“You Have Seen Nothing in Hiroshima, Nothing”: Evidence & Cinematic Image

On August 15, 2011 by admin

T.P. Sabitha

Alain Resnais’ film, Hiroshima mon amour (1957), makes an audacious claim when the Japanese man makes this remark repeatedly to his French lover when she claims to have “seen” Hiroshima: “Tu n’a rien vu á Hiroshima, rien.” This denial is the possibility of the text of narration that cannot be done with the image. When the camera ‘sees’ something, it cannot be ‘nothing’ that it sees. The image can only assert, not functionally serve as a denial or negation. What is negated is the truth of her claim that she has “seen” Hiroshima: the hospitals and the museum. When she says this, the camera takes on a documenting role, moving through the corridors of the hospital and ‘recording’, almost without a witnessing agent, the exhibited objects at  the museum – stones, human skin, human hair, as well as the ‘recreated’ performances of the Hiroshima bombing, the actors apparently on fire, their skin peeling off, the enacted deaths. We see the ‘documented’ people at the hospital often startled by the camera; they look directly at it, thus the cinematic image is made in the convention of the documentary film, moving through spaces and creating a cartography of the ‘real’ that she claims to have seen.

However, the man denies that what she has seen is the ‘real’. What she sees is not testimonially adjudicated as Hiroshima, hence we can perhaps think that Hiroshima exceeds this, it is not containable in representation. The representation does not attest to the reality of Hiroshima, with the text of narration breaking down and negating the ‘reality’ of what is shown. What we see here, through these images, is not Hiroshima. Compare for a moment, Renè Magritte’s painting “This is not a pipe”, with the image of a pipe and the text that denies that it is a pipe. On the one hand, it is quite obvious that it is not a pipe, but the picture of a pipe. On the other it is a radical pictorial statement (since the writing in cursive hand is within the picture) about the limits of attestation or the impossibility of re-presenting the ‘real’, about the inherent fictionality of pictorial art, and perhaps too, on the function of art which is not to re-“present” anything outside of itself. This is what Michel Foucault writes about the scrawled text “This is not a pipe” within the painting: “Yet perhaps the sentence refers precisely to the disproportionate, floating, ideal pipe – simple notion or fantasy of a pipe. Then we should have to read, ‘Do not look overhead for a true pipe. That is a pipe dream. It is the drawing within the painting, firmly and rigourously outlined, that must be accepted as a manifested truth’” (This is not a Pipe. Pp. 16-17.) Resnais does something similar here, while showing us images of Hiroshima, the narration denies that it is Hiroshima that we are seeing. Hiroshima here signifies an absence that the cinematic image cannot show us, a manifestation outside of itself.

It can, though, show us Hiroshima from his point of view, Hiroshima as his recollection-image. However, the Hiroshima that must exist vis-à-vis that which is not Hiroshima, is not shown in the film. That is perhaps the ideal, the ideational Hiroshima that cannot be actualised, through what Gilles Deleuze calls the “false piety” of the image of “actualitè”, the documenting image that bears a certain reverence for the evidence of the “real” (Cinema 2, Pp. 122). But Hiroshima as an experienced event in time is never shown in the film. The question “if this is not Hiroshima, then what/when/where is Hiroshima?” is never answered. The only fictionalising of the Hiroshima bombing is what she and the camera see in the hospitals and museums, the re-creation, the re-collection, the re-gathering perhaps, of the event. The fiction of documentary is also seen in the reference to the “Peace Film” to act in which the French woman has come to Hiroshima. Marguerite Duras’s script says of the Peace Film: “It is not necessarily a ridiculous film; merely an enlightening one” (HMA, 39). We never see that “Peace Film” within Hiroshima mon amour. All we see are sets being dismantled and carried away and she removing her makeup. The sets and the makeup emphasise the ‘falseness’ of the documentary film, its fictiveness. The referential and signifying linkage between image and text is broken when, just as we are shown images of the Hiroshima that she has seen, he negates it and we are told we have seen nothing of Hiroshima. Is there a possibility of thinking that nomination (‘Hiroshima’) is impossible as an effect of the visual? The two protagonists too, significantly, are not named in the film, until the end when they call each other by the names of cities/sites of a sight that is not attested to in the film. Can the image attest to/ name anything by itself? The ‘real’ in the documentary is ascribed as the ‘real’ by a certain usage of technique or visual grammar. Resnais seems to deny what Carl Plantinga calls “Asserted Veridical Representation” while discussing the ‘documenting’ status of the documentary film. (“What a Documentary Is, After All”). Resnais denies this assertion, the ability of the image to nominate what it shows, and instead fictionalises her recollection-image, a powerful sequence of the ‘false’, her story that is actualised in this fiction film.

