Last Year in Marienbad

Last Year in Marienbad

For Alain Resnais, filmmaking is editing. It is less creation than selection and arrangement. It is an exploration of the world at one remove. All of Resnais’s films are dependent upon the initial shaping of experience by another artist, whether Van Gogh or Picasso (the subject matter of two of his documentaries) or Marguerite Duras or Jorge Semprun (the scenarists for two of his features). Unlike Godard or Fellini, Resnais does not appear to be exploring the world with his camera: he remolds the explorations of somebody else. To film is to interpret, to rearrange, to edit—to stand back and reflect. There is thus an air of detachment about his films that links him, in a way, with Antonioni, but more directly with Eisenstein.

The editorial act is the most intellectual part of any artistic process. Potentially, it is the most academic. Like all basically interpretative arts, it is dependent upon the creativity of someone else. One might even feel that it tends to hide behind the creativity of someone else, or to submerge itself in it (however we want to put it, depending on the evaluation of the work at hand). Thus we have the central paradox from which all considerations of Resnais’s work must begin: with so interpretative a director—a director who insists that he is really happier working as an editor than as a director, that he can scarcely think of himself as an auteur at all—what can we detect at the center of his work that binds it all together to enable us to speak of an Alain Resnais film?

In his Cinema One book on Resnais, John Ward has done a splendid job in relating Resnais’s films to a conceptual framework shared by Resnais with his chosen writers, a framework that relates back to Bergson but which Resnais probably comes to by way of Proust. And Roy Armes has documented the close working association that Resnais has generally enjoyed with his writers. In fact, Armes’s study is so detailed descriptively and so scrupulously documented that it makes much of what I might have wished to say about the surface characteristics of Resnais’s films redundant and unnecessary. Yet the question still remains when we contemplate Resnais’s work as a whole: Is Resnais a film creator in the same sense that Godard and Fellini so inescapably are?

Le Chant du Styrene

Le Chant du Styrene

To ask the question at all is to imply a negative tinge to any answer. Speaking personally, I ask it out of a sense of something distant and unseizable about his work as a whole. Much as I have come to admire his films, they are not films that instinctively appealed to me, nor are they films that even now I feel I deeply grasp. Is this an aspect of my own sensibility or is there something distancing in the films themselves? What, finally, lies at their center? Even with Ward’s book open before me, I still want to ask, To what extent are these thought patterns central to our response to these films? Or to what extent do they provide Resnais chiefly as Ward himself has said—with “credible dilemmas to build films around”?

Resnais believes in experiment. He is interested in achieving new cinematic forms. But unlike Godard, this interest doesn’t seem the result of disruptive internal pressures, forging new forms out of the necessity created by the many new things he urgently wants to say. Although the comment is simplistic, one might have a limited sympathy with John Russell Taylor’s parenthetical suggestion that Resnais “seems, unmistakably, more interested in solving intellectual and aesthetic problems than in film-making per se . . .” Resnais is obviously the kind of artist who waits to be filled by some experience outside himself, by something that he then feels he wants to make a film about. This too is in great contrast with Bergman and Fellini who always seem to be spinning their fantastic cinematic creations out of their own insides. Yet there is a consistency that runs throughout Resnais’s work, and not only the conceptual consistency analyzed by John Ward.

His early work in documentaries obviously encouraged Resnais to concentrate on perfecting the details of his craft, to concentrate, that is, on the more intellectual, the more abstract aspects of filmmaking. These abstract aspects of his work are the elements that link Resnais most strongly with the early Eisenstein. They serve as well to create a similar kind of problem.

The more a filmmaker becomes caught up in the abstractions of his own craft—a concern with rhythm, movement, and editorial design—the more his work might seem to detach itself from the subject matter of the film, appealing to us in its own right, like the rhythmic abstractions of music. So, like Eisenstein’s, Resnais’s films, whatever their subject matter, are in a sense partly about themselves. By raising the art of editing to the highest possible degree of imaginativeness, his films sometimes appear to be not only at one remove from life itself (as I began by saying) but even from the subject matter of the film he is editing. Just as the Raising of the Bridge sequence in October is as much about its own splendor as it is about a particular massacre, so in Resnais there is frequently a similar kind of abstract appeal.

