University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


"Alternative Narratives or Denial?"

"Alternative Narratives or Denial?"

The 'Jew' of cinema

December 17, 2010
By Ariel Schweitzer

The recent announcement that filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's is to receive an honorary Oscar has ignited the controversy over his allegedly anti-Semitic and anti-American views, and his unwillingness to see the Jews in any position but that of the victim.

Professor Philip Watts from Columbia University will speak in April about Godard, WWII, the Jews and the Holocaust at CHGS's lecture series, "Alternative Narratives or Denial?" Professor Watts will examine portions of Godard's work and discuss how his history may have shaped and informed his cinematographic choices which have led to the anti-Semitic charges. More information about the lecture series coming in January.

The brouhaha that erupted in the United States and France recently over the decision to grant Jean-Luc Godard an honorary Academy Award - replete with accusations that Godard is anti-American, anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic - marks a new climax in the film director's convoluted relationship with American culture, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and with Jewish issues.

These fraught relations have been characterized by misunderstandings and confusion with respect to political critique and to philosophical and metaphysical questions, responsibility for which lies with both Godard and critics who have interpreted his work over the years.

Godard, who turned 80 this month, was not always critical of American culture and politics. Like many members of his generation who witnessed Europe's liberation by U.S. armed forces, he was exposed to the plethora of movies, jazz and other elements of American popular culture that flooded the continent after the war. At the time, the United States was seen as a young, dynamic nation, in contrast to the conservative, staid European society, which had been "tarnished" in moral terms by World War II. As a critic for the magazine Cahiers du cinema, Godard extolled American film and saw its great creators - Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks - as "auteurs" even before they were recognized as such in the States.

Moreover, Godard's early films, like those of many of his fellow directors of the French New Wave, were homages to American cinema. "Breathless," his first feature-length film, in 1959, is a variation on American gangster movies; 1961's "Une femme est une femme" is a direct reference to musical comedy.

This viewpoint began to change with the politicization of Godard's cinema in the mid-1960s. In films such as "Pierrot le fou" (1965 ), "2 or 3 Things I Know About Her" (1967), and "Week End" (1967 ), Godard mapped modern consumer society by means of its array of symbols. His criticism was directed at the time not only at French society, but also at the United States, cradle of the capitalist system, which he accused of economic and cultural imperialism.

In 1967 Godard also directed a segment in the collaborative film "Far from Vietnam," which slammed America's military involvement beyond its borders. This work heralded his abandonment of traditional cinema, the notion of the director as "auteur," and a decision to work from then on outside the established industry.

After the riots between students, workers and police in Paris in May '68, Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, a political activist with a Marxist orientation, founded a political film collective named after the Soviet director Dziga Vertov. In this framework, Godard had directed some 10 films by 1972. One of the topics he dealt with was the Third World and his struggle against Western imperialism. This was also the moment when Israel entered his oeuvre - as America's representative in the Middle East and the oppressor of the Palestinians, whom Godard identified with the Third World and with his support for liberation and independence.

In 1970, Groupe Dziga Vertov, with funding from by the Arab League, went to Jordan to shoot a pro-Palestinian propaganda film called "Until Victory." They spent several weeks following the training of Palestinian guerrillas. Godard returned to France with the footage (shot in 16mm ) and embarked on the editing. But then came news of the Black September events, in which the army of Jordan's King Hussein massacred thousands of Palestinians (including many who had been filmed by Groupe Dziga Vertov ), in order to prevent a Palestinian takeover of the Hashemite kingdom.

The shocked Godard realized that he might be lacking a sufficient understanding of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and inter-Arab relations and decided to abandon the film. In 1974, however, he incorporated footage from it into a new film, which he edited with video technology for the first time. In this work, "Ici et ailleurs" ("Here and Elsewhere" ), Godard looked at how Third World struggles are perceived in France and how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could serve to illuminate problems of class relations, coercion and exploitation in the Western world. It includes an outrageous visual analogy between the figures of Golda Meir and Hitler (to a soundtrack of the Kaddish prayer being recited for victims of the Holocaust ) - an image whose meaning is difficult to mistake: The Jew, erstwhile victim, is seen as the oppressor of the Palestinians. That image, which in the 1970s barely caused a stir (also because of the film's limited distribution ), over time became a sort of black hole, "absorbing" all the claims of those who consider Godard to be an anti-Semite.

In fact, the first to detect such feelings in Godard was actually Francois Truffaut, his close friend from the French New Wave period during the 1960s. In 1973, in a sharp letter that spelled the end of their friendship (and which became public only in 1988 , after Truffaut's death), Truffaut mentioned that Godard used to call his producer, Pierre Braunberger, a "filthy Jew." Truffaut also mocked Godard's militant political views: "After all, those who called you a genius, no matter what you did, all belonged to that famous trendy left. But you - you're the Ursula Andress of militancy; you make a brief appearance, just enough time for the cameras to flash. You make two or three duly startling remarks and then you disappear again, trailing clouds of self-serving mystery."

