Covering topics as banal as the production of plastics and as profound as cultural appropriation, these films aren’t workaday projects so much as serious visual essays that extend Resnais’ preoccupation with the way the industrialized modern world breaks down, abstracts, and obliterates the human body. The frightening truth, as these documentaries reveal in their own dreamlike, elliptical ways, is this: We’re all just sacks of flesh, stripped of individuality and used as meat for the mills of modernity.
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It was in the wake of the Second World War that nations were forced to confront, in a way they never had before, the destruction of the human body. Shot, gassed, tortured, hanged, incinerated, beheaded, blown to bits over deserts and oceans – while these and other horrors have always been a part of human civilization, it was only in the age of the film camera that they were being documented and recorded. No longer were these tales of violence embellished stories; they were visual truths, powerful proof of how the modern age, so-called, could facilitate a regression to primitive, barbaric behavior.
One of the most essential film documents of this corporeal trauma is 1956’s Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) by French filmmaker Alain Resnais. In just 33 minutes, Resnais does the seemingly impossible: encapsulate the totality of the Nazi concentration camps and their industrialization of mass extermination. Editing silent color footage of tracking shots through the ruins of Auschwitz and Majdanek (a graveyard of squat buildings, crumbled brick walls, and broken train tracks) with black-and-white photographs and film footage, Resnais’ film hopscotches between present and past, dream and nightmare, peace and horror. What makes Night and Fog such a brand on our conscience is its accumulation of bodies: trapped behind barbed wire, tumbling like leaves into mass graves, charred like firewood in ovens. These bodies – dead and alive – give the film a horrible half-life so infinitesimal it will never truly go away.
And yet Night and Fog wasn’t Resnais’ only documentary short, and certainly not the only one to deal with the destruction of the human body. While we justly remember Resnais for his feature films (including 1959’s Hiroshima mon amour and 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad [L’Année dernière à Marienbad]), we cannot seriously consider his career and its overarching themes without taking into account the sublime power of the documentary shorts he authored or co-authored during the 1950s: the decade when Europe and the rest of the world tried to chart a new moral course for the rest of the century. Covering topics as banal as the production of plastics and as profound as cultural appropriation, these films aren’t workaday projects so much as serious visual essays that extend Resnais’ preoccupation with the way the industrialized modern world breaks down, abstracts, and obliterates the human body. The frightening truth, as these documentaries reveal in their own dreamlike, elliptical ways, is this: We’re all just sacks of flesh, stripped of individuality and used as meat for the mills of modernity.
“Beasts Feeling Impending Death”
On April 26, 1937, the Luftwaffe bombed the Basque town of Guernica, killing hundreds of people, many of them civilians. The best document of this atrocity in cultural memory, however, isn’t photographs of Guernica’s ruins but the eponymous painting by Pablo Picasso completed just a few months later, with its semi-abstract collage of writhing men, women, and animals. This painting, along with a poem by the French surrealist Paul Éluard, serves as the founding argument for Resnais’ 1950 documentary short Guernica.
Standing in for the dehumanized victims of the bombing is the work of a 20th-century artist who spent much of his career disassembling the human form. After an opening shot of the rubble of Guernica (itself an abstract landscape), the camera fades up on a series of figures culled from Picasso’s oeuvre, including troupes of actors whose elongated bodies and deathly pallor suggest the people we’ll see herded into Nazi concentration camps in Night and Fog. As if documenting the actual experience of the Fascist bombing raid, these artworks are peppered with bullets, while on the soundtrack, air sirens send off their alarming wails. We see details of Picasso’s men, women, and children as if huddled in darkened basements while airplanes buzz overhead. As Guy Bernard’s score reaches a crescendo, Picasso’s artwork becomes even more abstract, devolving into a frightening montage of teeth and tongues and distended faces (both human and animal) that connects the chaos of the bombing (“a beast feeling impending death”) with the chaos of Picasso’s art.