Gaugin Resnais


Yet the situation isn’t simple. There are recurring themes that do have an effect upon us. Central to all Resnais’s work is his concern with sickness, often a moral sickness, and with degeneration and decline. In his first two professional documentaries, this concern is handled in a characteristically paradoxical way.

The black-and-white studies of Van Gogh (1948) and Gauguin (1950) both deal with men whose personal lives were literally sacrificed to their art. And yet—paradoxically—this personal degeneration was accompanied by the frenzied affirmation of the artists’ art. Out of instability came something external. Out of sickness, came a kind of health. The style of both these films does nothing to point the moral. The commentary simply describes the events in the artists’ lives with a clinical detachment as we look at the paintings—paintings greatly robbed of their power to affect us by being in black and-white.

Even at this early stage of Resnais’s career, we might notice the separability of the elements that make up his films. There is only the most neutral connection between things said and things seen, while the music follows yet another independent path, making its own kind of aesthetic appeal. The landscapes in the paintings of Van Gogh and Guernica are treated like landscapes in real life, as we move in on a detail or appear to track along an avenue of trees. Skillful though this is in terms of film, it is important to point out that this very skill to a large extent destroys the autonomy of the paintings, drawing attention instead to the films’ own movement and rhythm and to Resnais’s directorial skill.



The best example of this kind of spacial destruction leading to a fresh kind of temporal cinematic synthesis is Guernica (1950). In this film, Resnais combines the paintings of Picasso, the poetry of Paul Eluard, the voice of Maria Casares and the music of Guy Bernard to produce a film of his own. It could scarcely fail to have an effect! Yet the effect it does have, we can conclude from the supporting evidence of the rest of Resnais’s films, is very much the result of Resnais’s individual cast of mind. The theme of sickness is still there, but this time, as later with Night and Fog, it is more a social and political sickness that leads to a terrible destructiveness. And once again, there is the compensational beauty of creativity—initially of Picasso but then also of Resnais himself.

As distinguished an example of its kind as any film can be, Guernica repays careful study—not only for its own sake but as an indication of things to come. Whether or not Resnais is primarily concerned with solving aesthetic problems, like the innovator he is, his films certainly cause them for the spectator. Central to our response to Guernica must be the tension established within the film between what here we might call elements of poetry and elements of prose. Approaching the problem from a different angle, we might contrast the strong aesthetic appeal the film makes to us (the way it invites us to admire its own skill and authority) with the human implications of its subject matter—the seemingly gratuitous destruction of an entirely innocent town. As distinguished an example of its kind as any film can be, Guernica nevertheless can create for us a most uncomfortable emotion, an emotion which is the result of this element of beauty within the film.

Remember that girl’s hair caressing the lip of the rising bridge in Eisenstein’s October? A tinge of aesthetic emphasis which could be said to increase our sense of horror or, I think more plausibly, to deflect our attention away from it, making it seem bearable by turning it into art. In Resnais, this problem is pervasive. Yet, as it is a problem of perception, a problem of response, it is impossible to settle the matter with critical objectivity. It depends on how we feel at the time.

Je t'aime, je t'aime resnais

Je t’aime, je t’aime

In my own contemplation of Resnais’s work throughout the years, I have moved from a position where I rejected critically this impulse to extract a feeling of beauty from such a subject matter to a position where I have come to feel that, finally, perhaps this is the only thing that Resnais could have done. Yet one thing I am sure of about this and his next film, Night and Fog: this aesthetic emotion that the films create, this detached and unangry contemplation of the horrors of war, these elements give both films a feeling of helplessness in the face of the problems that the films themselves so forcefully evoke. And it seems to me to be the same feeling of helplessness and hopelessness that makes the beauty of Je t’aime, je t’aime such an enervating experience.

In Resnais’s early work, however, this feeling of helplessness is best isolated in Night and Fog. Like Guernica, Night and Fog is less troubling from the hideousness of its subject matter than from the detached yet sensuous attitude that Resnais and his scriptwriter, Jean Cayrol, bring to it. The film has been assembled with such authority that we leave the cinema conscious not only of what the extermination camps have meant but also of what a splendid film Resnais has made.