The Hiroshima that she has seen and he denies as being Hiroshima, is partly the fiction of Hiroshima through documentary images and hyper-real museums; Resnais inserts some newsreel footages into the images of what she has “seen” in Hiroshima that, fast-edited, almost work  as a parodic pastiche. However this ‘false’ Hiroshima is acknowledged as capable of affective power when she says: “The reconstructions have been made as authentically as possible. The films have been made as authentically as possible. The illusion, it’s quite simple, the illusion is so perfect that the tourists cry”. The fiction of the ‘authentic’, the ‘actual’, is exposed as fiction by Resnais and its testimonial veracity juridically denied. The man does not bear witness in the film, he is the function of judgement, while the woman is the witness whose recollection-image of the WW II we are given access to in the film. We see her recollection-image of France during the German Occupation in association with the present Hiroshima.

Actualisation of time in cinema is technically done through editing, changing the pace of the shots – acceleration or deceleration – and flashback, with identifiable markers of shifting between the present-time and the past-time. Montage can be used to indicate the presence of two parallel times. And with the movement from Hiroshima to Nevers, it is such a parallel time that the cinematic image creates. Resnais does not use conventional markers of the flashback such as fade-in or fade-out or dissolve. The visual text moves seamlessly from the present Hiroshima to Nevers, where she witnesses the killing by French snipers of her German lover. The montage moves from the twitching fingers of the sleeping Japanese man to the spasmodic movements of the dying man by the banks of the river Loire.

The montage here can be seen as the persistence of time, the continuum of time, which is where the ‘real’ can be said to be located – not as separate co-ordinates on the “sheet of time”, but in the co-existence of images in a continuum. Gilles Deleuze, while discussing Resnais’ films writes, “Throughout Resnais’ work we plunge into a memory which overflows the conditions of psychology, memory for two, memory for several, memory-world, memory-ages of the world…What are the sheets of the past in the cinema of Resnais?…In the first place, each sheet of the past is a continuum” (Cinema 2. Pp.119). The montage that works almost like a tracking shot between two “sheets of time” seems to indicate the persistence of one in the other, that of Nevers in Hiroshima. Here are two time-images coming together, colliding, to create a new cartography of time, the essence of which is the persistence of time that has the plausibility of changing and transforming with each colliding encounter with another memory-age, another site on the crystalline architecture of time, this is perhaps what Deleuze calls “the series of time, which brings together the before and after in a becoming, instead of separating them” (Cinema 2. pp.155). This coming together, instead of serving an effect of disorientation, instead orients us towards the inherent nature of the simultaneity of co-ordinates on different sites of time, the time of the world.

The conflation of Hiroshima with Nevers here coincides with the Japanese man referring to the Nazi lover as “I”. While she is narrating her story, he asks her, “When you’re in the cellar, am I dead?”. Time here moves from the memory of one into the memory for two, thus making possible a world of time that can come into being with two memories colliding with and segueing into each other. It is also the possibility of fiction to inhabit the ‘I’ of the other where through the power of the false, ‘I’ can go out of itself and by fictionalising itself can come to be, in another’s site of time. It is what the art of Jean Rouch’s documentary cinema does, this going out of oneself, the time of oneself into that of another, of the Other, in the possessed and parodic self-fictionalisation in Les Metiers Fous, where what is manifested is what Deleuze calls “not the cinema of truth, but the truth of cinema” (ibid. Pp. 151).

What we see in the visual narration in answer to his question whether he is dead while she is in the cellar, is her story, of falling in love with a Nazi soldier, the innocence of their furtive meetings, her witnessing his death (that is where her story starts, in medias res), being ostracised from society for falling in love with the enemy, her father’s drugstore closing down due to the ‘dishonour’, her being incarcerated in a cellar, her trauma and the possibility of her having gone temporarily insane, when she loses track of the passing of time. She does not register time anymore and is frozen in one moment, one dot on the sheet of time.

What we see here are close-up shots of the textured walls of the cellar, and her bleeding fingertips scratching that surface. The images are almost tactile. This parallel sheet of time comes into being where ironically the protagonist loses sense of the passage of time altogether. Time ceases to be chronological and what we see is time as phenomenological. The decelerated long shots of her in the cellar changes the pace of time, slows it down, almost stilling time. She remembers having been there for “Eternity”. It is when she starts noticing the markers of time that she comes out of her state of shock. The soundtrack is that of church bells that she says she started hearing again. The consciousness of time brings her back from the limbo in the cellar. The decelerated pace while she is in the cellar and the textured wall and close-ups of her scratching fingernails remind us of the rich tactility of the long shots of the lovers’ bodies at the beginning of the film.

