Jean-Luc Godard, Film Socialisme,
Headbone connected to the neckbone Neckbone connected to the armbone Armbone connected to the handbone Handbone connected to the internet Connected to the Google Connected to the government
How do we understand Film Socialisme? This question can be divided into three subquestions: 1) What is Film Socialisme? 2) What stories does it tell? 3) How does it tell them?
1) In accordance with Godard’s habit since at least the late 1970s, Film Socialisme is not only a feature film destined for screening in arthouse cinemas, subsequent DVD-release, etc. It is a polymorphous work that uses different media and is distributed through different channels. It consists of five trailers published on sites such as (Youtube, Dailymotion, Vimeo, etc); the book Film Socialisme, published by P.O.L in Paris; and the feature film, which premiered on the big screen in Cannes, but which was at the same time shown on an on-demand site (which inevitably means that a webrip has been floating around since then). There are also paratexts: Godard’s interviews with a few French journals and dailies, and, notably, the two-hour filmed discussion on mediapart.fr. None of these parts are insignificant: the montage of images, words and sounds in the film is extended toward the other media and supports. Or rather: the film, the book, the trailers and the interventions together form a paratactic whole, whose elements are placed in counterpoint, repeated, juxtaposed or connected to each other.
Godard employs this complex system to its full extent, the multiplicity of converging elements generating an extremely intricate texture. Take one of the earliest sequences of the film, where the “identity” of one of its “protagonists” (the quotation marks are motivated) is revealed for the first time. The sequence begins with a medium shot of the deck of the cruise ship where the events of the first third of the film take place. It is twilight, a young woman comes jogging along a walkway. On the soundtrack we hear the wind, which causes distortions, and a monotonous organ tune by an unknown composer. The sequence cuts to a close up of the Italian tricolore with a naval ensign. On the soundtrack we still hear atmospheric sounds and the organ tune, but also a female voice that, in counterpoint to the image, reads a text by—presumably—Hannah Arendt: “You are absolutely right I love no People / Not the French nor the North American nor the German / Not the Jewish people nor the Black people / I only love my friends… ” At this point in the text, the film’s imagetrack briefly cuts to shots from the cruise ship’s interior, where we see a black man, then an Asian woman, and then back to the ship’s deck, where it is now daytime, and we see a boy running up a staircase followed by an old man. During this passage, the voices on the soundtrack are multiplied and intercut or played over each other: while the female voice reads the last lines of the “Arendt” text, three or four other voices appear, some of which can be connected to characters on screen, others not; some of which enter into a multi-language dialogue (“Où tu as volé cette montre / It’s not your business / Nein das gehört mir”), another producing statements that connect the cinema screen to capital (“Dollar format / Cinemascope / 16/9 my uncle”). We see a close up of someone dismounting and remounting an old-fashioned camera, and then a shot of the old man and the boy, who now seem to conclude their dialogue (with a brief, final moment of image-sound synchronicity): “Oh tu parles allemand / Tu vas pouvoir me rendre service mon garçon / Yes aber how much / Et en plus tu as fait des études / Quel machin ce Ludovic / Qui vous a dit mon prénom / Je sais tout Herr Obersturmbannführer Goldberg / Was machten Sie avenue Foch en 1943 / Dégage horrible gamin.”