Focus on the Holocaust

In the '80s Godard's preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict expanded into a metaphysical discussion of the Jewish question, and the Holocaust became a central theme in his work. He drew upon the teachings of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who held that the emergence of the death camps was the formative event of the 20th century, and that the crisis in Western society, epitomized by Auschwitz, was also reflected in the concurrent birth of modern cinema.

In this spirit, Godard dealt almost obsessively with the experience of the camps. In his "Histoire(s) du cinema" (1989), he relates to cinema's treachery in serving the propagandist machinery of the Third Reich, although he also mentions that cinema "saved the honor of reality" by documenting the atrocities of the war as soon as the Nazi camps were liberated. He expressed an identification with the fate of the Jewish people, and even proclaimed himself "juif du cinema" - reflecting the sentiment that he was persecuted and banned from his home, indeed from his continent, and sentenced to perpetual exile. (In his letter, Truffaut also mocked Godard's tendency to present himself as a victim, even early on in his career. )

In this connection Godard resorted to certain analogies that began to arouse discomfort, to say the least. In the 1995 audiovisual essay "JLG/JLG - autoportrait de decembre," he dealt with the figure of the "Musulman," the living dead of the concentration camps, and emphasized that the root of that word is "Muslim." In view of his preoccupation with the Palestinian tragedy, that statement was once again interpreted as an effort to make an analogy between the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust and that of the Palestinians under the Israeli occupation.

Godard never confirmed such interpretations. He generally tends to present his oeuvre as poetic, associative art, but it is precisely this poetic quality that leaves his films open to interpretation and misunderstanding. What can be seen as the filmmaker's legitimate criticism of the Israeli occupation and his support for the Palestinians' struggle for freedom and independence (which he was among the first movie directors to take an interest in ) lose their validity when Godard equates - even if obliquely - the fate of the Palestinians with the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust. The Palestinian tragedy is serious enough and does not need the "support" of such comparisons, which detract from consideration of the specific, political nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even spill over into the amorphous and fraught territory of theology and myth.

Moreover, it seems that in recent years Godard has been making deliberate use of provocation in order to stay in the headlines at a time when his films no longer resonate with a wide audience. His latest effort, "Filme socialisme," which came out this year and was seen in France by only 25,000 people, decries the death of the socialist utopia in the Europe of the third millennium, portrayed as a continent in crisis, which celebrates its decline as in the last days of Pompeii. The setting of the film, and its main metaphor is a pleasure boat that cruises between Mediterranean cities. Among the passengers is a Jewish capitalist, Goldberg, whose name Godard takes the trouble of translating literally into French as "gold mountain."

About a year before the film came out, Le Monde ran a long piece on the Jewish themes in Godard's work, which included testimony from Alain Fleischer which provoked a huge controversy in France. Fleischer, who directed the film "Fragments of Conversations with Jean-Luc Godard" (2007 ), said the Godard equated Palestinian suicide bombers with Jews who "sacrificed" themselves in the gas chambers in the name of the establishment of the State of Israel. Godard has never confirmed this, but he has also, as is quite typical, never denied it.

No middle ground

Godard is without a doubt anti-Zionist, but moreover he instills his political vision with a metaphysical dimension of the sort that is incapable of accepting the figure of the Jew as anything but a victim. In the filmmaker's view, the moment we are talking about a Jew who is an Israeli - and thus someone who no longer can claim to be a victim, per se - he necessarily becomes an executioner. Between the extremes of victim and executioner there is no middle ground, of the kind that would illuminate the political conflict from a slightly more complex perspective.

In a similar way, throughout his career, Godard developed an ideal, utopian image of Diaspora Judaism as universal, humane and spiritual, and an image of Zionism - and by implication, Israeliness - as isolationist, self-absorbed and aggressive. This dichotomy, which is at the heart of Godard's rejection of Jewish nationalism, ignores the fact that Zionism, at least at its inception, drew its inspiration in the late 19th century from the universal and modern ideas of the Enlightenment (that is, normalization of the Jewish condition, national liberation, socialism and humanism ), whereas during many chapters in its history, Diaspora Judaism was (and to a certain extent is still today ) characterized by community, if not isolationism.

Godard's obsession with Jewish matters was given riveting expression in his film "Notre musique" (2004 ). In the film, a Haaretz correspondent (played by Sarah Adler ) comes to Sarajevo to interview the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (played by the late poet himself ). Darwish tells her that the Palestinians are lucky that their conflict is with the Jews, since the world takes an ongoing interest in the Jews and thus is also interested in the fate of the Palestinians. "You handed us a defeat and granted us glory at the same time," Darwish adds. "You are our ministry of propaganda, because the world is interested in you, not in us. I have no illusions on that score."

Does not such a comment - which Godard could after all have omitted from the film - attest to a modicum of awareness regarding Europe's problematic perception of the Middle East conflict, which is tainted by no small amount of self-righteousness, guilt feelings (over the Holocaust, and also over the Continent's colonial past ), and occasionally also dogmatism?

Dr. Ariel Schweitzer is a film historian and critic for the French magazine Cahiers du cinema.
This story is by: Ariel Schweitzer