Alexandre Gilbert

The day Jean-Luc Godard called the Holocaust Victims, ‘6 million Kamikazes’ (II)

Jean-Luc Godard, Berkeley, 1968 (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)
Jean-Luc Godard, Berkeley, 1968 (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)

Stéphane Zagdanski is a french philosopher. He published Death in the Eye, Maren Sell editions, in 2004.  In his new essay, he debunks the entire ideology cinematographic, from the Lumière brothers to “Matrix”. Jean-Luc Godard, violently attacked, agreed to meet the author. “Critique of cinema as vision, domination, falsification, eradication, fascination, manipulation, devastation, usurpation.” A nod to Guy Debord, the subtitle of the new essay by Stéphane Zagdanski sets the warlike tone. His thesis? Even in his aesthetic productions more refined, cinema is a rapacious industry, which is linked to hypnosis and handling. Its true ideological birth certificate is not the discovery of the Frères Lumière, but Plato’s cave where, in the 4th century BC, a chained crowd left fascinate. “Cinema believes itself to be the successor of art, it is only the sluggish ancestor of cloning”, or “a technique of death that feigns life”. From Céline, disgusted by “the cellar atmosphere” of the dark rooms, with Artaud speaking of “formidable and villainous bewitchment”, all the great writers of the 20th century have fully grasped the importance of the issue, assures Zagdanski. With “Death in the Eye”, he explores the entire history of the image in West, and confronts a number of filmmakers, from Orson Welles to the Wachowski brothers, as well as the great cinema theorists, Elie Faure, Gilles Deleuze and Serge Daney. Violently attacked as the very incarnation of “cinephilic imposture”, Jean-Luc Godard read this singular, deep, often hilarious book, and got caught up in the game. Two hours of discussion later, Zagdanski and Godard were the “best enemies” in the world. Selected pieces.

IV. Shoah, kamikazes and Palestinians:

Journalist: You once asked whether Moses had seen the Bible?

J-L. Godard: One can say crudely, but I think yes.

Journalist: I ask you this question in relation to what was said earlier about image and word.

J-L. Godard: Then, he told some nonsense, but they are so fantastic that they are very fascinating and interesting, and it doesn’t matter. Saint Augustine also said the truth is so loved that even those who tell lies want it to be the truth. One might think that liars should be proud and say that what is good is lying, not the truth. But they say the same thing as the truth. So there’s something wrong in the way it’s produced and distributed.

Journalist: That’s what Zagdanski says about Welles. (To Zagdanski) You say that in F for Fake, what’s interesting is that Welles still sides with the imposter. You say that…

J-L. Godard: Yes, but these are very interpretative phrases. It’s one of the films most loved by critics because they can interpret the fake to death, the fake becomes the true, the true becomes the fake, and so on. What I liked better was… as an image, if you will, it was… what was his name, the forger…

S. Zagdanski: Ah! in F For Fake? It’s fabulous! He is the true hero: Elmyr.

J-L. Godard: Elmyr, yes, like that. And then, before lunch, he quickly painted a Van Dongen or something. I liked watching him paint the Van Dongen because I tried it too, and it’s not easy.

S. Zagdanski: He was a genius of deception and imitation, that guy, that’s why, by the way, he interested Welles. It’s a film about painting, obviously, and about Welles’s bad relationship with painting. So that’s why it’s a film that interested me.

J-L. Godard: Yes. Yes.

S. Zagdanski: And it’s a film about the bad relationship between the true and the false, and between cinema and painting. So that’s why it’s interesting, but that guy, he’s fabulous, he committed suicide shortly after the film, unfortunately.

J-L. Godard: Yes. Let’s say if there’s a difference between us, it’s that to speak like this, because… In any case, I don’t know how to speak otherwise, and I’m not happy about it. You place painting more on the side of speech or word.

S. Zagdanski: Absolutely.

J-L. Godard: And I place it rather, very classically, on the side of the image… Well, there are few art critics who have talked about it in the name of speech, precisely.

S. Zagdanski: There aren’t any.

J-L. Godard: There aren’t any.

S. Zagdanski: Especially not Élie Faure! Definitely not Élie Faure.

J-L. Godard: Maybe because it can’t be done, and in this impossibility, that is to say, this renunciation, just like music, there are no music critics, it can’t be done. The only one who did a bit of musical criticism in music is Berlioz. Anyway, things… In relation to the camps, earlier, there’s something I was thinking about, that even with Hannah Arendt, she criticizes a lot the aspect… “They did nothing, they let themselves be led like sheep“… Even the Judenrat. And so, I started thinking that they are the ones who saved Israel. And that they were… There were 6 million kamikazes.

S. Zagdanski: One could say that. I wouldn’t say it like that.

J-L. Godard: No, but there’s maybe something… Maybe not saying it like that, but that they allowed it to survive. And that it required sacrifice.

