Nuit et Brouillard: For Alain Resnais

In memory of Alain Resnais who died this last March the 3rd …

In 1933, Walter Benjamin could write of the technology of war unleashed upon those who fought during WWI, that it destroyed human experience, the very thing which permitted the passing of wisdom and counsel from one generation to the next.  The story tellers were no more.

No, this much is clear: experience has fallen in value, amid a generation which from 1914 to 1918 had to experience some of the most monstrous events in the history of the world.  Perhaps this is less remarkable than it appears. … A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.  (Benjamin, Experience and Poverty)

What culture remains after the slaughter is bankrupt.  And what efforts there are to rehabilitate it are farcical, when not obscene.  “Hence, a new kind of barbarism.” (Benjamin, Experience and Poverty)

And yet from this barbarism, a negative barbarism, a new, positive barbarism becomes possible.

For what does poverty of experience do for the barbarian?  It forces him to start from scratch; to make a new start; to make a little go a long way; to begin with a little and build up further, looking neither left nor right.  Among the great creative spirits, there have always been the inexorable ones who begin by clearing a tabula rasa. (Benjamin, Experience and Poverty)

Alain Resnais was one such barbarian, and the film Nuit et Brouillard such a clearing of the slate, both aesthetically and politically.  An “anti-spectacle”, a film of “non-images” that enacts the impossibility of re-enactment in the midst of disaster, the disaster of Auschwitz.  If Theodor Adorno could write that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”, we may repeat with Serge Daney, that after Resnais, cinematographic fiction is equally so.  Not that poetry or film should be banished; but that both, and more generally culture, after, can be but rubbish.  Nuit et Brouillard speaks of the unspeakable, represents the unrepresentable.  Without narrative or dramatic reconstruction, devoid of any story before the destruction of experience, Nuit et Brouillard juxtaposes images, voice and music to transgress time, to explode the movement of history, leaving but the image of disaster.  The film thus continues as film, exists as film, illuminating the condition of those, spectators-subjectivities, who live in the time of disaster.

Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard is not an exercise in documenting past horror, so as to remember and thus prevent its repetition.  Rather, it is a testimony to the reality of the disaster in our present.

There are those of us who sincerely look upon the ruins today, as if the concentration camp monsters were dead and buried beneath them.  Those who pretend to take hope as the image fades, as though there were a cure for the plague of these camps.  Those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened only once, at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not hear the cry to the end of time.  (Nuit et Brouillard)

If the disaster defied time, the time of chromos, then the art and politics of the time of disaster must be equal to the forgetting of the past and to the death of hope or fear for the future.

Resnais cinematography is vast and it would be foolish to endeavour to collect it all here, even if it were possible.  But two other films, in which Resnais collaborated with others, are available and merit viewing.

Resnais’ film, with Chris Marker, Les Statues Meurent Aussi …

… and the brilliantly satirical and utopian film L’an 01.


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