Monday, October 13, 2014

Ciment & Godard Pt. II

Maybe one of the most influential and violent anti-Godardians, Michel Ciment’s rare interview with the director even expresses this barely concealed reticence and their mutually shared opposition (though this isn’t necessarily unique to Ciment, for Godard). Ciment consistently derides the accomplishments of the New Wave – eg. Auteurism and formal innovation existed long before them, with the holy trinity being Lumières-Delluc-Epstein (cf. the new Projection Privé on Jean Epstein) – and the French cinema during the 40s and 50s is judged to be their true Golden Age, which is also in opposition to the original Cahiers project. The following, from Film World: Interviews with Cinema’s Leading Directors and translated by Julie Rose (initially from Positif February 1999, n°456) is probably one of the best Godard interviews. I’m still trying to make sense of its conclusion… - D.D.
Meeting François Truffaut one day in 1958, I expressed my regret that Jean-Luc Godard, in his essay on Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory published in the Cahiers du Cinéma, hardly bothered talking about the actual film. He said I was wrong, for Godard was, in his view, the most gifted of them all. Truffaut was right. Along with Eric Rohmer, Godard was to build the faithful to a certain financial marginality and to a new aesthetic they have stuck to come hell or high water. When I joined Positif in 1963, it was still a Mecca, with Robert Benayoun and Louis Seguin at the helm, in the battle against Godard, and even if I allowed myself, not without impudence to sing the praises of A Married Woman, when it was shown at Venice, I shared the editors’ irritation with the provocative stance taken by the author of Alphaville. In the 1960s, I admired certain flashes of the artist in Godard rather than any coherent line. He seemed to me more of an instinctive filmmaker, with his acute sense of montage (his ‘beau souci’, or wonderful preoccupation), of color and sound, and not so much a thinker of any great lucidity, even if Week-End or ‘The Chinese’ took on prophetic tones.
            After the period in the wilderness of the 1970s and his deluded excursions into Maoism, Godard went back to making movies that were more like essays. As Truffaut implied, Godard as a critic was already a filmmaker. Today the filmmaker doubles as a critic. Which is why I wanted to meet him in the company of a young collaborator from Positif, Stéphane Goudet, to talk with him about his monumental History(s) of the Cinema. In this interview we were prepared to get polemical if the occasion arose, for the unanimous adulation surrounding Godard for so long now is doubtless the worst favour you could do to this rebellious spirit whose brilliance no one any longer contests.

On History(s) of the Cinema (Paris, November 1998)

We’d like to focus this interview on History(s) of the Cinema and on your relationship to images a a director and critic. You’ve always loved the transparent cinema of Hawks and Rossellini, yet have always made films involving a critical dimension. The eight episodes of History(s)… aren’t they a sort of ending from this viewpoint?
Not really. But I’ve always turned movies into hand-made books. I don’t have any children and men, even more than women, always try to pass something on. I wanted to pass on those eight programmes, even if I know hardly anyone will see them. At the end of the day, if I’d been able to do without my royalties, I’d have loved not to sign the books, so that they remained like traces of cinema. At one point, I even thought of doing a play from History(s)… It would be called The Book of Cinema. But that takes time; a person is too alone. It would have to be performed on a cathedral square, with equipment relayed by short actors who’d turn the pages of a great big book on which images would be projected while the text was recited.
You thought of not signing them, but the films and the books are, obviously, very personal.
I don’t think so. They’re photos and texts that were put together by an editor or a composer, who happens to be me. It’s a souvenir book of the film. Others would have arranged things differently. There could be hundred of History(s)… Instead of souvenir albums about the great Garbo for collectors. There are a lot of cinema books around today. There were very few when I started. For a long time I looked out for Eisenstein’s Film Form and Film Sense, which hadn’t yet been translated into French. I’ve got them now, but I never read them. As for histories of cinema, properly so called, I realized that I hadn’t read any and that they didn’t interest me, except for the very first, written by Bardèche and Brasillach. So I put a little poem of Brasillach’s in the first programme, but people didn’t recognize it; it’s his will, written in prison. I’d read his book on André Chénier a long time ago as well as Our Avant-Garde, without knowing anything about politics, as Positif and Freddy Buache quite rightly noted.
