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  • Scenes in a Library:Alain Resnais and Toute la mémoire du monde
  • Steven Ungar (bio)

You never know what you are filming.

— Chris Marker, Le Fond de l'air est rouge (1977)

One Film in Another

What interest might a 1956 documentary short about a library hold today for the historically-minded spectator? The pages that follow explore the place of Alain Resnais's 1956 documentary, Toute la mémoire du monde (All the World's Memory) among the eight short subjects he directed before completing his first feature-length fiction film, Hiroshima mon amour, in 1959. In particular, I consider Toute la mémoire du monde as a supplement to Nuit et brouillard, the 30-minute documentary on Nazi concentration and death camps that Resnais completed a year earlier.1 Within a longer duration, I also situate Toute la mémoire du monde among a corpus of postwar documentaries that engage aspects of modernization in France during a period of decolonization coincidental with the emergence of an art and a universe in the aftermath of the concentration camp (Cayrol and Rousset). Much as Edward Dimendberg has argued recently concerning Le Chant du stryrène (The Song of Styrene), I contend that a reconsideration of Toute la mémoire du monde rewards "close reading with a veritable return of repressed geopolitical relations" in late Fourth-Republic France (Dimendberg, 65).

My epigraph from Chris Marker's cinematic account of failed revolution following 1967 suggests that only in retrospect might one fully understand what one sees—or, in this case, films—in the heat of the moment. Marker's cautionary remark is especially apt with reference to the early postwar period during which chemical processes of development imposed a necessary delay, whose consequences often affected the epistemological status associated with photography and cinema. (I am thinking here of the characterization of the photographer Thomas [David Hemmings] as accidental witness in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up [1966]). At stake for me in this process of delayed disclosure is a consideration of how best to account for a seemingly minor film like Toute la mémoire du monde whose [End Page 58] complexity as text and document arguably becomes all the more evident some fifty to sixty years after the fact. Here, then, are working questions that have generated the pages that follow: What might inquiry into the genesis and production of Toute la mémoire du monde tell us today about the industrial, social, and political conditions in which it was made? How did Resnais's film of scenes in a library disclose aspects of daily life during a decade marked increasingly by silence surrounding Vichy and division concerning the fate of French Algeria? What assumptions concerning the concepts of library, archive, and memory might Toute la mémoire du monde question, since its ostensible subject was a state agency of record whose mission was to collect and conserve printed materials and other objects whose inclusion qualified them as national treasures?

The eight documentary short subjects Alain Resnais made before Hiroshima mon amour are best understood as a subset of some sixteen or so postwar documentaries that I consider as responding—each in its own way—to Jean Vigo's 1930 call for a social cinema whose treatment of provocative subjects would move spectators in ways that only cinema could move them (Vigo, 60-63). The films in this larger set include Aubervilliers (Eli Lotar, 1945), Paris 1900 (Nicole Védrès, 1947), Le Sang des bêtes (Georges Franju, 1949), Hôtel des Invalides (Franju, 1952), Les Statues meurent aussi (Resnais and Chris Marker, 1953), Dimanche à Pékin (Marker, 1956), Lettre de Sibérie (Marker, 1957) Moi, un Noir (Jean Rouch, 1957), L'Opéra Mouffe (Agnès Varda, 1958), Chronique d'un été (Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1961), and Le Joli mai (Marker, 1962). Since the sole film Vigo cited in 1930 was Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's 1928 Un Chien andalou, the social cinema he had in mind should not be equated with instances of cinéma engagé such as Jean Renoir's La Vie est à nous (1936), commissioned by the French Communist Party at the height...


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