Presaging Resnais’ future investigations of industrial genocide are the film’s somber final minutes, consisting of several shots of some of Picasso’s sculptural figures. Blanketed in shadow, these bronze limbs feel like a stand-in for the blackened bodies of Guernica’s townspeople. Hollow-eyed, they’ve been abstracted by warfare and transformed into mere objects. Then the camera pans up until we see the most human-looking figure in this assemblage: Picasso’s Man with a Lamb from 1943. The camera slowly zooms in to the sculpture’s grim, blank face until it consumes the entire screen. Roughly sculpted by Picasso’s fingers, the figure may as well be burnt to a crisp and freshly pulled from urban rubble.
“Beautiful Stripped Wreckage”
Three years later, Resnais collaborated with the filmmaker Chris Marker on another documentary short that continued the connection between statues as a double for bodies dehumanized by modern war. In 1953’s Statues Also Die (Les statues meurent aussi), the bodies are black ones, abstracted by both France’s colonial missions in Africa and the rampant commercialization of African art. (It’s an indictment that caused the film to be banned in France, despite its winning the Prix Jean Vigo in 1954.)
Whether showing us Benin sculptures or the everyday lives of African communities (playing music, preparing food, weaving cloth), it can be difficult to distance the film from the voyeurism it seeks to interrogate. Nevertheless, with all the shots focused on lips, eyes, and teeth, we may as well be seeing these sculptures through Picasso’s own gaze, remembering that his own artistic depictions of the human face were inspired by masks like these. But while these works may have been created by their indigenous cultures as an expression of life and faith, within the context of Resnais’ documentary they are utterly lifeless. Stored in museums, sold in shops; Statues Also Die argues that this fate is a form of death. The statues, we’re told by the narrator, are “beautiful stripped wreckage which we interrogate”; they’re “mute” and “dead forms.”
Several imaginatively framed shots (these are, remember, not objective documentaries so much as subjective essays) sharpen the connection between how colonialism, and by extension the modern world, has distorted the black African body. In one shot, after a seemingly limitless parade of masks set to Guy Bernard’s military march, we get a close-up of a clay portrait. The camera pans right, and we’re met with the same face, in flesh, of the model standing next to his sculptural depiction. Instantly, we imagine this bust being sold (at top dollar) to some European tourist. In another shot, the camera moves from the painting of a man breaking his chains to the artist himself, who rises up, triumphant, into the frame. What happens next – a pan to another painting of several African men lifting rocks – signifies a visual regression. The chains of colonialism, one senses, are still there, transformed now into the manacles of consumerism.
“Ghosts” and “Insects”
All the Memory in the World (Toute la mémoire du monde) from 1956 opens on a camera in shadow whose oblong shape could pass for an African mask right out of the previous film. One shouldn’t be fooled, however, by the absence of bodies in this documentary about the inner workings of the National Library of France; released the same year as Night and Fog, this short film is still very much about what the modern world has done, and continues to do, to the body. Inside these cavernous reading rooms and along these tight catwalks, the presence of mass death still lingers.
Throughout the film are several thematic links between the National Library of France and the Nazi concentration camps, at first seemingly absurd but, on closer analysis, quite haunting. Take, for example, the opening shots of disorganization and chaos: the piles of newspapers, boxes, and books like stacked corpses. As Resnais’ camera tracks its way through these basement rooms, we feel like we’re gliding, dreamlike, through a crypt. Then there is the film’s central “character,” a single book (Mars by Jeanine Garante) whose front cover features the portrait of a young woman. In a loose sequence, we follow this book-cum-person as it’s stamped and processed, as it’s stacked onto a cart with other books, as it’s locked on a storage shelf behind a door like prison gates, as it peers out from between other books in a shot echoing that of a young woman peering from behind the door of a cattle car in Night and Fog. And when the book’s requested by an anonymous reader? It’s plucked from the shelf and replaced with a slip of paper referred to as “its ghost.”