S. Zagdanski: We are in a very complicated question here… A truly central question, the question of the camps and the world.

J-L. Godard: Well, we can… There was already this sacrifice with Isaac. We always talk about Abraham, we never talk about Isaac. We give the name of Iphigenia again, the literati a little more, because Racine or others were also investigators, like that. And he investigated as much on Iphigenia as on Agamemnon. On the other hand, the Bible doesn’t investigate much about poor Isaac.

S. Zagdanski: Why do you say “poor Isaac”? He wasn’t sacrificed! He was saved. That is to say, it is precisely a non-sacrifice. That is, at the moment when he was about to be sacrificed by his father, there was an intervention… Sacrifice…

J-L. Godard: No, no, but it’s the father.

S. Zagdanski: We are in the breaking of the sacrifice.

J-L. Godard: Yes, but it’s the father. I look at the mother too. I would say, to oppose the image to the word, the image is the mother, and the word is the father. And we live, we, in patriarchal societies. And the Bible reinforces that, the Quran is not talked about. And there, Isaac, he did not save himself. He was saved, but he did not save himself. Whereas the 6 million, or some, or less, or more, saved themselves by sacrificing themselves, and they saved what no other people did. And to speak ill of it, when Lanzmann says, “such and such…”, he takes an individual, he says, “the reappropriation of violence,” it’s not the one he talks about who saved Israel. He, personally, yes, it was good, but the others didn’t do it. It wasn’t a resignation.

S. Zagdanski: It wasn’t a resignation at all. It wasn’t an action either.

J-L. Godard: And the films to be made about it, if there were any, or the texts, those have never been done. We have always said, why did they let themselves… And I tell you, even someone as… as sharp and intelligent and resistant as Hannah Arendt, she doesn’t talk well about that. Because she, precisely, saved herself. Well, she was pursued and saved herself.

S. Zagdanski: Why did the Jews allow themselves to be massacred, the Jews of Europe, allowed themselves to be massacred, is indeed a central question. It’s true that if we don’t understand that…

J-L. Godard: But they didn’t let themselves, in my opinion.

S. Zagdanski: If we don’t question that…

J-L. Godard: They didn’t let themselves.

S. Zagdanski: I believe they did let themselves indeed…

J-L. Godard: They wanted it a bit.

S. Zagdanski: It’s you who says it…

J-L. Godard: But unconsciously, we should ask Freud, but…

S. Zagdanski: Well, we can ask Freud…

J-L. Godard: Yeah.

S. Zagdanski: And we can indeed ask all those who know this universe. The universe, and that’s why it’s very different from those we call “Palestinian kamikazes,” who are not kamikazes. Because kamikazes, it refers to the Japanese and it has nothing to do with it.

J-L. Godard: Absolutely.

S.Zagdanski: The relationship to death and the way of rushing into death is not at all the same.

J-L. Godard: No, I agree.

V. Image of the palestinians

J-L. Godard: Regarding domination, I completely, still, entirely, more than agree with you. There’s a very interesting book that has just been released by the editor of the Journal of Palestinian Studies, Elias Sambar, who wrote about the history of photography of a people, from yesterday to today. It contains only images of the Holy Land. He tells, he shows, it seems quite plausible, that it was closely linked to the Holy Land. He narrates the entire history of Palestinians who lost their identity, also because of cinema. Strangely, or rather surprisingly, naively, I don’t know, hundreds of English or French photographers went to the Holy Land. They didn’t go to Patagonia or Africa; they went to the Holy Land. And they filmed there, recorded or filmed everything, everyone, except the Palestinians, except the Arabs. They filmed only what they already knew through words. They redid it. So there, it is very clear that daguerreotypes were the slave of the literary master. They immediately went to film this, film that, film that, film that. On all the photos, you never see the Arabs, you see them even less than the Indians in the photographs of the conquest of the West. You see very few Indians in the photographs, but still some. Then, it was exploited by facts. Well, these are the things I was thinking about.

S. Zagdanski: How do you explain the fact that it has turned around, that today, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is the most filmed, the most photographed place, as if by a swing back of the pendulum…

J-L. Godard: But it comes from there. This story of the Holy Land is a fundamental place. It was the place where…

S. Zagdanski: But now, it is really the Palestinians who are filmed, who are constantly in the spotlight.

J-L. Godard: But they want it. Because they don’t have an image.

S. Zagdanski: Yes, but would they want it if Westerners were not interested in going there?

J-L. Godard: Because they don’t have an image, they only have text. They were absent. Even literature came very, very late, even the new Israeli historians. There’s an interesting book called “The Bible Revisited” by two Israeli archaeologists. They work with a piece of pottery, a piece of something, then they say this and that… For me, it’s cinema.