The project goes back to the 1970s?
Yes, it’s part of a project about Henri Langlois. Afterwards, I thought of doing a film based on Malraux, which would be called The Metamorphosis of the Gods. And little by little, it took that particular shape, with the tile the same as the 1980 book, Introduction a une veritable histoire du cinema. The idea of the book was that there would be as many images as text, that they’d be dealt with on an even footing, without any sense of which comes first. I respect the histories of Sadoul or Mitry, but that’s something else. I was after a book that was critical, in its very matter, for instance. When the woman who heads the Belgian Cinematheque tells me I don’t talk about American comedy, I have no comeback. There is effectively a certain pretentiousness in saying: there’s only one way to write history and this is it. But cinema has this capacity, through its photographic material and through this lingering feeling that it has some sort of relation to reality, which is different from the copy that painters make. It also seemed to me the right moment to tackle it, for we’ve come to the end of a certain era in cinema and even in art in general, an era that lasted for about ten centuries.
You’ve claimed to have a fairly Hegelian vision of history. What do you mean by that?
I don’t know Hegel. I quote a lot of people I’ve read three sentences of. Hegel talks about the ‘end of history’. But he believes history exists, like Peguy when he wrote Clio. And I believe it does too.
What is striking in History(s) of the Cinema is the astonishing complexity not only of the cutting between images, but of the relationship between image and sound and of the work done inside the very frame by superimpositions and inserts. Has editing always been for you, contrary to Bazin or Roherm, the very basis of the cinema?
That certainly corresponded to something in me but it also stemmed from my contrariness. I can see that clearly, still, with a certain of today’s critics: the desire to take the opposite stance, like what happens between Le Monde and Liberation, but, with me, they don’t do that… In the beginning, I was very much a follower in relation to Rohmer, Rivette and Truffaut. I took a long time to find my feet. Yet we were all relatively in agreement in saying that form and content were basically the same. I didn’t really know what Bazin and Rohmer were getting at with theory of the sequence shot. I felt that in the shooting script, the shot/countershot business, there ought to be something other than the usual click… In my article, Montage, mon beau souci, which is written in a pretty pompous style, I cited a novel of Balzac’s Les Chouans, which we all liked a lot, to show that only editing could express certain things and that a sequence shot doesn’t follow eye movement. That said, today, we don’t know how to follow eye movement the way they did in the days of silent film.
Your predilection for editing is also found in the way you welcomed the advent of Hiroshima mon amour, and in your admiration for Welles and Eisenstein.
When we saw Hiroshima we were jealous: we were clearly behind. We hadn’t seen it coming. Other people were saying good things about it and we immediately organized a roundtable, like Stalinists, to try to contain the enemy. Whereas I’d absolutely rave about Le Chant du Styrene, for instance, before… With Welles, it’s different. His style depends largely on the trouble he had filming. If he begins Touch of Evil with a sequence shot, it’s because he had a very short shoot and if a sequence shot is well set up, it can save you five or six days. But for Mr. Arkadin, which took him three or four years, he had to resort of necessity to montage when he had a shot filmed in Berlin in spring and the counter shot in Spain in autumn. Yet, in Welles, there’s a kind of fluidity with extremely short shots and a way of chopping up reality that’s just incredible. His way of editing is very different from Eisenstein’s. When Bazin, on the other hand, pitted Ford against Wyler, I just didn’t get it. At the time, I didn’t like either of them. Then, very slowly, I came round to Ford and today I find The Best Years of Our Lives magnificent, one of Wyler’s best films and one of the greatest works on war.
Doesn’t the editing correspond to your way of thinking and seeing things? You claim you never finish a book, you hop from one idea to the next…
I think editing is an ideal figure of cinema and thought, whose heir it should have been. But society was against its making this inheritance bear fruit. The old way of thinking, this one, two, three business, the idea that there isn’t a single image, but that you have to take into account the one before and the one after – all that is obvious in film. It’s the Koulechov experiment… that no one ever saw and that was possibly made up by Poudovkine. The figure three is found in all studies on civilization, in the three orders in Dumezil, in Duby, in Michelet, in dialectics, naturally… In Woe is Me, I quoted the philosopher Leon Brunschwicg, who, in about 1900, said of the Christian divinity: ‘The one is in the other, the other is in the one, and they are three.’ Cinema was the secular trustee of this idea. It was its very matter. And anyone makes film or produce criticism is in a position to account for this historic aspect of the world.
