All the world’s memory

By Jacob Siefring

Some years later, said Austerlitz, when I was watching a short black and white film about the Bibliothèque Nationale and saw messages racing by pneumatic post from the reading rooms to the stacks, along what might be described as the library’s nervous system, it struck me that the scholars, together with the whole apparatus of the library, formed an immensely complex and constantly evolving creature which had to be fed with myriads of words, in order to bring forth myriads of words in its own turn. I think that this film, which I saw only once but which assumed ever more monstrous and fantastic dimensions in my imagination, was entitled Toute la mémoire du monde and was made by Alain Resnais. — W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, 261

Stills are all taken from the short film 'Toute la mémoire du monde,' directed by Alain Resnais, included on 'L'Année dernière à Marienbad,' distributed by the Criterion Collection.

Around the same time I discovered Last Year in Marienbad, I fell upon reference to Toute la mémoire du monde. Both films were directed by nouvelle vague director Alain Resnais. The simplest way to describe Toute la mémoire du monde is to say that it’s a short documentary film of the setting and institutional practices of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris as they were in the late 1950s. But, at just twenty minutes in length, Toute la mémoire du monde is much than this short description can convey. This remarkable document of a place was produced and released by Les films de la Pléiade as the fifth installment in the series Encylopédie de Paris. Dark, ominous orchestral music and pompous, hyperbolic commentary, composed by Maurice Jarre and read by Jacques Dumesnil respectively, complement the stunning cinematography of Resnais.

The film begins in the basement of the library, where gross heaps of documents are consigned to a process of slow degradation. Parce que leur mémoire est courte, les hommes accumulent d’innombrables prosthèses, Dumesnil announces. [Because its memory is short, mankind accumulates limitless prostheses.]

This annunciation is representative of the estranged viewpoint of the film’s commentary that is to follow. Witness:

Books, delivered to readers for consultation in the Salon de lecture, are ‘torn from their world to feed these paper-crunching pseudo-insects.’

Confronted with these bulging repositories, man is assailed by a fear of being engulfed by this mass of words. 

These readers, each working on his or her slice of individual memory, will lay the fragments of a single secret end to end.

The periodicals section must digest 200 kg of paper daily.

This film is recommend viewing to anyone, provided that it’s not too much of a pain to track down. (It’s sometimes available in the special features of Last Year at Marienbad.). Students and practitioners of library and information science as well as enthusiasts of French new-wave cinema will however find this film especially deserving of their attention. How many other films are there like it, documenting so thoroughly an institutional context? Enriching and utterly engrossing, the 20-minute film is a fine example of Resnais’ superb cinematography, which makes the film entertaining for anyone, even my three-year-old daughter.


A note on the director: Alain Resnais made visually beautiful films. He was known as the ‘dolly king’ because of his frequent use–and total mastery–of steady tracking shots, an effect that impressed itself indelibly into my memory: the beauty of pure uninterrupted tracking motion. Hiroshima, mon amour is Alain Resnais’s most known film in North America, it would seem. But Marienbad is just as masterful and compelling as Hiroshima. Both films resulted from Resnais’ collaboration with French nouveau roman figures, Alain Robbe-Grillet (Marienbad) and Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima). It’s on the special features of this Marienbad that you’ll find Toute la mémoire du monde. Don’t take my word for it–seek these out.

'Last Year at Marienbad': eerily, human figures in the courtyard cast shadows, but statues and trees do not...


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