“The Surrogate and His Double”

02/07/2010

Still from 'Night and Fog'

Four Early Documentaries by Alain Resnais

The work of French filmmaker Alain Resnais, time and time again, utilizes the topic of memory, in its manifold forms, treating it as a shifting force that is vital for incorporating history (itself far from involuble) into an awareness of the present. Night and Fog, unflinching and uncompromising, offers a challenge to the subjectivity of remembrance with the vivid revisiting of suffering. A more lyrical although equally condemnatory film, Statues Also Die presents a most daring statement for its time, one whose resounding anger towards the effects of colonialism resulted in its severe censoring. As in his narrative work, one finds Resnais executing a rare combination of political astuteness, nimble and masterful style, and an eye for sheer beauty.

Beginning with a description of the saturation bombing of a Basque city by Nazi forces in 1937 (an attack meant to test a new method of destruction), Guernica, directed by Resnais and Robert Hessens, quickly changes into a poetic examination of innocence and death. We see the events through their reflection in Picasso’s work. The downcast visages of his ‘blue period’ extend out, the sadness, the courage of the peasants and the working class falling under raking light. They are the only victims of war.

Still from 'Guernica'

Guernica (1950)

The film assaults the viewer with images from the painting, focusing on motifs like open mouths and the pathos of animals, riddles the faces of people with imaginary punctures. After the devastation finishes, silence ensues, and Guernica hunts through the shadows for the semblance of a face, a hand. Without bringing comfort to the wounded or honor to the murdered, it poses a chilling indictment of technological reign and indifference to people’s humanity. And the film offers a thought: innocence, if nothing else, can outlive conflict – almost by definition, it regenerates.

The functioning of memory within a society, necessary for retaining cultural vitality in the face of transformative factors, comprises tangible relics just as much as customs and ritual patterns. The well-known painting by Picasso has taken its place now as a fixture in a social memory, forever reminding us, perpetually calling us to awaken. It has become a bookmark, a stand-in for moment it describes. Were it entirely divorced from the power of recognition, it would shrivel, considerably, into an aesthetic curio.

“When a statue dies, it becomes art.”

Statues Also Die, done in collaboration with Chris Marker, is initially about the ways in which Western people view African art. But it goes on to examine much more than that, depicting the zero-sum relationship in which Europe engages with colonized people, as it is expressed in the visualization of their cultures, and the visual plane that they inhabit within its own. The white gaze, if it may be called that, is felt keenly throughout the film, as Resnais and Marker explore the process of rendering lifeless the religious fetishes that once represented spirits or ancestors, and had ritual significance. The carved faces from different parts of Africa sit silently in the corners of a French museum or a private collection, shrouded in permanent, artificial shadows. In an African context, there is no way to even call these pieces “art,” for they meant so much more in the time and place that they were made. That most facile and two-dimensional term best describes exactly what the pieces have become upon entry into Europe; inert, unspeaking objects, meant for observers.

Still from 'Statues Also Die'

Statues Also Die (1953)

Beginning with European artifacts mutilated by time and sitting somewhere wholly out of context, we then see an absurd exhibition of items from our own material culture placed on display. A statue sits on a riverboat, traveling away from the Sahel where it was created, to be placed within the box of European art appreciation (referred to here as the “jargon of decadence”), which prefers representation to spiritual utility.

The two filmmakers have not forgotten that there was a more gruesome period when living, human specimens were brought back to sit in museums for the public’s enlightenment. The whole of the Western visual regime can be considered an extension of those enclosed, public mausoleums to which the artifacts are consigned (or the museums a distillation the former), as Jesse Owens or a bebop drummer in 1950s Paris are moving statues, meant to be seen and providing a sheen of ego bafflement for their white observers. This film was released a year after Frantz Fanon’s essay The Fact of Blackness, and follows similar lines of thought. Describing the black person’s experience in France, Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “he wants the white man to turn to him and shout: ‘Damn nigger.’ Then he would have that unique chance – to ‘show them…’ But most often there is nothing – nothing but indifference, or a paternalistic curiosity.” Unlike in America, where the repression is characterized by outright conflict, in Europe the greatest cultural destruction is wrought by apathy appearing as admiration, exemplified by Tristan Tzara’s mask collection or Josephine Baker as a nude. The living cultures of Africa are silenced in an abattoir of eclecticism, where they are broken down code by code, and reassembled to stand awkwardly alongside modern art.