But for you the arrival of the talkies meant this bid to reveal the editing sort of lost the plot.
Yes, I think so. Because they re-established the omnipotence of the text, which is not the great text, but a political text, a text that tries to dominate the image sociologically, like with television or the press. I don’t know what cinema might otherwise have become; it’s impossible for us to know. But it was primed to become something else. In 1929, radio existed, the gramophone existed and cinema was silent, which is incredible. For a long time no one complained about that. The sudden commercial boom might have occurred in 1920. That’s what the great historians study, historians like Braudel and Duby, who was in there at the start of History(s) of the Cinema with La Sept, as well as Koyre. They start with examples to study what happened to this or that theory or phenomenon. I said to Duby: ‘Cinema is the end of the Middle Ages’, which didn’t end till the end of the nineteen century. And he laughed, but he acknowledged that I was not wrong… The problem now is that this ontology no longer exists as it did in the days of Bazin or myself. We thought we were the first, but we were the last. You don’t see shots anymore, you see words, ‘pictures’, from advertising; you almost never see the raw image of a woman crying, a beggar begging, a war causing slaughter, anymore. If I proceed by breaks, leaps, short-circuits, it’s because we are  the children of quantum mechanics. We are waves and corpuscles at once. You leap and you never know where you are. And all these discoveries date from the end of the nineteenth century, the same time as the first screenings. This is why I say in the film that the twentieth century didn’t much exist in itself. That’s a tad provocative, but our century didn’t invent wars, or quantum mechanics, or cinema. Everything that caused it to exist, it owed to the previous century. And I don’t have the impression that any of the other centuries were as dependent on the one that preceded them.
Someone like Rohmer has a way of thinking that is very different from yours. There’s nothing discontinuous in, for example his essay on music, De Mozart en Beethoven.
But he’s not doing history. That’s the text of a cultivated mind, it talks about art, but it’s not interested in history. Personally, I believe in history. But I think other people don’t believe in it and don’t like it. Already they don’t like it in themselves: the history of their bodies, their illnesses, their love affairs. And I’m the same as the rest. It took me years to get interested in my own history rather than other people’s. One of the most hated men today, after all, is Freud. Or, rather, we don’t hate him as we prefer to forget him or to say that he’s outdated. When he died, a refugee in Englad, the British had written ‘Enemy Alien’ on his passport. They could have put ‘Foreign Friend’ but he’d come from Vienna and Austria had rallied to Germany… Yet, at the same time, they took him in, protected him…
In History(s) of the Cinema, you opt to use only very short extracts. Why?
There are so many of them, we couldn’t get everything in. In 35mm, the project would have been impossible to produce. With video, you can wipe the canvas and start again. By hand, by the feeling. At a given moment, you tell yourself: ‘Right, we’re away.’ After that, if you put down a particular image, you wonder what needs to follow to hold the note. In fact, there are fewer images than you think, since a lot of them keep coming back, from Eisenstein, Rossellini, Hitchcock… When you know what you’re doing and you like one or two things, they’re enough, especially as you get older. What video lets you get, like in music, is the fluidity of superimpositions. The new wave had a hand in doing away with small banal superimpositions – someone leaves the room, superimposition, he goes downstairs, superimposition, we see him in the street. Personally, I really liked superimpositions, in particularin Stevens, who used very long ones in A Place in the Sun. When you turn them into the main material, they allow you to go from one place to another without forgetting the place you started out from, without yet knowing the one you’ll get to, knowing that in the middle, or three-quarters in, the unexpected can suddenly crop up. That’s why I mentioned music. Video lets you play two-handed or four-handed piano, while literature only works with one hand.
You describe the history told by cinema as ‘the greatest history, because it can be project,’ yet we now find it reduced to a television screen. How do you deal with that contradiction?