The ship, the flag, the notion of political identity, a stolen watch, capital, cinema, and the treasons and tragedies of modern European history: let us say—at least for the sake of argument—that these are the different elements, the themes and the motifs at work in this two-minute sequence. On the most general level, Film Socialisme organizes these elements according to a double tension. On the one hand, there is a tendency toward the multiplication of separate and simultaneous, yet legible elements: signs, texts, words, sounds, languages, and images of different qualities and different origins are rapidly intercut, creating a composition that is at once saturated and radically open. In this sense, Film Socialisme is a dense and heterogeneous aggregation of distinct, signifying units: elements of possible stories, signs waiting to be interconnected. At the endpoint of this tendency there is the book, in which the film’s dialogue is transcribed and thereby analyzed: the words and the statements are withdrawn from the multilayered whole of the film, where voices talk over and across each other, and instead laid out in discrete lines of writing, interspersed with images of, supposedly, their original authors (such as Hannah Arendt). On the other hand, there is a tendency toward the unification of the separate elements into a solid alloy, into a wall of “imagesound” that generates a purely plastic experience. In this sense, Film Socialisme is all force, static and noise: it tends, perhaps not toward the intransitive or the abstract, but certainly toward the bruteness of the uncommented and uncommunicative document. This tendency is enforced by the recurring distortions in the image and the soundtrack (Godard uses low-end digital recording equipment to compose with noise), and by the speed and the violence of the montage, and at its endpoint we find the five film trailers, four of which show hyper-accelerated versions of the full film, played forward or backwards: illegible torrents of images and sounds, an indecipherable information overload.
2) In one sense, then, Film Socialisme tends toward the illegible. In another sense, while it is one of Godard’s most cryptic works to date, its signs and elements can be decoded and reassembled into stories. In one word, Film Socialisme is hieroglyphic. To interpret it is dire work, which requires a meticulous search for code keys in Godard’s different statements and suggestions regarding the film, as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of (Godardian) film history. Fortunately, the film critics Arthur Mas and Martial Pisani have gone a long way toward fulfilling this task, in their remarkable review on the site independencia.fr. The watch that is mentioned in the two-minute sequence, we learn, is in fact essential to the film, one of the few objects that directly connects its three parts. This gold watch, which mysteriously lacks hands, is connected to a gold treasure that has its origins in sixteenth century colonialism, and that was stolen or saved from Spain by the Russians around the beginning of World War ii, and transferred to Moscow by way of Odessa. Parts of this treasure, however, disappeared along the way: the robbers were robbed by the Nazis and the Comintern, and in the end only a third reached the Soviet capital; somehow, a theft of gold from the bank of Palestine is also associated to this chain of events. Not only does the cruise ship trace the movement of this “Moscow Gold” from Barcelona to Odessa, but several of its passengers are also implicated in the convoluted plot: there is a Russian major who has been sent to look for the parts of the gold that never reached their destination; there is a French lieutenant searching for the German double agent who was responsible for placing parts of the stolen gold in the hands of the Nazis, as well as for denouncing members of the French Resistance; there are Mossad agents; there is a tourist couple whose son, Ludovic, runs off with the enigmatic watch; and there is Herr Obersturmbannführer Goldberg, introduced in the end of the two-minute sequence, also known as Richard Christmann, Léopold Krivitsky, Moïse Schmucke, or simply Martin: the double agent at the center of the story, who is aboard the cruise ship together with his daughter Alissa (the young woman who comes jogging on the deck of the ship).
The different elements, motifs, and themes announced in the two-minute sequence, therefore, are also organized according to a narrative structure, or rather: a structure that generates narratives. Placing the events on the cruise ship that tours the Mediterranean, Godard sets a plethora of histories in motion, implicitly connecting them all to each other in a great, mystical web: histories of the crimes that built Europe (the colonialist gold); of the crimes that ruined Europe (Nazis, Stalinism); and of the resistances against these crimes (the Resistance, FLN, Socialism). In the second part of the film, “Quo Vadis Europa?”, this story and these themes are transferred to a different, smaller context. Here, the scene is a gas station in the Vosges. We follow its proprietors, the Martin family, as they struggle to keep their business going, while they are for some reason being harassed by a TV-team from France 3. It is the time of elections in France, and the TV-team impatiently waits for the family to grant them an interview (possibly, the father of the family is running for some type of office). Before they are violently hunted off the grounds by the little boy Lucien, an avid fencing amateur, we learn two things: that the camera woman is wearing the enigmatic gold watch without hands, which, she says “comes from Egypt” (one of the stops of the cruise ship): she “found it in the tomb of a Pharaoh in Tell Amarna;” and that the Martin family is also the name of a Resistance network that was a part of the “Combat” movement close to Toulouse, and whose slogan was “Liberate and Federate” (and that, furthermore, was possibly denounced by Herr Goldberg). While the Martins are indoors declaiming statements about August 4, 1789, when the French National Constituent Assembly formally abolished feudalism and a “public and universally applicable right” was established, on account of which “there was no longer any screen between the individual and the law,” the France 3 team are outdoors trying to convince Lucien to let them in, so that they will have time for editing before the 7 o’clock news. French media and politics are connected to colonial looting and the treasons against the political hopes of modern Europe; resisting “capture” by the TV-team is associated with Resistance, and with a utopian dream or nostalgia, pronounced succinctly by the young Florine Martin to the reporter: “No power / a society / not a State.”
