as taut as the first half. Well, I looked up The New Republic and there was our recent maître, Stanley Kauffmann, on June 13, 1960. (The film took nearly a year to open in the United States: those sensitivities again?) Stanley loved the first part of the movie, too; he called it “poetic,” a word that can’t be refused. But he grew concerned as the film pressed on: “This broadening, this evocation of larger and larger responses, leads us to expect a conclusion of towering dimensions. We are made hungry for it. But the film diminishes. ...”

I wish I was sure he was wrong. But that urge for “towering dimensions” reminded me of Farber’s feeling for film’s helpless addiction to perfect people, instead of the imperfect or the unpleasant. Hiroshima Mon Amour is like that: those bodies at the outset are living statues, and our dark turns them into a stunning but claustrophobic metaphor. It’s the way of film, which knows no restraint or doubt, no fatigue, no loss of memory, no disinterest. The limitation of film is to insist on the radiance of its own monopoly. So Hiroshima Mon Amour has to be about everything: film, love, words, and the state of the world. It cannot admit that there is a rest of life passing by, humble, shabby, unradiant, uncinematic, on its way to being forgotten. And so we have an unforgettable film and a momentous event, but soon enough they will be unremembered. Even a hundred-year-old magazine, proud and illustrious, eloquent and earnest, right and wrong, may turn into vapor. We are more fragile than we think.