But cinema no longer exists. On television, it’s not projected, it’s broadcast. Yet we an still tell stories, anyway, and this one’s an old-timer’s story for his grandchildren: ‘Once upon a time, there was something that was projected…’ You see it broadcast now, but what it was like when it was shown on the big screen is impossible to know anymore. That’s what I call the memory of a screenable story. And one day, when Anne-Marie’s grandchildren hit thirty-five, they’ll stumble across this story by their grandmother’s friend. Given what cinema will be in their day, they won’t understand a thing about it and they’ll say: ‘Right, so that’s what Grandma called “cinema”?’ And they’ll suddenly realize that there was a time when people went to movie theatres.
Another film makes the connection between history and the history of cinema by questioning the concept of projection: Syberberg’s Hitler, a Film From Germany.
Yes, that’s an interesting film, not as methodical as mine, not as ample, but just as much about cinema, true. His style is a lot more that of a historian, in the good sense of the term, than Visconti’s in Ludwig, which is a more classic film, magnificent to boot. Ludwig is closer to a history painting painted in his own manner or to La Chanson de Roland, whereas Syberberg’s film is very influence by the philosophers of history.
There are also aspects of Chris Marker’s approach, up to The Last Bolshevik, that are like you: the importance of editing, the reflection on history, the relationship between image and commentary…
There’s more than that, but it’s a bit of the reverse of me. Chris was very literary. He headed a collection a du Deuil. He started out with the word and ended up with the image. I started out with the image, and ended up with what I’d been taught in school, that is, the text. In a way, we met in the middle, but there’s always a point of departure and Chris is, after all, more of a wordsmith and less of a painter.
Yet he is also a photographer.
Yes, but the photographs have always been very much bound up with the words. Underneath the photo there’s a caption and its power is immense. In the 1920s, the surrealists, Duchamp included, decided to take an ashtray and call it Portrait of a Young Girl Naked (Portrait d’une jeune fille nue). The first time it produced a shock, less so the second time, the third time, it did nothing. Today everyone does it; it’s become a new academism. There’s a whole epistemological history there to tackler. But maybe cinema would have needed to develop differently for such research to be taken on. The main department of the Centre national de recherché scientifique, the CNRS, ought to be the film department. In my first essay on Rouch, perfectly naively and instinctively, I wrote of I, A Negro: ‘A researcher at the Musee de l’Homme, what better definition of the filmmaker!’ That was in the days when I was trying to find my way and even a voice, because I used to use Rohmer’s and others’ a bit when I talked. One of the essays that influenced him and Rivette every bit as much as me is Scherer’s Le cinema, art de l’espace, in La Revue du cinema, where we discovered the theory of cinema put forward by Langlois before he went over to the Cinematheque. Rohmer marked a decisive new direction in relation to Bazin, which, curiously, I’m only just now discovering.
Even if it means taking the opposite view… You explain that the young Turks of Cahiers established their hierarchies according to ‘the works, not the authors’. Now, Bazin precisely blamed the ‘politics’ of the review for privileging the people of the films they made and occasionally falling into an ‘aesthetic cult of personality’.
That’s what we used to thing, but then later I gradually came to realize that it was wrong, that it was even the reverse. When anyone and everyone claims to be an auteur, I tell myself I prefer to refer to the work and reject the tile of auteur. Besides, instinctively, I only rarely signed my films. For me, the new wave was the works, not their authors.
Truffaut nonetheless adopted Giraudoux’s saying: ‘There are no works, there are only authors.’
Francois, he was more into that, yes. He, more than me or anyone else, needed to carve out a niche for himself, to personalize his relationships, give his past. He’d had a difficult relationship with his parents and he always looked for father figures: Renoir, Hitchcock… He was the first to enter into negotiations with authors like Becker, Joffe… And he was the only one to attack certain filmmakers by name. The rest of attacked the works. That was a time when, in film, the author was the scriptwriter. Directors were considered producers, not authors. The great filmmakers like Hitchcock had their names well below the title or weren’t even listed. There was a quarrel between Cahiers and Positif, but the two reviews were part of the same movement and both said, with perhaps more insistence in Cahiers, that the person who makes the film is the director.
