Hiroshima Mon Amour &
Night and Fog

Hiroshima Mon Amour. Year: 1959. Running time: 91 minutes. Black & white. In French with optional English subtitles. Directed by Alain Resnais. Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas, Bernard Fresson, and Pierre Barbaud. From The Criterion Collection.

Night and Fog. Year: 1955. Running time: 31 minutes. Black & white. In French with optional English subtitles. Directed by Alain Resnais. From The Criterion Collection.

Review by Derek Hill

While the country as a whole restructured and reinvented itself in the wake of World War II, France's film industry also transformed itself by moving away from the escapist cinema that had been fostered under the Vichy government's Committee for the Organization of the Cinematographic Industries (COIC). Immediately following the war, the industry churned out a slew of films, most of them dealing with the trauma and collective guilt of life under the occupation. And when filmgoers weren't reliving their wartime experiences in the dark of the cinema, they were understandably watching numerous light comedies, costume dramas, and noirish thrillers.

But then something changed yet again. Before the Cahiers du cinema New Wave gang (Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer) took the world by storm in the early 1960s with their rambunctious, innovative, Hollywood-in-a-blender style of filmmaking, directors such as Agnes Varda, Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Louis Malle, and Alain Resnais gracefully came onto the scene and made their own special places in world cinema history. Night and Fog (1955), made just ten years after the horrors of the Holocaust were first tattooed upon the conscience of the world, is a harrowing and unforgettable piece of documentary filmmaking, even though the film really isn't a documentary at all. Understanding the futility of trying to "capture" for the camera the memories that were the Nazi death camps, Resnais (along with his co-screenwriter Jean Cayrol, who was a camp survivor) wisely decided to approach the subject as tourists. The camera slowly glides through the ghastly ruins of Auschwitz and Majdanek with a cold certainty, while Michel Bouquet's sometimes ironic narration gently guides us on our tour of hell. Resnais' masterful use of montage is on fine display here (he integrates black & white archival footage of the camp survivors and the dead with that of color footage shot by Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny), giving resonance to a landscape that is all too familiar yet unfortunately grows foggier with each passing year.

When Resnais decided to make his first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), he was again confronted with the burden of translating an almost unimaginable real-life tragedy to the realm of narrative cinema. As written by novelist Marguerite Duras, the film is a masterfully complex story dealing with a brief love affair between a French actress (brilliantly played by Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). Spanning roughly a 24-hour period, the highly literate film exposes the serpentine realms of "real" time and memory and how the mind is sometimes unable to distinguish between the two.

Resnais was not the first filmmaker to utilize flashbacks. Flashbacks and the distortions of time have been plundered since the earliest days of the medium. But it was Resnais' highly sophisticated use of montage, his melding of past and present in a seamless fashion, that caught filmgoers all over the world off-guard. Here was a director forcing us to contemplate the inner lives of his characters in a way the world had not witnessed before. Resnais would later expand his ideas about time, fantasy, and memory in his film Last Year at Marienbad (1961), but unlike Hiroshima Mon Amour it would come at the expense of a solid emotional core.

Both Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour are available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. The former disc comes with a very interesting audio interview with Resnais recorded in 1994. The disc also contains a separate audio track featuring Hanns Eisler's memorable score. The latter disc contains a very illuminating audio commentary from film historian Peter Cowie. The track is dense with information pertaining to the making of the film and Resnais' numerous problems getting the story translated to the screen. Archival interviews with Resnais and actress Emmanuelle Riva are also included, as well as a new video interview with Riva recorded in 2002, among other extras.

Hiroshima Mon Amour and Night and Fog are now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection in new digital transfers. Special features of Hiroshima Mon Amour: audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie; Cinepanorama interview with Alain Resnais (1961); an audio interview with Alain Resnais (1980); Emmanuelle Riva interviewed by Francois Chalais at Cannes (1959); excerpts from Marguerite Duras' annotations to the screenplay; a new essay by Kent Jones; and a new essay on composer Giovanni Fusco by Russell Lack. Special features of Night and Fog: excerpts of audio interviews with Alain Resnais from Le Cinema des cineastes (1960) and Les Etoiles du cinema (1994); a new essay by Phillip Lopate; an essay about composer Hanns Eisler by Russell Lack; and crew profiles by Peter Cowie. Suggested retail price: $39.95 for Hiroshima, Mon Amour and $14.95 for Night and Fog. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.