A static image takes over the screen, an eerie melody of piccolos cueing its entrance. Abstracted, the black and white image is grainy, sun-weathered and speckled with divots like textured skin. In the upper corner, a cluster of white veins shoot outwards, roots desperate for water. Credits play over the image, words appear for a moment then fade out. The background is still. It evokes death: the vegetation-like growth forever stunted; like sharp white stitches, they carve into the black background, left raw like an open wound. Paradoxically, it also calls up life: the growth expanding in a bare desert, persisting in spite of the parched land that surrounds it. Hiroshima mon amour (dir. Alain Resnais, 1959) begins with such an image, foregrounding its preoccupation with memory––how trauma engraves itself into our lives, imprinting death onto the present. Here, memory metamorphosizes, continuously whittled away by forgetfulness and sculpted by desire.
The same abstracted grain is reprised in the film’s first moving image: two bodies embrace one another, their skin coated with ash. Their smooth skin buried under a layer of this dust, they transform into an expression of horror. The dust merges their intertwined bodies together into a perpetual cast, bodies frozen in time, bound by love and catastrophe. Resnais dissolves the image into another. The dull ash peppering their skin mutates into a sea of shine. Brilliant––almost blinding. The glimmer dwindles, replaced by the sweat beading on their naked bodies. A man’s voice narrates: “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” A woman contradicts him: “I saw everything. I saw the hospital––I’m sure of it. The hospital in Hiroshima exists. How could I not have seen it?” Again, the man rejects her statements: “You didn’t see the hospital in Hiroshima. You saw nothing in Hiroshima.” The two go back and forth, the woman declaring her experience of perceived trauma in Hiroshima, the man insisting that she has no such memories. Images of the aftermath of Hiroshima’s bombing––both fictive and documentary––proliferate on the screen: empty hospital corridors; human flesh preserved and displayed in objectified grotesqueness; bodies ravaged by nuclear radiation, writhing in pain or motionless in exhaustion. Their haunting devastation recreates the conflation of experience and sight that the woman describes. Like her, the audience feels sympathy, one that extends into the visceral. But the visceral remains distant sympathy––it confuses the body, fabricating recollection of lived experience.
The disjuncture between her words and the images illustrate the falsity of the woman’s assertions. She speaks: “I’ve always wept over Hiroshima’s fate. Always.” The man replies: “No. What was there for you to weep over?” She continues, painting her own fanciful image:
“Hiroshima was covered in flowers. There were cornflowers and gladioli everywhere, morning glories and daylilies, born again from ashes with an extraordinarily vitality unheard of in flowers before then. I didn’t make any of it up.”
He interjects: “You made it all up.” In accordance with his disagreement, the images shown bear no trace of her flowery scene. A pair of tweezers dab cotton gauze against the face of a child, whose mouth is melted down to the bone, teeth and jaw protruding from a fragile frame of burnt skin. A baby yells, its naked body like leather, aged beyond recognition. A woman’s empty eye-socket is pried open with tongs, revealing the cavity left in an eye’s absence. The woman’s narration jars the senses, almost disgusts in their obliviousness to the horror depicted on screen. From the perspective of this woman, who hails from France, Resnais chronicles the unfathomable horror of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (and by extension, Nagasaki).
Rey Chow summarizes Martin Heidegger’s argument in his essay The Age of the World Picture, in which he discusses the primacy of seeing:
“…Heidegger argues that in the age of modern technology, the world has become a ‘world picture.’ By this, he means that the process of (visual) objectification has become so indispensable in the age of modern scientific research that understanding––‘conceiving’ and ‘grasping’ the world––is now an act inseparable from the act of seeing––from a certain form of ‘picturing.’ (7)”
If the world has become a ‘world picture,’ the French woman’s words illustrate an understanding internalized via seeing. Her grasp of the destruction endured in Hiroshima relies on photographic images which she can consume from a distance. The power of such images renders her understanding, or rather her visceral viewing, into memory. This memory of Hiroshima is calculated, carefully trimmed and absorbed for her comfort. Though the woman shares a collective trauma of the war, her ‘memory’ of Hiroshima is only skin-deep. ‘You saw nothing in Hiroshima,’ the Japanese man tells her. Indeed, she saw nothing. And neither have we.
Chow, Rey. “The Age of the World Target: Atomic Bombs, Alterity, Area Studies.” The Rey Chow Reader, Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 2-14.