You forgot that ‘film authors’ were defended by La Revue du cinema as early as 1930. Vidor, Sternberg, Lubitsch, Lang were acknowledged as directors. In 1945, already a journal as popular as The Saturday Evening Post defined the ‘McCarey touch’ as being halfway between the ‘Lubitsch touch’ and the ‘Capra touch’…
Yes, most of them were recognized as authors because they were their own producers. And look at the great authors: they were broken by the studios. Stroheim is the prime example. Chaplin, Lang were cultural celebrities, names, but I think it was celebrity itself that was recognized in them rather than the authors. What we did was extend the notion to the unknowns. Jacques Daniel-Norman’s L’Ange rouge (with Tilda Thamar), which Francois and I especially loved, became a film d’auteur. I’d like for the pleasure of the duel, to concede that we said it badly. And I’ve said it again badly since, but there was something the politics of the auteur and that was the word ‘politics’. For us, that was the important bit.
You get the impression a bit in seeing History(s) that your tastes, your passions, crystallised in your days as a critic. You don’t give much space to the generations that succeeded you or the most contemporary cinema, except for a film title of Kiarostami’s, a shot here and there of Coppola’s, Angelopoulos’s or Garrel’s. How do you explain that there are so few films later than 1960, apart from your own?
What do you want? History is history, told here at a given moment. I don’t claim to tell all. People also say I know nothing about contemporary painting, that I stopped at Picasso. But that’s my history. I’m not stopping anyone else from telling theirs.
And how do you explain the West-centric nature of these History(s)…?
But cinema is a Western art, bade by Europeans and Americans. That’s all there is to it. Furthermore, America is reduced to the United States and there have only ever been three or four filmmaking nations in Europe: France, the USSR, Germany before the war, Italy.
Why deny the existence of British cinema?
I’m not saying there haven’t been great British directors. Those I prefer come from the documentary school: Dickinson, Grierson… The others, Hitchcock, Chaplin, sought exile in the United States. I’m saying England is not a great nation for film. That’s not so terrible. Any more than realizing that we are not a great nation for painting, unlike Italy, Holland, for a time, or France. I think that England and Japan are not great nations for cinema. Because they haven’t had a cinema history, an awareness of that history. I know very well that there have been a few great Japanese directors, but I don’t think that’s enough to make a great nation on a par with France.
What justifies thinking now of cinema history by nation and making this territorial allegiance a decisive factor in retaining this or that film?
It’s a fact of history. It doesn’t matter where we are today with the idea of what a nation is. In these four countries, there are so many filmmakers that in the end that has become what cinema is. On the other hand, for the rest of them, there could be a hundred good directors, but it won’t amount to a cinema.
Aren’t you struck by the fact that silent film, omnipresent in the History(s), has been erased from our landscape and our memory? From that point of view, hasn’t passing on been interrupted?
In the days when we were critics, it already no longer existed. It existed for us, but not for anyone else.
You distinguish two epistemological breaks in the history of cinema, the arrival of the talkies and the existence of concentration camps.
I tell myself that the camps were foreseen, heralded by cinema, by Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, The Great Dictator… Similarly, music before the First World War or at the end, with Wagner, in its way heralded the disasters that were looming. But, after the camps, cinema threw in the towel. Only the newsreels still serve to relate history. Cinema lost its documentary eye. At the Liberation, there was a kind of shame in Europe, and a resistance film saved honour in Italy.
But it was the liberation by the Americans that allowed Rossellini, a former maker of fascist propaganda films, to take on Rome, Open City.
Roberto’s personal history, here, doesn’t count. The fact that he made The White Ship beforehand doesn’t change anything. He simply did work that was a little bit redeeming. The first time, there was some success. But from Germany, Year Zero, it was all over… The problem is that no real thinking went into what had happened. There were books but there were no resistance films, no matter how stupid, shot in London or Algiers. There were rolls of film, cameras, actors, directors. They didn’t do it. If you tell me that in the Vercors, in France, in the snow, you couldn’t make a fiction film like that, all right. But that wasn’t where it ought to have been made. Afterwards, having not been made during the war, no one made the film, except the Poles. But Munk’s Passenger is a film of atonement, which they had to make because of their anti-Semitism and because the camps were on their territory.
You yourself thought about making a film on the concentration camps?
