Times seem apocalyptic.
So here is the greatest movie ever made.
But it is not available on iTunes.
You may have a hard time finding it.
And an even harder time playing it.
Back in the day.
I had to acquire a region-free DVD player.
And I did.
Solely to watch this film.
It is in four parts.
Each of which is divided in two.
So, therefore, eight parts.
This much-féted masterwork was not only released on television (which is to say, it was not a “theatrical” film per se), but it was accompanied by a soundtrack on the very erudite German record label ECM and further augmented by a book (text and screenshots) published by the most famous French publishing house Gallimard.
The soundtrack is very difficult to find on CD, but it is becoming less-difficult to find in the digital realm (unlike the film itself).
You can at least “listen to the movie” on Spotify.
And so for this film review, we will only be considering (to start with) the first section (which runs 51 minutes).
It is the section with which I am most familiar.
It is my personal favorite.
But it is important to note that the entire 266 minute film is essential to the “weight” of this creation (even if this first part is the most finely-crafted).
But we will reconsider as we go along.
The first section of the film (that which is under consideration) dates from 1988.
The book was not released till 1998 (when the film was completed).
So we have a sort of serial composition here (in the sense of Finnegans Wake).
It came out in parts.
It dribbled out.
And its influence spread.
We remember William S. Burroughs and his concept of the “word virus”.
That is certainly germane here.
But I return, again, to Finnegans Wake.
No film creation in the history of cinema is more like James Joyce’s aforementioned masterpiece than Histoire(s) du cinéma.
Indeed, the only other creation I know of which enters into this same sui generis realm is Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (translated in English as Arcades Project).
These are DENSE works…these three masterpieces.
One (Joyce) a “novel”.
One (Godard) a “movie”.
And one (Benjamin) a philosophical book.
Two books and a movie.
And the movie eventually became a book (Godard’s Gallimard creation).
The reverse of the usual.
Here, book doesn’t become film.
And there is not “more” in the book than there is in the film in Godard’s case.
If anything, there is certainly less.
Which doesn’t make it any less poignant.
So, what Godard has created for us with the book is a perfect guide to REMEMBERING WHAT WE SAW.
Which is a big theme of Histoire(s) du cinéma.
Film preserves the holiness of real life (to paraphrase).
Film (and video…of which this movie makes extensive use) preserves a moment.
Film can be (and is, always) a document.
Godard outlines a very French dichotomy here.
Film can be either predominantly of the Lumière brothers’ tradition (what we might call “documentary”).
Or of the Méliès tradition (a doctored reality…a “staged” document…what we might call “drama” [and its various subgenres such as “comedy”]).
But this dichotomy is not strictly “mutually exclusive”.
And here Godard brings us the example of Robert Flaherty.
Known as a director of documentaries, Godard points out that Flaherty “staged” his documentaries (which blurs the lines between the Lumière/Méliès dichotomy).
And what of Histoire(s) du cinéma?
Is it a documentary?
In many ways, yes.
It is a history of film.
But it is also a history of the filmmaker who is MAKING that very same history of film (namely, Godard himself).
To add further layers of surreality, Godard must address his own contribution to the history of cinema (which is considerable by even the most unbiased estimation).
Which is to say…
Godard is important to the history of film.
Whether you like him and his films or not, he cannot be ignored.
And so we have here a very curious and “loaded” document indeed.
It is a matter of historiography.
Godard cannot (and indeed, does not even try) to remove his own opinion from this exercise of surveying the history of cinema.
That may be, ultimately, because Jean-Luc Godard never stopped being a film critic.
It was as a lowly film critic that he started…and it is as a film critic with his caméra-stylo (“camera pen”) that he continues to create today.
All of his films are, in and of themselves, film criticism.
From Breathless to The Image Book, he is always making a statement.
Pointing out how vapid Hollywood can be.
Pointing out what doesn’t exist in the marketplace.
Perhaps he is creating that which he would most like to watch…as a film lover.
