While sitting at my desk and reading upsetting news, from the Crimea to the death of Alain Resnais, I looked up from the computer screen and my glance was caught by the spine of a book: “The Politics of Memory,” by the historian Raul Hilberg. Resnais, who was born in 1922, spent wartime in occupied Paris, where he took acting classes and tried to launch a career, amid primordial efforts at filmmaking. (He also clandestinely ferried food to a Jewish journalist friend in hiding, Frédéric de Towarnicki, who later worked with Resnais as a screenwriter.) Resnais started making films after the war, a time when memory itself was, in France, an equivocal virtue—and he made memory his subject. And, from his quest to realize memory in cinema, he made one of the most original figures of style in the history of the medium.
Look at “Night and Fog,” his 1955 documentary that is—to sum it up almost obscenely—“about” the Nazi concentration camps. It was commissioned as an explicit work of commemoration, a compilation of archival footage, but Resnais also shot original footage of the sites of the concentration camps, a decade after their liberation. These images begin and end the film, and punctuate it throughout, and they have a harsh, and double, dramatic impact. By establishing the present tense of the filmmaker and the viewer alike, they set the archival images in a receding past that is in constant and ever-deeper need of active rediscovery. They also depict a present tense that is permeated by that repressed history.
The figure of style that is Resnais’s own is the tracking shot, the mysterious straight-line thrust, neither riding nor strolling, at a pace of heightened urgency, into or through a setting. It sounds trivial—the moving camera was already used by D. W. Griffith in the teens, and was brought to a high art by F. W. Murnau in the twenties, Jean Renoir and Kenji Mizoguchi in the thirties, and Max Ophuls in the forties—yet Resnais made the camera look as if its movement had only just been invented, by him, for a specific purpose: to embody the inhumanly natural flow of time.
La Dernière Clé de Marienbad, published in the special issue of Cahiers du Cinema devoted to Last Year at Marienbad, shows us the sheet created by script girl Sylvette Baudrot to keep track of all the different timelines in the film. Resnais asked to have it printed upside down. (via)