What ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ Teaches Us About Ethics and Faith

Content Warning: Mentions of trauma, bombings, violence, and death.

Marguerite Duras’ and Alain Renais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) has been most famously celebrated as one of the pioneering films of French New Wave. Two strangers meet wholly by chance, and spend the next twenty-four hours ruminating on the poetics of loss, suffering and memory. Of course, the title itself alludes to the bombing of Hiroshima, which immediately situates the film within the challenging politics of re-presentation. Can we ever do justice to the atrocities of war? Is it crude to talk about Hiroshima through a lover’s discourse? How to talk about Hiroshima? How can we not talk about Hiroshima?

To this end, Duras herself affirms in the synopsis of the screenplay that it is impossible to talk about Hiroshima, for any attempt to represent Hiroshima would amount to a “made-to-order picture … a fictionalised documentary” (10). To begin representing such devastating violence then, is to first foreground that we are unable to talk about it nor accurately articulate what had objectively happened. For this reason, Duras says that the lovers’ “personal story, however brief it may be, always dominates Hiroshima” (10). She does not negate that Hiroshima had happened, but rather acknowledges that our inability to empirically represent the event also means all we have is our personal perceptions of the event. For Duras, it is only through the personal can we approach, and interrogate the political. It is thus unsurprising that the establishing shot of the film is an extreme close-up of the two lovers in a tender embrace: we are unable distinguish them, and their skins are soaked in what Duras describes as “ashes, rain, dew, or sweat, whichever is preferred” (15). The juxtaposition between the ashes from the bombing and their loving embrace blurs the boundaries between the personal and political, and shows us that perhaps the two aspects are not as disparate as we would like to believe.

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Emmanuelle Riva in ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’

In fact, I argue that Duras and Renais shows us that approaching the political through the personal allows for a possibility of an ethics, where the radical difference and heterogeneity of another is respected. For context, the real world we live in is clearly far from ethical. All we do is reduce people to essentially fabricated categories (i.e. race, gender, sexuality, etc) for the purposes of violent classification. Such categories may be constructs, but they are constructs with harrowing material consequences all the same. They are constructs we have made in order to comprehend another according to our history, our knowledge, and our genealogy. To fix the other in our own image is to neccessarily transform them into an object, rather than allowing them to acquire their own subject status. Through this process of comprehension, we eradicate radical difference, and thus fail to cultivate an ethical relation with those around us.

Yet in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Duras and Renais shows us how bearing witness to another’s testimony of trauma can possibly allow us to cultivate an ethical relation with the other. The film focuses on the traumatic witnessing of two highly political events. Firstly, the bombing of Hiroshima and secondly, Elle witnessing the death of her German lover in Nevers during the second world war. While political events in themselves, the act of witnessing these two events is highly personal and subjective. We know that it is impossible to capture objective truth of history, because the real referent of the event is irretrievable. But in the face of incommensurability, what we do have is the faith of the listener of any testimony of trauma. We have the faith of the listener, and their prerogative not to negate the survivor’s testimony of trauma by purporting the testimony to be objectively false, or simply not “true” enough. As such, an ethical witnessing of the survivor’s testimony is when we listen to her not on the basis of what we already know, but as something irreducibly different to our own lives. And yes, faith is important in this process of bearing witness to another’s trauma. The survivor loses everything, the act of witnessing included, by not being believed by a listener who knows nothing of the event, but callously dismisses it based on their warped systems of knowledge anyway. We must listen to each other while cognisant of the fact that neither of us can fully comprehend each other’s experiences of trauma. It is precisely because full comprehension is impossible that faith becomes crucial to the act of bearing witness to another’s trauma.

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Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada in ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’

We begin with Elle’s perspective on the bombing of Hiroshima. She makes a demand to be heard by telling Lui: 

Listen to me. Like you, I have a memory. I know what it is to forget. Why deny the obvious necessity for memory?