Yes, but it was just hypothetical. I had no idea. I was too young. I couldn’t get a feel for it. The only idea I had was a bit like what Mikhail Romm did in Common Fascism, which is very interesting, even if he stays in the German camp without going to have a look in the other one, the Soviet one. I would have made a film about the working of a camp, on the bureaucratic side, daily management, with secretaries, accountants, only showing the deportees here and there. It was a notion about form, if you like, as a way of getting to the bottom of it all. And then, I didn’t get to it. I didn’t feel up to it, or I forgot about it.
Do you now regret not having made it? Do you think it was essential?
Yes, but not made by me. By others, who should have made it.
In the first part of History(s)… you shift from the word ‘German’ to ‘Jew’, than from ‘Jew’ to ‘Muslim’, a name by which Jews who were nearing the end were known in the camps.
That, I am the only person to have observed. It’s a filmmaker’s observation. I read about it and stuck it in Here and Elsewhere. Yet, twenty-five years later, it’s still not talked about. And Lebanon and the so-called occupied territories; it’s still a mess. No one, including any of the deportees, has said that it is after all weird that the Jews and the Muslims are fighting when, in the amps, the Germans called certain Jews ‘Muslims’. But in Here and Elsewhere we had something to prove, we wanted to pit the good camp against the bad. We were more didactic.
You once said you were interested in the concentration camps ‘because of your past, your social class, your guilt.’ How do you mean?
I was in a family who were more collaborators and I read a lot of right-wing books, notably on the war. I felt guilty, even if unconsciously, because no one had told me about them. I got interested independently in the Resistance and in the camps, but I should have come across them sooner. The same way you discover your own history very late in the piece. When I saw Night and Fog, my interest in the subject was still theoretical. It came later, through the gang in a back-to-front way. I often start things back-to-front, even when I read a detective story. I really delved into the issue by filming the Palestinians…. Because in militating for Palestine, we started to think about Israel, and so on. And then it became more real, it made sense, it was the people we’d seen…
How do you view your Maoist period today?
I thought I was a Maoist, subscribing to Pekin Informations, etc. I’ve always been a bit marginal and liked marginality, I think. And it was a small group… In reality, it’s not that we didn’t want to know, but that it takes time depending on what place you’re in. If you’re caught in a rip, you have to get out of the rip to start with, to think that you can get out of it. We couldn’t believe Simon Leys. But, you know, the main anti-Soviet and anti-fascist essays were published in the 1930s – those written by Boris Souvarine, Andre Gide, Panait Istrati… Well, we didn’t listen to them. Later, I got interested in history. Making amends, if that’s possible. But no one knows much at all about the history of that particular period in France. And we were young. I feel like I’m only just beginning now to catch up after lagging so far behind in film: I started thinking about film between the ages of twenty and thirty and making films at thirty. In film terms, we were babies. Now I’ve got forty years of cinema and seventy of life under my belt, the superimposition is beginning to take. Before, in my personal relations with people, I was, I think, better in film and not good at all at what we might call life. Which was a bit the case with everyone in the new wave, I think.
Religion is very much a part of History(s) of the Cinema, with the themes of the apocalypse, paradise lost, original sin.
Religion is part of history. And the Christian religion in particular has been very much bound up with the philosophy of the image, which was not the case with, I don’t know… the Aztecs or the Chinese. I took up a great line of Wittgenstein’s, replacing Christianity by cinema: ‘You have a history, there, believe in it, no matter.’ And then again, cinema invented the happy ending and the Bible the happy beginning, no?
The authors you most often quote are Bernanos, Malraux, Sartre…
That comes from my adolescence and it’s stuck. You know, I’ve never read Don Quixote or Montaigne. You have to keep a few them in reserve. After the Liberation, I remember the first book I liked was Thomas the Obscure by Blanchot. It’s linked to German romanticism, which, as an adolescent, is what I liked the best. Maybe that comes from my father, but only unconsciously. He never said to me, this is what you have to read, not that.
A sense of loss is one of the meeting points between German romanticism and Christianity.
In Forever Mozart, the director says this sentence Anne-Marie dug up for me: ‘Cinema is wonderful for showing the world, but it’s a shame that when you do that, you have to abandon what really matters.’ That’s almost ontological. There is in the image a sense of buying back, of merit, redemption, which was expressed by the Church fathers. After that, if something other than religion gets made of it… But it’s true that if 120 people stare into the dark in the same direction at the same time…
The notion of cinema as an instrument of thought, which Deleuze also examines, seems close to your History(s) project… It seems unachievable.