The moral would have been simplistic if such an abundance of elements had not been drawn into the great vortex of the narrative: Eurocentric colonialism is connected to totalitarian devastation is connected to capitalism is connected to French national politics is connected to TV is connected to digitalization is connected to socialism is connected to the society against the State… The story is brought to a conclusion at the end of the third part of the film, “Our humanities.” Here, in the final part of the triptych, we are back at the cruise ship, although most of the images are archival, cut from fiction films, documentaries, news footage, sports coverage, etc. Whereas the first part of the film is centered around the events on the cruise ship, which by extension, allegory, connotation, metonymy or metaphor talk of the political fate of modern Europe, the third part is an historical meditation that shifts the focus toward the mythical origins of Mediterranean power relations and the long durations of their development (indeed, Fernand Braudel is cited several times in the book and the soundtrack). In these speculative genealogies, these “legends,” civil war is the only child from the marriage between democracy and tragedy in Athens; the Holocaust is associated with Abraham’s sacrifice; and the grim lesson of the allied liberation of Italy 1943—and perhaps the leitmotif of Film Socialisme as a whole—is that “Liberty comes at a high price but cannot be bought with Gold / Nor with blood but with cowardice / Prostitution / And treason.” Retracing its own steps, the film here brings us via Egypt, Palestine, Greece and Italy back to Barcelona: the origin of the adventures of the Moscow Gold and the endpoint of the film’s development. In a brief sequence of shots and sound cuts, we see Alissa, the daughter of the double agent, taking photographs of a Socialist manifestation in the Catalonian capital; we hear a familiar voice talking about an enigmatic watch, then a series of rapid gunshots, and then someone screaming Alissa’s name; we see her necklace with gold sequins falling to the ground. Image cuts to black, and a FBI warning against copyright infringement appears, onto which a text is written in Godardian capitals: “When the law is not just, justice passes above the law.”
3) “A symphony in three movements,” says the synopsis of the film. It ends on a violent note: beyond the great European tragedy’s last turn, beyond what we could conveniently dismiss as Godard’s “pessimism,” final judgment against the traitors is passed in the name of a justice that transcends the law. The death of Alissa, the question of her actual culpability notwithstanding, would—at least in one plausible reading—be an act of what Benjamin designated with the notion of “revolutionary violence”: a violence that is outside the realm of law, and yet founds law. Within the logic of the film, this sacrifice or execution opens up toward the utopian possibility of redemption: at the end of the days, the scum will be punished and a new time after time will begin—the time, perhaps, that is heralded by the enigmatic watch that lacks hands and that shows “rien que l’heure juste.” It would be safe to say that Godard, since at least the mid–1980s, has been no stranger to what would be the messianic dimensions of the Benjaminian concept. In fact, Film Socialisme may ultimately be this: a properly political interpretation of the messianism that has characterized Godard’s work since Hail Mary and the first parts of Histoire(s) du cinéma (“The image will come at the time of the resurrection”). In this sense, then, Film Socialisme would not just be a political film, but something even more incredible, even more untimely: a revolutionary film.