The texture of the close-up shots of the lovers’ bodies creates a lingering ambiguity about what it is that is represented – is it sweat or dust or ashes? All these possibilities are visually present in the images. The camera here is not ‘documenting’, but evoking parallel poetic possibilities. The fragmented close-ups of the lovers covered with a texture that can be sweat or ashes suggest alternative probabilities of the ‘real’, thus coalescing temporal probabilities in the topography of bodies. The camera plays neither the role of the witness, nor that of the voyeur. This ambiguous opening shot itself interrogates the documentary status of the image and its stability as a sign with an identifiable referent. When the woman asserts the veracity of the referent ‘Hiroshima’ that she has seen, the man negates the truth of that assertion. The Hiroshima that she attests to is entirely spatially locatable: the hospital, the museum, the Peace Square, the streets that she walks, the hotel where the lovers meet.

After she finishes her possessed narration of her ‘story’, she feels she has betrayed her German lover. In a scene where she has an internal monologue looking at the mirror she confesses to her absent dead German lover that she betrayed him with the Japanese man. It is not a sense of sexual betrayal, but a betrayal of sharing that sheet of memory that only belonged to the two of them. She says “I told our story to him tonight. You see, it was a story that could be told”. This telling of the story in Hiroshima makes possible the coalescing of separate memory-images where the Japanese lover, in the course of narration of the story can become the German lover. It  is an enabling illusion, the illusion of this fictionalisation, just as she earlier compared the illusions in the museum to the illusion of love. That is perhaps where the Deleuzian “power of the false” lies, in this illusion of the ‘real’ that is acknowledged and asserted as an illusion, as fictional. Her sense of betrayal also alludes to the inherent falsity of narration. Deleuze quotes Nietzsche in Cinema 2: “Even the truthful man ends up realizing that he has never stopped lying” (‘The Powers of the False’, Cinema 2. 133). In the woman’s haunting and persistent sense of betrayal can be seen the inherent fictionality of the ‘real’. The ‘real’ as an unstable topography made up of constantly transforming and modifying time-images.

While Nevers exists as a separate sheet of time, we do not see Hiroshima in a sheet of past-time. It is the Hiroshima in the here and now of the cinematic time and space that we see. In the sequences of her walking the streets at night, the camera itself becomes the flâneur, walking and seeing the city. We see the neon-lit bill-boards, the night-lamps on the streets, the desultory traffic, the tea-rooms, the bars; and then in one shot, again a seamless montage that fits in with the flâneur-camera shots of the city, suddenly we see a quick glimpse of Plâce de la Republique inserted into images of the buildings on the streets on Hiroshima. Nevers and Paris continue to persist in Hiroshima. Resnais brings together, in the site-seeing of the camera, different cartographies of time, both spatially and temporally. The space of the past of Nevers seems to persist in the space of the present of Hiroshima.

Flâneuring is a contingent activity, where the flâneuse throws herself open to chance. This element of contingency is where Resnais locates the ‘real’ in cinema. The movie-camera here is nomadic, and the ‘real’ that it attests to is the transient and the contingent. Guiliana Bruno in her essay “Site-Seeing: Architecture and the Moving Image” writes that the affinity between cinema and the city street pertains to the transient: “The [im]mobile spectator moves across an imaginary path traversing multiple sites and times. Her navigation connects different moments and far apart places. Film inherits the possibility of such a spectatorial voyage from the architectural field” (Pp. 14).  Bruno quotes Eisenstein from his essay, “El Greco y el cine”: “An architectural ensemble…is a montage from the point of view of a moving spectator…Cinematographic montage too, is a means to ‘link’ in one point – the screen – various fragments of a phenomenon filmed in diverse dimensions” (Bruno. Pp. 14). The architectural spaces of time persistently coalesce in the final long sequence of ‘street-walking’ in Hiroshima mon amour.

Perrault thinks of cinema veritè that cinema must become akin to walking. In that contingent movement we see the document-image located. In the final scenes of Hiroshima mon amour, the long shots of her walking the streets of Hiroshima at night and throwing herself as well as the cinematic image open to chance, cinema is located in the contingency of the movement-image — the motion-picture — and its temporal veracity validated through the architecture of time – the layering of different, parallel, persisting sheets of time, the buildings suddenly become unlocatable. Are they in Hiroshima or in Nevers or in Paris? What kind of montage is it where another site of memory persists in short glimpses, erupting into the present of Hiroshima? Hiroshima comes into being in these capricious contingencies of imaginary sites of time. The ‘real’ in Resnais’ film perhaps comes into being at the transient interstices of these persistent cartographies of time that the camera takes a walk through.

Works Cited


Bruno, Guiliana. “Site-Seeing: Architecture and the Moving Image”. Wide Angle. Vol.19, No. 4, 1997. Pp – 8-24.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: Athlone Press, 1989.

Duras, Marguerite. Hiroshima Mon Amour. Trans. Richard Seaver. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Foucault, Michel. This Is Not a Pipe. Trans. and Ed. James Harkness. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1982.

Plantinga, Carl. “What a Documentary Is, After All”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Spring, 2005). Pp 105-117

 T.P. Sabitha teaches English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She is an art critic & poet and is currently working on her doctoral studies on a Commonwealth Scholarship.

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