Like Guernica, Night and Fog establishes a tension between poetic and prosaic elements in the film, this time emphasized by the use of color and implying as well a contrast between the present and the past. The present seems ‘poetic’ largely because it looks so beautiful, even if at the same time it seems wistful and sad. In his detailed analysis of the film, Roy Armes has referred to its “calm thoughtful rhythm.” This is indeed a striking characteristic of the film; but the question that seems most urgent concerns the nature of the thought that the film tends to provoke.

Night and Fog

Night and Fog

The commentary guides our responses, even if at a distance: giving us information, pointing out the discrepancy between the camps now—macabre tourist sites seemingly innocent of their past associations—and the actuality material that shows us how they really were. The commentary culminates with the key question of responsibility: “I am not responsible,” says the Kapo. “I am not responsible,” says the officer. “I am not responsible . . . Well then [a strong pause preceding the final question], who is responsible?” Alors-qui est responsable? This final question is immediately followed by a forceful major-seventh chord on the sound track—a string orchestra in close harmony, a most plangent, sensuous sound. Who, indeed, is responsible?

This rhetorical question is obviously intended to imply universal responsibility, an implication confirmed by the final lines of the film. We are all responsible, such a question seems to insist. At the same time, such an implication might seem to blur the historical issue. It might tend to discourage an accurate analysis of the actual situation in which actual people made actual decisions. It might tend thus to discourage precision of thought. Watchful we must be, the end of the film implies, lest a similar situation occur again; at the same time, the middle of the film might give us the feeling that there was nothing at the time that any individual could actually have done.

In this way, there is something religious about Night and Fog. There is something immensely troubling when we witness the horror that man is capable of (and it is part of the explicit purpose of the film to universalize this concept of man); and yet there is something oddly sensual in Hans Eisler’s music and in Resnais’s slow tracking shots along a series of crowded bunks or along a row of grim latrines. There is simultaneously a sense of immense human suffering in a particular place and time, and yet the sense as well that there is something beyond our grasp that we cannot understand.

Night and Fog

Night and Fog

There is even the sense of a kind of resurrection connected with it all. As in the earlier art documentaries, there is the paradoxical concern with affirmation within despair. Each prison camp became a kind of community, one of them sprouting a symphony orchestra, another a zoo. Even when the potentiality for life was at its lowest, the inmates continued to assert their humanity.

But man is unbelievably resistant. Though his body is worn out by fatigue, his mind continues to function and his bandaged hands continue to work. Spoons, puppets, monsters and boxes are made and hidden. Letters are written, notes are taken, memory is kept alive with dreams. One can think of God. One can even organize politically and argue with the common criminals about the running of the camp.

The final comments seem both a warning and a lamentation:

Who among us keeps watch at this strange observation post, ready to give warning of the approach of the new executioners? Are their faces really any different from ours? Somewhere in our midst there are still some lucky kapos, some resurrected leaders, some unknown informers. There are all those who didn’t believe it at all or who believed it only now and then We who try to believe that it belonged only to a period in time and to a single nation on earth and who will not look around and who will not hear the whole world crying

Night and Fog

Night and Fog

Yet, finally, what can we do? Like a religious confession, the film creates an experience that gives us the sense of our own sinfulness, our own moral implication in this most terrible crime in contemporary history. Yet it fails to give us a clear mental picture of the actual details that led to such a situation or any positive feeling of what specific action we might take to prevent its recurrence. Instead of intellectual precision, Night and Fog combines facts and rhetoric with sensuous sounds and soft colors to create a strong emotion that might lead many viewers to a sense of despair. Yet, in the paradoxical way of both religion and art, the film might also make us feel good by deceiving us into thinking that we have understood the problem because we have been so deeply moved by it. Thus, fully to come to grips with this particular film one would have to come to grips with an historical situation more important and more difficult than that contained within the film itself. The atmosphere of passivity leading to a sense of helplessness that characterizes Night and Fog becomes a defect when we feel from our sense of the world outside the film that what is needed is a more active, more energetic response to the problem.