In Night and Fog, we experience the interplay between newsreel imagery of Auschwitz and Birkenau, which are frozen in time, and a firsthand touring of the places themselves. Reconciling memory with reasoning, mediating it through interpretation, Resnais frames the experience – terror, resignation – within the abandoned fences and concrete walls. The images that Resnais includes are among the most up-front and sickening that one is likely to see in any holocaust film, and yet the frankness with which he does so never crosses a line into the clinical or prosaic. Juxtaposing these with the placidity of the camps a decade later, now oxidized and fading into overgrowth, he invites the viewer to fill the gaps, and defies us to acknowledge the psychological artifacts of suffering.

Still from 'Night and Fog'

Night and Fog (1955)

On the inside, the concentration camp is like a society in its own right. But as Resnais points out, all activities are a pretext for torture, all regulations a justification of execution. We follow deportees on their journey, starting with the man inside the boxcar who assists the SS officer in sliding the door shut, and ending where there is nothing left of all those lives but thousands of shoes.

In one sense it is an attempt at reflection on a momentous crime, and in a less defined, but no less palpable sense, it is about the preservation of the past through recognition. Are there really images too monstrous to even look at? Surely we can always look, but will we allow ourselves to commit them to memory? Night and fog, nacht und nebel, become a metaphor for what we must break through, and where we must trespass, in order to recreate history in our own minds, even with great attendant pain. The images fade, just as the buildings crumble or turn into tourist attractions. Still, the indelible copying of what has happened, for its future identification, is a means toward working it into the fabric of our consciousness, even after the echoes have died down.

An obvious stylistic antecedent to Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) in its rigor and litheness of movement, All the Memory in the World tours the national library of France, praising the building, not in architectural wonderment but in awe of the enormous amount of knowledge and the breadth of activity within. Resnais presents the library both as a dizzyingly imposing fortress and bustling nerve center with a life of its own. Indeed, the anthropomorphizing that the place undergoes is disquieting, as Resnais’ famous tracking shots run in a breathtaking sweep through its vast halls and canyon-like stacks, treating them as anatomical landmarks. Initially the place is depicted as a prison, one that keeps documents captive in one location, so that they don’t escape and outgrow the society that created them.

Gaining complexity, however, it also becomes a sort of body, with material entering and exiting. And yet the way that it assimilates knowledge in the form of texts is indiscriminate, its curators requiring the complete acquisition of every book published in France. Multiple copies, in fact. If one issue is lost of the hundreds of periodicals collected each day, it is painstakingly tracked down. The Biblioteque Nationale acts as a replacement for the human brain, absorbing input and categorizing it, while its lack of selectivity represents the ideal of memory, something that far exceeds the ability of the people whom it serves. The film would have a cautionary tone if it weren’t in thrall. The library is a microcosm of the national consciousness. For while it is composed of centuries-old constructions, new wings are being added all the time to house the collection, which is constantly growing, but unlike the nation, not subjectively revising the history held inside.

Still from 'All the Memory in the World'

All the Memory in the World (1956)

Resnais’ later, much-studied works like Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad beautifully transport his favored themes – the role of recognition in memory, and the unfamiliarizing of personal ontology in the examination of society – into narratives. The miniatures that he created prior to working in fiction filmmaking explore these far-reaching ideas briefly while remaining powerful, immediate, and true to their subjects. They call into question the enigmatic and constructed obfuscation of history through which we push, while also striving to understand it.

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