in Criterion Month

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

When I think about the period following WWII, the first thing that comes to mind is fuckin’ boomers, man. America and the Soviet Union leapt straight into the Cold War, totally skipping over the decade of celebration that came after WWI (side note: the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles was June 28, did you know that?). And so my focus has always been on Germany being divided, the Korean War, and the global ideological battle between capitalism and communism. But in some places, rebuilding after the war took precedent. Seeing an insight into that experience was my favorite aspect of Hiroshima mon amour.

A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) hook up on her second-to-last night in Hiroshima. She’s shooting a picture about peace and soon will be on her way back to Paris. He’s passionate about his home and his life there. They both are married with families. It won’t work. Nonetheless, they are irresistibly attracted to each other and choose to spend her last 36 hours in Japan together.

Most of their time is spent discussing their memories of love and suffering. The actress hates to reflect on her home town of Nevers, where a traumatic experience during the war caused her to leave for Paris and never return. The architect has his own regrets about being away when America dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, killing his family. Early on, he challenges her ability to really understand the devastation of the bomb, despite her protestations that she’s seen the museum, the memorials, the documentaries. He reminds her that day it was sunny in Paris and they celebrated.

France and Japan were on opposite sides of WWII, but the actress and the architect can find some commonalities in their postwar lives. Both dealt with the suffering that comes with being taken over by a foreign power and the massively daunting task of rebuilding a country following such a disaster. Both these characters have some degree of survivor’s guilt, which they address in their discussions of memory. When they talk about Hiroshima, the bomb, or the people they lost, its tinged with the sadness that they will be forgotten and the same mistakes will be made again.

Hiroshima mon amour is the first film from Alain Resnais. It was nominated for an Academy Award for its screenplay by novelist Marguerite Duras. But like other French New Wave cinema, it’s biggest contribution to cinema’s history is its editing. The film opens by intermingling shots of the lovers wrapped around each other, a re-accounting of what happened in Hiroshima and its modern day state, and the aforementioned conversation between the two about how the actress knows nothing of the city. One has to imagine this was pretty shocking in 1959. The film continues to transition between imagery from the past and present at will, which is fitting for a movie about a conversation about memories.

Personally, I felt guilty for feeling the same way as the actress. I went to Hiroshima back in 2007 and said the same things the architect did: the horror was unimaginable, the devastation was terrible, the memorial was eerie and powerful. So I told myself I “got it.” But now I think back to high school and having to write an essay about whether dropping the bomb was justified. Having to deal with the cold, clinical argument that the West was tired of fighting and that the bombs may have actually saved lives. As if instantly killing tens of thousands of people – most of them civilians – was a thing you could convince yourself was a good idea. Of course I can never fully understand that nightmare.

Similarly, I went to Normandy in 2009. I stood on the beach from the beginning of Saving Private Ryan and walked through the cemetery from the end of Saving Private Ryan. An experience like that helps to give you a sense of the magnitude of history; it became easier to imagine how difficult it would have been to get off that beach. It humanizes it too, I remember my brothers and I laughing at preserved German graffiti of a horse with a massive penis. For me, going to places like Normandy and Hiroshima was sobering enough at that time to make things like Call of Duty seem sort of distasteful. But eventually, I went back to liking entertainment where you can kill nazis. I guess I forgot.