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

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.

I. Death in the eye

Jean-Luc Godard – When I started filming, a couple couldn’t get married without agreeing on films. Today, the guy may like Luc Moullet, the girl may prefer Bruce Willis. This is why I liked your book. It reminded me of the clashes between Cocteau and Mauriac, or the terrible way in which the surrealists spoke of Anatole France. THE “Positive” insults, too. There are moments where I laughed heartily, and which are above all very fair.

Stéphane Zagdanski – Attacking cinema, I could not spare Godard. THE cinema today, it’s you. Plato and Godard are the two atlanteans of my reflexion.  I have applied here the principles of war according to Nietzsche, those used against Wagner. First principle: attack only victorious causes. Godard and the cinema are victorious causes.

J.-L. Godard – I would love to… [Laughs.]

S. Zagdanski – Fourth world slums where we devour “Bollywood” films up to the crazy intellectual of Bresson, no one would dare say today that they don’t like cinema, nor above all that he despises him. Second principle: attack alone. In the 1970s, apart Debord, no one has substantially questioned what cinema is. We were arguing just “for or against the New Wave.” Another principle: no personal attacks. The name own only serves as a magnifying glass to analyze a crisis. When I say that Godard is “the” filmmaker of neutral is to speak of the neutrality specific to the image. In a photo, the positive equals the negative. This is why cinema has served all propaganda, and why a genius of cinema as Eisenstein was able to grovel under a despicable regime. This is unthinkable in the great literature.

J.-L. Godard – I agree, provided I say that there is something else anyway… My friend Anne-Marie Miéville, although she respects cinema as an art, also says that there is something infinitely sad inside. A profound renunciation of the essential. It is made of renunciations from the beginning, cinema. Firstly technical. We want to tour with Kim Novak, she is not free. We want the sun… I have always given up on everything, yet I continued.

II. Literature, “royal enemy” of cinema?

J.-L. Godard – At one time, it was considered that Hitchcock or Rossellini were worth Chateaubriand… Me, I have always been incapable of writing even the first sentence of a novel. Reason why at the time I had great admiration for Astruc and Rohmer, who had published with Gallimard. The mathematician Laurent Schwartz is the author of an infinite curve in all its points, except at one point where it is zero. The null point is the movie theater. The other points are literature. But they are on the same curve. And I would also say that it is with the enemy that we make a compromise, not with the friend…

S. Zagdanski – A true friend is a clone, that’s of no interest. In existence as in language, we only have false friends. We are always separated by a foreign language. Like between literature and cinema. What interested me was to find the roots of this conflict between image and word.

J.-L. Godard – A conflict that comes from the origins, insofar as there are origins. There last week, suddenly, I said to myself that mom had never seen a talking movie before my birth. This is probably why I had to speak very late, around 5 years old. [Laughs.] I I am very interested in names. Why do Americans refer to each other by their last name? continent, for example? American is a legal name, but one that does not come from the earth. This is their big handicap, their guilt complex today. They don’t have their feet on earth. That’s probably why they speak with a nasal voice.

III. The Bible

J.-L. Godard – Like my uncle Théodore Monod, who collected small stones in the desert, I am interested in pieces of sentences, sentences, theorems… Derrida, he took a block and deconstructed it. I do the opposite, I do puzzles. The foot of Artemis, I put it on so and so and it doesn’t work. And then I put it to Raymond Chandler and I tell myself that, there, there maybe has a law.

S. Zagdanski – Jewish thought does this all the time, taking scattered fragments and rub like flints.

J.-L. Godard – Yes, but I have a little doubts about the text from which it starts.

S. Zagdanski – The Bible, you mean?

J.-L. Godard – Yes, I think it is too totalitarian. Cinema is an art that has a relationship directly with the debt. Me, when I was very little, I was stealing when all I had to do was ask, these are probably things like that which decided… Even today it is one of the rare environments where we dare to talk about money. There is something there which is probably very linked to the Bible. Abraham started by buying a house.