His favorite film didn’t exist (except in his head–except as a vague concept).
No one had made it.
So, in order to watch it, he had to create it himself.
Then he could (theoretically) “enjoy” it.
I imagine he does this with each new film he makes.
It is always an attempt (“essay”…from French etymology…”to try”) to materialize what he would like to watch.
No director has his cutting wit.
No director’s mind pivots so nimbly.
So he must become his own favorite director…over and over and over and over again.
But this film is indeed a special case.
Ten years of creation.
Joyce spent 17 years on Finnegans Wake.
Benjamin spent 13 years on his Arcades Project.
And all of this which I have written is merely a preface.
That is how IMMENSE and pithy(!) Histoire(s) du cinéma truly is.
To be a creator is tiresome.
It makes one weary.
To always dream.
And to sweat in pursuance of crystalizing ones inspiration.
Jean-Luc Godard has always been a bitter sort of chap.
Bitter about Hollywood.
A love/hate relationship (LOVE/HATE…Robert Mitchum…knuckle tats).
And it is true.
Godard delves very early on into the parallel birth and adolescence of cinema and the Holocaust.
Cinema and the Holocaust.
Cinema was still young.
Cinema had a responsibility to document.
The Germans were very technologically advanced (particularly in sound and video recording).
They kept records of everything.
Even when they went astray during the Third Reich.
Germany had already produced great directors by the time of the Holocaust.
At the top of the list would be F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.
But they were not alone.
There were others.
UFA (which still exists till this day) was a giant.
So where is the documentation of the Holocaust?
[you can see what a “dangerous” question Godard is asking]
Is he “denying” the Holocaust happened?
I don’t think so.
But he’s asking a relatively simple and (I think) sincere question.
Where is the video record?
All that has been passed down to us of the concentration camps (and “death” camps) is the record made by American directors like George Stevens AFTER the camps had been liberated.
So what really went on there?
Are we to really believe the Germans shot no footage whatsoever in these camps?
And if so, why can’t we see it?
Wouldn’t it truly help us to “never forget” and “never again” and stuff etc. etc.???
It is a very inconvenient fact that, as far as the general public has been made aware, there are NO (and I repeat NO) films (NO FOOTAGE) shot by the Nazis in the concentration camps during WWII.
Surely it exists, right?
But where is it?
Who has it?
What does it show?
Godard is the ultimate enfant terrible here (and elsewhere).
He wants to know.
Because he’s a film lover.
And he ultimately blames Hollywood (which had, by WWII, become the global center of the film industry) for not truly DOCUMENTING what happened in the concentration camps (neither while the camps were active nor anytime afterwards).
But here Godard branches off into an aesthetic direction.
Godard flatly rejects the talentless Spielberg evocation of Schindler’s List.
For Godard, a directer as mediocre as Steven Spielberg has no business trying to tackle humanity’s darkest hour.
This is the conundrum at the heart of Histoire(s) du cinéma.
What Godard (I think) is saying is this: there is no way to “write” a history of cinema…because a large portion of contemporaneous history (1939-1945) was not addressed in any true way by the BUSINESS (ironically represented heavily by Jews) of Hollywood.
Godard seems to be saying that Hollywood’s Jews (which is to say, Hollywood) let down world jewry during the years 1939-1945…all for a buck (as it were).
It is a persuasive argument in many ways.
But let’s back up a step.
To reiterate, a history of cinema cannot be told…because there is a portion of that history which is MISSING.
This is a very important word here (and a very important term).
There are films which SHOULD HAVE BEEN MADE, but weren’t (by Hollywood).
And there are films which may have be made (by the Nazis), but as far as we know (factually) were not made. They do not exist (officially).
Two kinds of films missing.
Hollywood was responsible for the Méliès portion.
Hollywood should have used its immense power (and magic) to save the Jews of Europe.
EVERY FUCKING FILM should have been about the plight of the Jews in Europe who had been rounded up.
But we know very well that that’s not what Hollywood did.