Completely. That’s not what we were after. But we’re not after painting either. And music is tolerated, accepted and loved, but we don’t ask it to think. As for Deleuze, the problem is that he wrote really badly, alas for him, like Levinas, especially if we compare them to Bergson.
In the last episode you break up Wellman’s title Public Enemy and transform it into ‘The Public, The Enemy.’ Why?
It’s a phrase that belongs to Jules Renard, who says of the critic that he ‘deserts his camp and goes over to the enemy. What is the enemy? The public!’ You know, often, the public, the audience, has the courage to live out wonderful adventures, but they don’t have the courage to relate them. So, when we go to a show, we’re in a state of abdication of responsibility. As a result, when a film is the opposite of a blockbuster, as we say, we can redeem ourselves; we have a sense of resisting. But, between going to see a good film by Straub or Cassavetes and a bad Bruce Willis or De Palma, even I prefer to buy myself an ice-cream cone, and see the Willis munching away, because I’m part of the public. Afterwards, you’re ashamed of yourself…
How do you live with this extraordinary notoriety and quasi-unanimous critical acclaim that tends to transform you from an iconoclast into an icon?
Really badly. I try to get myself forgotten yet at the same time the only chance I have of making a film is to go and borrow a bit from the bank or from Canal Plus by assuring them: ‘You see, I’m not forgotten.’ It’s a total contradiction. In fact, I’m the most famous of the forgotten. I still have to represent the possibility of saying: we can still make the film we want to, outside the usual confines, or we can make the film we can. What’s hard is not coming up with the money, it’s making the film have to make, morally, in its own way.
How do you view the waning power of criticism?
Criticism belongs to the cultural pages. I notice that the books page of Liberation and Le Monde are infinitely more serious, in the classic sense of the term, than the cinema pages. At least they talk about books! The others don’t talk about films. Read the articles on Benigni or the so-called Ophulsian sequence shot in Snake Eyes. The critics talk about a cinema that’s part of Paris life, it’s not the same thing. And then, there are heaps of cliques, but, well… Me, I’d have liked to see my books reviewed by Dagen, or someone, anyone who sees an art book in a different light, Maggiori, say, in Liberation, anyone but Gerard Lefort! In Le Monde, same thing, anything but a review by Frodon, preferably a review by Roger-Pol Droit, who does philosophy. But maybe those blokes wouldn’t have done it…
Let’s go back to History(s). You systematically liken the German occupation during the Second World War to the ‘American occupation’ that, according to you, followed. How do you justify this semantic and geographic slide of the nouns ‘occupation,’ ‘resistance’ and ‘annexation’?
That’s my point of view. Historically, it has been proved by films and by the visual. American literature did not invade French literature; the press, not entirely. But to the extant that we spend hours in front of the television and that practically everything we see comes from the Unites States… On the other hand, there is still Le Figaro… It could very easily have been replaced by the New York Times in French. In this century, more Germans than anyone else emigrated to America. Germany has historically been the country closest to the United States. It was their only rival in cinema and in many other industries. They had to bring them down a peg or two to have them in their power. The Americans have always waited till they were killing each other in Europe before intervening. In the end, they did after all choose one camp over another, between the two brawling brats. But they turned up when everyone was worn out, never at the beginning, neither in 1914 nor in 1940. All they wanted was to invade! And they still want to invade, because they don’t have a past. They need to invade countries that do. Now, they’re everywhere. They’ll see in the future which is the past most amenable to becoming an ancestor of their own. In Germany Year 90 I’d taken up something good old Giraudoux said, that went: ‘ The United States have never waged war. They have only waged civil war.’ And when they’ve waged war against a country, they have done so to a country with the same faults as their own. Normally you wage war against a country you reckon has qualities different from yours, that you want to appropriate. With Saddam Hussein, it’s very clear. They’re waging war against an American who happens to live in Baghdad and who has exactly the same faults they do. And they can’t stand anyone else having their faults. They have always waged civil war. Against the British, among themselves, then against the Germans.