S. Zagdanski – On the contrary, the Bible invented gratuity with the “gift of the Torah.” Moses offers the Torah to a people eager to worship a golden idol. And what an idol! Not even a pretty one woman, but a calf. Hitchcock said that actors are cattle, that’s no coincidence. There, we are at the heart of the question of idolatry, of the relationship between money, death, blindness, and this that cinema has made from the Lumières to “The Matrix.” Cinema is a simple milestone in the history of falsification. A story that runs from the daguerreotype to human cloning, the ultimate in identical reproduction. Cinema has something to do with manipulation. Whereas literature is about emancipation. Moses and Odysseus are the first heroes literary. Well, Ulysses spends his time resisting hypnosis, pretense, and Moses frees the Hebrews from slavery. Cinema immediately takes the side of domination. Do you know what the very first studio in the United States was called? The Black Maria. The equivalent of our “salad basket.” A fake name, a prison van name.

J.-L. Godard – Same thing for the word “shooting”…

S. Zagdanski – Yes. Or for the name of Edison’s projection device: the Panopticon. It is a jail where a single guard, placed in the center, can monitor everyone. There is never chance in language.

J.-L. Godard – Absolutely, but you travel with seven-league boots through myriads of kilometers… I’m still in my starting blocks there. [Laughs.] In relation to domination, I completely agree. Elias Sanbar, in “Palestine Revisited,” wrote about the images of the Holy Land from yesterday to today. Hundreds of photographers went there and filmed everyone except the Palestinians. We see them even less than the Indians in the photos of the conquest of the West. They only filmed what they already knew through words. There, we can be said that the daguerreotypes were the slaves of the literary master. This is the kind of thing which interests me…

Journalist: You write that Jean-Luc Godard is “the most relentless contemporary filmmaker of the neutral. And as fate would have it, it is on the question of Nazism that he is most ambiguous.” What do you mean by that?

S. Zagdanski: I am referring to specific passages or precise phrases from Godard in his films on the topic of the camps. Everything I wrote about Godard, I mean entirely. It’s what I personally saw in Godard’s cinema. But these are things that act as a magnifying glass, showing what cinema is ultimately about. Indeed, cinema, for me, is the true camp of death. I say it, by the way, I spent an entire day at Beaubourg looking for images where you could see Nazis filming deportees. We know there were films, even fake ones like “The Führer Offers a City to the Jews,” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, where they transformed a concentration camp, a death camp, into a Potemkin village… We have tons of photos of deportees. We obviously have photos of the liberation of the camps by the Americans. We have no photos… I couldn’t find a single one; I spent an entire afternoon at Beaubourg looking through all the photo books on the camps… no photo showing a Nazi holding a camera or holding a camera. Yet we have films.

J-L. Godard: In the camps, in the camps.

S. Zagdanski: In the camps, of course, I’m talking about the camps.

J-L. Godard: In wars…

S. Zagdanski: Yes, that’s something else, but in the camps. And that’s where I say that, indeed, we have something radical. We have a radical lesson in this non-appearance of death filming what it is accomplishing, that death doesn’t dare to face itself. And the real problem of cinema is that. And when I point it out in Godard, for example, in “Histoire(s) du cinéma,” they are echoes, if you will, of this truth that is absolutely insurpassable. It’s another of the big questions, the big differences between cinema and literature… when I say “literature,” it doesn’t mean the books people write. Let’s be brief, let’s put it this way, let’s say “the word.” And the word is not language; it’s not the fact that we speak. We can speak and still be in the image. It’s that the word is on the side of life and resurrection because, in the beginning, there was the word, that’s how it is in our Western, Judeo-Christian civilization, and then the word became flesh. That’s it. And by regurgitating the word, what a writer does, what a truly inspired poet does, one who truly inhabits language, they create a work of resurrection. Whereas the image, on the other hand, is in an almost opposite process. Not really opposite because it’s not truly symmetrical, but it is in the capture of something that is pure verbal, including nature. For me, nature is a language phenomenon. That is, if you take a photograph of a flower, in a way, you kill it. You formalize it. And the whole problem of cinema is that it tries, it has tried, there are writings, theories about this, it has tried through editing, conceiving editing as a writing, to counteract this original poison, this original morbidity of the image. That’s my idea, anyway. So, I see, if you will, this conflict within the thought of Godard’s films.

J-L. Godard: But I think you don’t see it there. You say it, but you don’t see it.

S. Zagdanski: I see it with my thought, indeed.


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About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.