A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
All reification is forgetting.Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments
The couple at the centre of Hiroshima mon amour experience something similar to Benjamin’s angel of history. They are being blown forward into the future but they keep looking backward at the catastrophes of the past. Their journey forward will also look superficially like progress. The new hotels, cafes and bars of Hiroshima have replaced the horrors of the atomic bomb. At a smaller scale, the love affair will end when Elle leaves Japan and she, with no indication otherwise, continues her acting career in France. Lui will likely resume his married life in Japan, which was never portrayed as a burdensome union.
Hiroshima mon amour is a story of love during wartime, but in the hands of Resnais, the horrors of war are smashing through the strongest walls of intimacy. The naked lovers should see nothing beyond their happiness when they lie in embrace, but they have an opposite: the mangled, burnt bodies of the bomb’s aftermath.
A key theme of the film is the contradiction between individual pleasure and social irrationality. The contradiction is most explicit in the first fifteen minutes. As Elle lies in bed with Lui, a handsome Japanese man, the film shows the images — all of them ugly — of what she remembers seeing at the atomic museum. Resnais does not want us to look away from the most gruesome images of World War II. In fact, from this refusal comes the politics of the film. Hiroshima mon amour uses the character of Elle to argue that, at the cost of a happier myth of progress and civilization, society urgently needs to look directly at the catastrophes of its history.
This happened before
Visually, the present-day Elle is stylish and beautiful. This look is contrasted with her physical appearance at the end of World War II. Revealed through narrated flashbacks, Elle was involved at the end of the war in a secret relationship with a German solider, whose death revealed their affair to her family and her French hometown, Nevers. Elle’s punishment was to be imprisoned at home for as long as her transgressions with a German were taboo in France. The isolation of this imprisonment causes Elle to lose weight, suffer psychotic episodes and self-mutilate. Her mother also roughly shears her long hair — a possible cause of the soldier’s attraction to Elle.
The worst appearance of Elle is frightening on its own, but Resnais had, three years before Hiroshima mon amour, made Night and Fog, a 32-minute documentary about the Nazi concentration camps. It cannot be a coincidence that Elle in the basement of her home looked similar to prisoners of Auschwitz. There are also parallels of action. Elle’s narration of her time in Nevers includes vivid memory of her breaking her nails from clawing the wet basement walls. Night and Fog, the earlier of the two films, brings the camera inside a now-abandoned gas chamber and shows the claw marks on the ceiling and walls, created by those exterminated by Nazi Germany.
Time will pass, but with what memory?
Elle states she will never return to Nevers — a refusal that has a poetic touch in English. Yet the French town seems to be the fated destination of Elle. Lui will remember her as “Nevers” and he initially found her descriptions of the town to be beautiful. Near the end of the film, Elle narrates her hope to see the beauty of Nevers again.
Is this hope a tragic reversal of her original refusal? Resnais is using the character of Elle to think through a different version of the historical problem he explored in Night and Fog. The memories of Auschwitz have a geographic counterpart, as future generations have left the sites of the camps overgrown and abandoned. Thus, when Resnais visits the camps in the 1950s, there are haunting memories among the long grass, empty rooms and rusted barbed wire. By contrast, much of Asia and Europe rebuilt its cities and towns after World War II, which relegates memories of mass destruction to museums and city monuments. Certainly a society can fail to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, and this failure is on the mind of Resnais when he made Night and Fog. In Hiroshima mon amour we have people eating, drinking, going to work, raising families and making love on the same ground where, years before, one explosion flattened a city with radiation and fire. Thus, when Elle thinks of Nevers, she intuits that she will be going back to a picturesque town, which will have no physical evidence of the German occupation, the context of what put her in disgrace.
Elle and Lui are exploring their traumatic memories in order to return to a peaceful beauty, but without forgetting the rubble of history. This is the contradiction of reconciliation and finding peace. And Elle and Lui know the cost of the shortcut to a feeling of pleasure without pain: historical amnesia in an age when our destructive patterns are growing in size and ferocity. This is the horror that echos after the event. People can travel to contemporary Hiroshima and give few thoughts about the history of the city. The riverbanks of Nevers look ideal for peaceful picnics, even in Resnais’ film.