The Nazis were responsible for the Lumière portion.
As twisted as the Nazis were, there is no way in hell those sick fucks did not film (with their Agfa technology, etc.) what was going on in the camps.
No fucking way.
Of course they filmed.
Like a goddamned serial killer.
And it was of pristine quality.
So where the fuck are those films?
But, sadly, Godard is called an “anti-Semite” for asking about these films.
He is coming from a “pure film” stance.
He wants to see the films.
He wants the world to see them.
And so the history of cinema is incomplete.
There is a gap.
Irving Thalberg. Howard Hughes. CIA. RKO. Starlets.
Film directors have been projecting their fantasies onto the screen since the beginning.
Their perfect women.
Their dream lovers.
But you can’t approach film history without approaching Hitler.
Film was at such an important point in its development.
And along came Adolph.
Chaplin and Hitler overlap.
They have the same mustache.
The Great Dictator was a comedy…more or less.
But it was also an attempt (“essay”) to address Hitler’s presence on the world stage.
An attempt to repudiate Hitler.
And yet, Chaplin could not quite hit the right tones.
It is maudlin.
As a comedy, The Great Dictator is pretty superb.
But it hasn’t aged that well as a piece of poetic philosophy.
In that moment, the great Chaplin was powerless.
But at least he tried.
But something was missing.
Direct reference to the camps.
Addressing the problem with no beating around the bush.
We need to see the bodies rotting.
We have seen that.
But we need to see the gas chambers.
We need to see the German efficiency and precision.
We need to see their documents.
Their film documents.
No Hollywood recreation can convey what those mythical reels contain.
No backlot will suffice.
We have the propaganda films.
I think what Godard is saying is this…
Hollywood has, since WWII, had to live with the guilt of NOT DOING ENOUGH during the Holocaust.
At the time (while it was happening), it was not kosher (no pun intended) to address the camps.
The public needed uplifting fare.
And Hollywood provided.
Hollywood provided a service.
But Hollywood (as an entity) was permanently cheapened by not addressing the deep philosophical issue of mass death…mass murder.
Hollywood could have yelled, “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
And, indeed, the theater WAS on fire.
But Hollywood said nothing.
Hollywood told jokes.
No medium is perfect.
Hollywood is people.
But as an institution, Hollywood was exposed as being essentially artless and vacuous.
There were exceptions.
Hitchcock (British…but part of Hollywood). Chaplin (British…but part of Hollywood).
Nicholas Ray. Erich von Stroheim (Germanic…but part of Hollywood). D.W. Griffith. Howard Hawks. Orson Welles.
But WWII was also the death of European cinema.
This is a very important concept that Godard conveys.
Not only were European Jews liquidated by the Nazis, but European cinema was effectively liquidated by Hollywood.
Europe would never be the same.
Fritz Lang. Jean Renoir. Abel Gance. Jean Vigo. Jean Cocteau. Roberto Rossellini. Max Ophüls.
America won the war.
The Soviet Union also won the war.
France was “liberated”.
And as Europe was subsequently split in half (the capitalist West and the communist East), the hegemony of American film [Hollywood] spread.
At the end of the Cold War, that hegemony became complete.
And so Godard is lamenting the death of his national film industry.
Godard is Swiss.
But he is, in many ways, also French.
He is a French speaker.
His years of highest-visibility were spent in Paris.
And there is not really a Swiss film industry of which to speak.
French film died (“liberated”/occupied).
Italian film died (lost war…occupied).
German film died (lost war…occupied).
Scandinavian film died.
Everything was pushed out by Hollywood.
Europe was relegated to the the realm of “art film”.
European cinema was put in a corner.
The wrecked economies of Europe could not compete with the war-machine-rich studios of America.
America had the magic–the fantasy–the special effects–the Technicolor.
Weary Europeans wanted happiness.
And they bought into the American idea of happiness.
To the detriment of their own unique cultures and philosophies.
Europe became Americanized (at least in the realm of the cinema).
To be continued…