With the exception of La Guerre est finie, Resnais’s films all lean toward an inactivist position as a result of the philosophical system from which they spring and as a result of the director’s concern with the ambiguities of the human imagination and the unreliability of memory. And indeed, Resnais’s next film after Night and Fog—one of the most distinguished documentaries of all time—has memory very much at its center: Toute la mémoire du monde (1956).

Since man’s memory is short (the commentary begins by assuring us) men write books and preserve them in vast public collections. Yet as the centuries flow by, these collections become huge prisons that confine one’s past, huge tombs in which man’s past records can be buried and hence forgotten. With the help of the music by Maurice Jarre, who gives this film the flavor of a Georges Franju documentary, Resnais creates an atmosphere throughout the film of dehumanized confinement. In a way that looks directly forward to Last Year in Marienbad, the depository of the past is seen as a great prison in which one can wander endlessly along extended corridors, with no certain sense of direction or observable goal.

This aimlessness is emphasized by Resnais’s cutting patterns. He frequently cuts abruptly to a tracking shot (say) of a man walking along a grilled passageway—a shot that we first experience as a kind of abstract movement and only secondarily are able to recognize as what it represents. Thus, the representational element in this film becomes less important than the film’s inner rhythms, its own sense of movement and design. At times, the film seems to be a kind of mechanical ballet, as we watch the intercrossing of a man with a book on his shoulder with a man pushing a truck, who, a moment later we see again silhouetted in a lift. If it is a marvelous film, it is so largely because its subject matter lends itself to this kind of treatment. As the cataloguing of books for a national collection does not possess the same urgency as the workings of a concentration camp, we can easily give ourselves over to Resnais’s unparalleled cinematic art, as we can again in 1957 with Resnais’s playful treatment of plastics in Le Chant du Styrene.

Toute le memoire du monde

Toute la mémoire du monde

Throughout Toute la mémoire du monde there is the implicit question: what is the use of all this past? If the film is extremely formalized, there is also within it a probing seriousness. In spite of elements tugging in the contrary direction, there is, throughout, the basic feeling that the past is a promiscuous jungle, like the memory of man itself, preserving the trivial along with the most important, unable to select, to make value judgments. As the commentary explains: “Who can tell what, tomorrow, will be the truest witness of our civilization?” Unable to select, then, man must preserve everything—Les Pensees de Pascal along with Mandrake the Magician.

The theme is handled lightheartedly, yet the implications are serious; and as John Ward has pointed out, the books here are treated in the same way as the Jews in Night and Fog. They are stamped, numbered, inoculated, kept in a controlled environment, yet for the opposite purpose—to guarantee their continued life. It is as if our civilization valued its artifacts more than its citizens. At the same time, the overall movement of the film is a gradual struggle upwards, from the cluttered confines of the basement where we see even the relic of a bicycle apparently being preserved, up and out through the dome that covers the central reading room, a movement out toward life and fresh air, away from the death of the past. Perhaps if all these fragments eclectically preserved could be put together, they might add up to something which we could call happiness, the final words of the commentary try to persuade us. Yet the movement of the camera is away from this universal memory, away from what we have seen.

Only by remembering the past, can we make sense of the present; yet only by forgetting it, are we free to move into the future. As John Ward’s study repeatedly points out, our past is only helpful to us if we recreate it accurately through our imagination. Yet we tend to remember events according to our psychological needs, according to our mental picture of how it ought to have been. Thus, any two individuals will tend to remember a past event differently. From this sad fact follows the organizational motif of most of Resnais’s features, the motif of persuasion. Our own memories gain a certain validity, many of Resnais’s films tend to imply, if we can persuade someone else, especially someone dear to us, to accept our own ordering of the past as the accurate ordering. Just as man’s history is imprisoned in la Bibliotheque Nationale, so man’s individual memory seems imprisoned in his own subjectivity.

Put this way, these Bergsonian notions as deployed by Resnais and his writers do not offer a very comforting view of the world. They certainly don’t make it easy for us to have confidence in our own grounds for action. Thus, there is something recessive about all Resnais’s films. With the exception of Diego in La Guerre est finie (and even Diego fails to get free from his long established patterns of behavior), his characters are all obsessed with their past—unable to make sense of it, to free themselves from its torments.