VI. Image, Verb and Death

S. Zagdanski: And the Jews, it’s still a third thing. We are in a third term, which is not at all… indeed, here I completely disagree with you. They were not in a relationship of openness or offering to death. Judaism, and these people, many of whom were very devout, and even when they were not very devout, anyway, it flowed in them, were in an immediate relationship with life. And they felt that death had enough of life. Because Nazism, it wasn’t just guys like that, very mean and all that. It was the whole of what the West was becoming, which had enough of life. And when death has enough of life, when death decides to engulf life, life will not respond to death with a response… with a replica of death, with a morbid replica. And so, the only way, indeed, not to respond to death is to let oneself be engulfed by death. There was nothing else to do when you are on the side of life. And when I say when you are on the side of life, it’s something that comes from the Bible. You know there are precise words in the Bible, in the Old Testament, in Hebrew… because obviously, from the moment we read it in Hebrew, we are immediately in another universe, which says, “I have set before you,” God speaking, “death and life, you shall choose life.” It’s the opposite of what we say when we talk about Judeo-Christian societies, it’s the opposite of a society based on morality. It’s not, “I have set before you good and evil, you shall choose good.” It is: “I have set before you death and life, you shall choose life.” The Palestinians today, they say it themselves…, it is indeed part of something that comes from very far away, in Arab culture, and even in Arab mysticism…, they have a relationship with nothingness, with nothing and emptiness, which is very different, which has nothing to do with either Christians or Jews, and they choose death, they take the side of death. What the Japanese kamikazes did not do. That’s why it’s a journalistic cliché when we say “Palestinian kamikazes,” because they are not at all kamikazes, I have studied these questions a bit, because it intrigues me a lot, the Japanese made the choice of honor against dishonor. They knew they didn’t have enough fuel to return to their bases. So they knew they could make a one-way trip, but they couldn’t make a return, and rather than ejecting themselves, and being picked up, and becoming either prisoners of the Americans or picked up by the Japanese, they had taken the side, not to be dishonored as soldiers, to launch themselves against the aircraft carriers because they no longer had enough fuel. It’s not at all the same thing. A Palestinian who covers himself with explosives, and who comes to blow himself up on a terrace, or at a pizzeria, or even at a checkpoint, is in a completely different relationship to death. And a Palestinian mother, as seen many times in the news, who has a newborn baby and is happy to say, “He will be a martyr!” She is indeed in a culture, and in a relationship to death, that does not appear at all in Judaism, and that cannot be compared at all to the way in which the Jews of Europe died, were massacred. Not because they were killed by others, but because the relationship to death differs…

J-L. Godard: The word “death,” we would do well to specify it more, to say “murder,” to say “serial killing,” to say like that, death is part of life, it’s one of the moments of life, it doesn’t mean we should glorify it like that, we should learn it, we know it more when we are less young. And things like that. I cannot speak for a Palestinian who does that. Others can talk about it, I don’t think they can themselves. And then it is necessary to differentiate a lot between Palestinians and Arabs in general. It’s a very special story, it’s the two gods, their God chose rather the master Israel, and then the other Ishmael, and then to elect, to elect someone. But people are not very serious and honest about it, between us, if you were Israeli, and I, Palestinian, we would quickly arrange to share the apartment, if you want.

S.Zagdanski: It’s not a coincidence that I’m not Israeli. I could be Israeli very easily, since being Jewish, I benefit from the Law of Return. So if I chose not to be Israeli, it’s also because it doesn’t interest me to be Israeli… I prefer to inhabit my name than to inhabit a passport, if you will.

J-L. Godard: It’s Brecht who said: “Man is indispensable to the passport.”

S.Zagdanski: Yes, exactly. And then Hitler and Mozart had the same passport, you know, once you get interested in the passport…

J-L. Godard: But is it true that Hitler’s name was actually “Schicklgruber”?

S. Zagdanski: (Laugh) You know more than me about these issues! I’m not more of a specialist in Hitler than I am a specialist in cinema, so I don’t know.

VII. Misery of cinema?

S. Zagdanski. – Cinema works with ideas, not metaphors. So that when Heraclitus says “Time is a child playing dice”, here we are at the heart of the metaphor, in a poetic takeoff of incredible depth. Cinema cannot achieve this, it is chained.

J.-L. Godard. – Well, I call it cinema, even if it almost never could exist.

S. Zagdanski. – For an insurmountable reason: a writer does the work of resurrection, his flesh regurgitates the Word. The image is from the outset in a process of capture and death. In taking a photo of a flower, you formalize it, you kill it. The whole problem of cinema, it’s that he tried to counteract this original venom through editing.

J.-L. Godard. – The montage never existed. He has not managed to make life pass, except for rare exceptions, as there are in evolution. Rimbaud or Mallarmé were real fitters, them. Cinema has failed to do that. However, he had childish dispositions, but which were quickly spoiled by misuse of money. We can save one for thousand of cinema, all the same. Let’s say it will be Moses saved from the waters.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery since 2005. He lives and works in Paris.