“Il faut faire politiquement des films,” (“”Films must be made politically”) Godard wrote in the “Que faire?” manifesto of 1970. It is a question that has been remarkably absent from the critical reception of Film Socialisme: what does it mean that Godard returns to explicitly political, even revolutionary filmmaking in 2010, four decades after his so-called “radical period”? It is as if the ongoing disaster of European politics—in Sweden, from where I am writing, the scum now rule the country—precluded by itself, curiously, the very perspective of radical resistance. To make a political film is to make British Sounds, stated Godard in the 1970 text; to make a film politically is to show British Sounds on TV. In this sense, Film Socialisme is in fact a politically-made work, although its historical context is another, its media technological landscape transformed. The aim of distribution is no longer to use mainstream media in order to subvert its language from within and at the same time reach a broader audience—ideally, the people as such. The aim of Godard’s method of distribution today would rather be to create a mode of communication that in itself establishes a minor community. It is probably in this sense that we should understand Godard’s peculiar comment in an interview with Les Inrockuptibles: the best possible solution, he claims, would be to involve two cinephiles, a boy and a girl, to give them a copy of the film, and to parachute them down to random locations in France, where they would organize small screenings of the film “in hotels or cafés.” If you did this for a year or two, you might “get a sense of what it actually means to distribute a film.” Whereas Film Socialisme was not distributed using exactly this method, it has travelled in unforeseeable ways (the sanctioned and the nonsanctioned versions on the Internet have in principle made it accessible to anyone who really wants to see it anywhere at any time), and actually experiencing the full work in its plurality of media demands an effort that at least goes beyond traditional movie viewing, whether in its classical or contemporary forms. The radicality of this solution should not be exaggerated, however: the film premiered at Cannes, has had a traditional, fairly successful run in French, mostly movie theaters in Paris (with roughly the same visiting figures as the exhibition Voyage(s) en utopie at Beaubourg), continues to tour festivals (most recently the New York Film Festival), and has just been released on DVD in France. If there is a radical politics in Film Socialisme, we can establish, its mode of communication is based on a tactical use of media and a type of spectatorship that is closer to the active investigations of the exhibition visitor than to classical cinema viewing or contemporary media habits (and in fact we could ask, although this points beyond the scope of this text, which is the better model for understanding Film Socialisme’s complex, multimedia system: the classical cinematic apparatus or the contemporary exhibition medium?).
In terms of its unorthodox distribution modes, therefore, Film Socialisme would aim for the establishment of a certain community of viewers. But perhaps we could also understand Film Socialisme as a community of liberated or redeemed images. Let us return to the tension that characterizes the film’s organization of elements on the most general level: the tension between the tendency toward the heterogeneous aggregation of discrete, signifying elements, and the tendency toward the unification of the separate elements into a solid, plastic alloy; between the great web of signs and the brute force of the image. In one sense, this tension could be described using the basic concepts of Siegfried Kracauer’s classical film theory: on the one hand there is the “formative” tendency, toward arranging the images into plots, into the meaningful chains of actions and events of classical poetics; on the other hand there is the “realistic” tendency, toward a depiction of reality where the image withdraws from dramatic logic and confronts the viewer with an event that exceeds conceptual framework. The questions here are apparent: which is the chain of events into which the images of Film Socialisme are inscribed, according to its formative tendency? And which is the reality on account of which the images of Film Socialisme withdraw from this chain of events, according to its realistic tendency? The answers are as apparent as the questions: Film Socialisme’s chain of events, its great web of signs is in the last instance determined by the logic of gold. Gold is the law that organizes its time, that determines its open multiplicity of histories: it is what drives the greed of colonialism, what is at the basis of the crimes of modern Europe, what makes resistance necessary and treason inevitable. And the reality on account of which the images of Film Socialisme withdraw from the logic of gold is a reality that does not yet exist, a reality that belongs to a time after time, to a realm of values outside of gold’s great equivalence: it is the reality on account of which the death of Alissa belongs to a justice above the law.
Film Socialisme: a community of images and a community of viewers. How should we understand their possible relationship?
4) “Where there is communication, there is no State.”