Eerier still is how All the Memory in the World refuses to treat the library’s workers and patrons as individuals. The institution, for all its immensity, is at heart a different sort of factory; a factory of knowledge not death, but nevertheless one whose industrial architecture and labyrinthine corridors dwarf and obfuscate the individual. Bodies are relegated to the distance, like shadows (or the ghosts of checked-out books). Overhead shots of reading rooms and departments portray their occupants as inconsequential drones busy about their work: reading, carrying, filing, sorting. The narrator himself (Jacques Dumesnil) is particularly harsh, describing the library’s occupants as “paper-crunching pseudo-insects” and suggesting the extension of the Nazi analogy of people as vermin into the postwar world. Europe’s concentration camps may be rubble, but the processing of humanity continues.
Resnais’ last documentary short of the 1950s came in 1958 with The Song of Styrene (Le chant du Styrène), a deceptively innocuous look at plastics that drops us into the heart of a true factory. Unlike the factory in 1957’s dramatic short The Mystery of Workshop Fifteen (Le mystère de l’atelier quinze), which portrayed the Francolor factory in Oissel as a mephitic landscape of smoke, steel, and shadow, this plastics factory is bright and cheerful. It’s a riot of candy-bright colors and alien geometries; an abstract world of cups, rackets, tubs, bowls, and ladles.
There are, however, no people. This is the future, after all; what need do we have for them? Here, the body has been obliterated into hands that pull plastic objects from their molds. In moments where we’re offered glimpses of human beings, they are just as random and faceless as those in the National Library of France. We’re given only one shot of a human face in close-up: a worker backgrounded by the dials of his workstation. More human, it seems, are the extreme close-ups of the factory’s many machines, with their glass dials like eyes and mouths that hearken back to Picasso’s faces.
The Song of Styrene, as the writer Raymond Queneau tells us in alexandrines, works backward, taking us from utilitarian plastic objects (ready for sale) back to the elemental source from which they derive. “Backward we’ll bore,” the narrator intones, “to learn where it came from, its story unfold, instructive for all.” And what’s the instruction? The same instruction at the heart of all Resnais’ documentary shorts from the 1950s: the obliteration of humanity by warfare and industry. Many shots in this film echo documentary footage and photographs from Europe’s concentration camps in ways too uncanny to ignore: smoke billowing ominously from coal plant chimneys, trains lumbering into the plastics factory bearing massive tankers of oil (brought in, we’re told, “from Bordeaux to Africa’s soil”).
What we’re left with at the end of the film are just wisps of air. The body has disappeared, transformed from bright objects into pale mist. “Lowly residues – such was their fate to become new materials,” the narrator says. “Others await a chance to enjoy a like transformation and receive their own filmic documentation.” In the context of Resnais’ other documentaries, this seemingly celebratory statement is a terrifying note to end on. We finish the film feeling that we’ve borne witness not to a beautiful transformation but a horrible destruction.
“The Machine Gets Underway”
Resnais’ first feature film, Hiroshima mon amour, with its emotional narrative and fully-developed characters, feels like a thankful breath of air coming on the heels of The Song of Styrene. First, however, we must get through the film’s opening sequence, which feels, curiously, like another documentary short about what the modern world does to the body. We see the flesh of atomic bomb victims charred like the bronze surfaces of Picasso sculptures. We see tufts of human hair that weren’t buzzed off by Fascists but that fell out from radiation sickness. We see the bombed-out shell of Hiroshima’s Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall hovering in the background of several shots, reminding us of the vaulted structure of the National Library of France.
One imagines Resnais asking us: What sort of progress is this, that doesn’t elevate human life but break it down? Is our fate to be consumed by mechanized systems we create? Will individuality soon be subsumed by gears and pipes and vats and all the machines of technological and commercial production? Describing the rise of Nazism in 1933 in his narration for Night and Fog, the writer Jean Cayrol puts it bluntly over footage of Fascist troops: “The machine gets underway.” That very same engine, which churned and churned over the subsequent years, didn’t break down with the end of the Second World War. Rather, like styrene, it transformed into strange new factories equally bent on our destruction.