But to make a connection between the destruction of European cinema by this American cinema that you’ve loved so much and the word ‘Endlosung,’ ‘The Final Solution,’ isn’t that confusing the two issues?
Yes. But, since the link is made by something which Blanchot says: ‘The image is happiness’ and that it is ‘nothingness gazing upon us’, it’s a bit of both. And for my part, I can’t believe in the mix-up. Or maybe it’s a mix-up that muddles the waters. Hitchcock said: ‘If you want to be sure of being understood, hit hard.’ You don’t hard with a hammer. You hit hard with an image, with a comparison, which is not hitting hard at all. I’m not the one saying Endlosung is hard. It’s the Jewish people, the Germans, they’re the ones saying it… In the business with the sans-papiers, last year, what really touched me was that it was filmmakers who said: you only have to read the texts. We use the same words today as under Vichy. We also say to them: you mustn’t confuse the issue! But they’re right to say: the words are the same, and that’s all there is to it!
We might also wonder when you compare split-screen images of deportees in a concentration camp and images from a pornographic film. What do this form and this comparison set up by way of thinking?
It’s what happened to West German cinema.
So the comparison bears on the effect of national continuity, because the porn is German?
Yes, but people don’t actually know that. Only I know it’s German porn.
What the viewer reacts to is the common nakedness of bodies.
There is something obscene there. An obscenity we need to be able to talk about better, without anathema. But I agree, there’s something that jars.
Something obscene in comparing the two images?
Yes, but we ought to see if there isn’t something that allows us to make such a hard-hitting comparison. And to see, if need be, what the comparison is up against, what comes before and what comes after, so that it’s not taken just like that, at face-value. It’s not a matter of saying by way of comparison: the Russians killed eighty-five million people and the Germans only killed fifteen million… At certain moments, you feel like putting two images of dead people together and saying: where’s the one that…? The relationship between images allows us to approach these issues more calmly, to perhaps show the violence that there is in things.
So it is the violence of pornographic cinema that is supposedly ‘revealed’ by this confrontation?
Historically, the image of the camps we chose was an image from Munk’s film. He actually re-enacted a scene where a dog eats a deportee, fights him. After, we can use the same image of the dog. If Munk hadn’t used it, I could never have made it up.
To wrap up, let’s go back over the issue of the way the work is viewed. How, in your opinion, can one view these History(s)? Who are they addressed to?
For me, the best way to look at these shows is to get into the images without having names or references in mind. The less you know about them, the better.
Do you really think so? When you follow Tous en scene immediately with Faust, we don’t see the apparent connection if we don’t know that the director in Minnelli’s film is endeavoring to stage a modernized Faust. So the work is enriched by this outside knowledge and a knowledge of film. And it risks excluding those who haven’t seen those films, no?
I don’t think so. But maybe, from that point view, the books come off better since you’re not tempted, while you’re reading them to try and identify this or that extract at any cost. Obviously, I don’t make any old connection…
Take the more precise example of your ‘Introduction a la method d’Alfred Hitchcock’. In the mixing, Hitchcock’s voice from an interview ends up dominating yours as you comment in a voice-over ant the viewer retains from seeing his films. Your voice is covered and we can’t follow your written text, which is nonetheless particularly pertinent.
For that, you have the book.
That means the work doesn’t exist in itself, that it has to be grasped scattered between different places and arts, between the book and the film?
Well, yes, that’s right. But other things are enough. At times, you don’t need to hear the voice. You heard it before and you hear it a bit later. I’m a good enough technician to know how to make what I want heard when I want.
No doubt. But the reflex action which consist in systematically casting back to the written text or to the works quoted to fill in the gaps and hollows in the film, reintroduces the book, the meaning, the caption, which you wanted, in principle to get around.
Then it’s a fault…
You can obviously play on loss, on the impossibility for the viewer of fully mastering what he sees, but why gloss over these rather lyrical sentences that, beyond Hitchcock, describe your very project?
I thought they’d be heard clearly. That’s a fault I have, too. I’m a confused person and I sometimes hide my confusion behind a lyrical and musical that isn’t necessarily appropriate. This can be criticized. And a good critic would do it. Good criticism does not consist in saying: ‘Godard is an idiot’, or Godard is something else, but in saying, ‘there, we should have heard this and not that.’

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