In this dialogue, the film hones in on the paradox of memory: to remember is to admit that we have already begun to forget. As we have already begun to forget, all that remains of history are our desperate attempts to reconstruct the past as authentically as possible, to conceal that since history has no retrievable referent, it survives merely as a trace. Elle may not have been there to bear witness to the bombing, but even if she had been, the need to remember necessarily testifies to the failure of memory. Furthermore, reading her statement within context of her traumatic experience in Nevers, her declaration of knowing “what it is to forget” alludes to her personal understanding of the impossibility of ever bearing full witness to a traumatic event. In this regard, both Hiroshima and Nevers are events that have not been truly witnessed yet. As such, Duras foregrounds Hiroshima’s bombing as a history which remains absolutely other to Elle, Lui, and the audience. 

However, it is precisely because what Elle knows of Hiroshima is irreducible to what objectively happened that she demands to be listened to. It is not an arrogant claim to empirically know what really happened in Hiroshima and Nevers, but an address to Lui. Since Duras uses this dialogue to foreground the impossibility of narrating Hiroshima, I contend that she invites him to abandon his desire for a complete truth to her testimony of trauma. In doing so, she invites him to listen to her through a frame that recognises that neither she nor he can fully comprehend each other’s respective traumatic experiences. I read this address as an open invitation to Lui to encounter her in a space where a closed truth is not the fixed goal. In this regard, the film demonstrates an ethical encounter where both parties listen to each other on the basis of faith, and on the basis that truth is always somewhere in-between all the differing narrated versions of the event. 

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Emmanuelle Riva in ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’

This ethical encounter is more clearly evinced when Elle recounts her traumatic experience in Nevers to Lui. He stands in for her dead German lover by asking her, “when you are in the cellar, am I dead?” (Duras 54). At this moment, Lui occupies an intermediary position between a living person, and her dead lover – which makes this question impossible to answer. On the moment of her lover’s death, Elle speaks of the inability to “feel the slightest difference between [her lover’s] dead body and [hers]” (Duras 65), which testifies to the blurring of boundaries between her life and his death. In this regard, it is only within her response to Lui can she repossess the act of witnessing the trauma she had experienced in Nevers. Yet, while Elle’s response to Lui appears to acknowledge her German lover’s death, the conflation of Lui with her German lover makes it impossible to discern who the recipient of her answer is. Likewise, Lui is unable to discern whether it is Elle who is presently speaking, or if she is playing her past self in Nevers. However, they continue speaking with each other without attempting to comprehend who the other is. To this end, it is precisely because they do not attempt to comprehend each other that they continue relating with each other. Just as Elle requires Lui to occupy the threshold between life and death to repossess the act of witnessing, Lui requires Elle to occupy the threshold between past and present in order to continue bearing witness to her trauma. I read this specific encounter as one where the two are listening to each other ethically, where neither attempt to comprehend each other according to their prejudices and biases. In Duras’ screenplay, she writes that Lui “[lets] Elle talk without understanding” (66), thus testifying to how an ethical form of witnessing begins first with the premise of faith, and belief in what is ultimately irreducible to our own lives.

Hiroshima Mon Amour speaks of faith in the face of insurmountable violence. In many ways, the film remains relevant to us. It shows us that while the truth is important, it is only important insofar that the people are listening believe it to be true. In this horrific age, the people who get to listen and make decisions on the production of truth are analogous to those in power. Faith is deemed as whimsical. Yet, Duras’ and Renais’ film shows us that faith is not only important, it presents a threat to the patriarchal need for an empirical truth. Faith goes beyond any rational comprehension, and requires us to be undone in relation to each other. It requires us to listen, and respect each other even when we cannot possibly put ourselves in their shoes. Of course, I do not advocate listening to bigots at all, but I advocate listening to those who have been violently silenced by bigotry. We cannot possibly ever speak for, and in place of another, but what we can do is take them at their word when the whole world refuses to do so. That in itself is a transformative act, and empowering even, particularly when power relies on willed silence. 

Works Cited:
Duras, Marguerite. Hiroshima Mon Amour, Grove Press: New York, 1961. Screenplay.


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