What We Learn We Teach Ourselves

Where does Godard take us in Film Socialisme or, more appropriately, where do we take ourselves? An anarcho-communist distrust of money and the state infuses the film. We are told that “money was invented so as not to look men in the eyes.”

Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme

Jean-Luc Godard skipped the press conference for his Film Socialisme when it screened at the Cannes film festival in 2010. However, not long afterwards, he held an almost two-hour long question-and-answer session with an audience that had just seen the film. A viewer asked Godard about the prominent role of black women in the film. As is Godard’s wont, he gave an answer that was apparently to a different question.

Godard responded by praising a book he had recently read, Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987). In this work, Rancière examines the work of Joseph Jacotet, an early-19th-century French educator who believed that all students could teach themselves what they wanted to learn. While a teacher can guide students to a subject, it is not the teacher’s knowledge and transmission of this knowledge which constitutes education. Illiterate parents can “teach” their young to read by offering materials and challenges to willing children who can teach themselves. If a student depends on the teacher to explain the subject, this is stultifying and generates not learning, but a hierarchy of teacher and student. Explication by experts renders audiences unequal and powerless, preventing them from developing the qualities and confidence necessary to educate themselves.

The two women of color to whom the questioner referred, an African named Constance (Nadège Beausson-Diagne) and a camera operator filming for a European television network (Eye Haidara), are arguably the most perceptive adult characters in the film. Godard has these women of African origin take the roles of Jacotet’s model pupils, that is to say individuals not fully bound by European authority relationships, but people who want to learn. They make the best, most successful students for Godard. Film Socialisme is a triptych. Part one is set on a cruise ship traveling the Mediterranean with many partying, dancing, and gambling European tourists, seemingly oblivious to the heavies with (other) things on their minds who are being filmed by Godard. On the ship, it is Constance who gets perhaps the cleverest and most Godardian lines in the script. She is told some facts about French history during World War II, but teaches herself much more: “Poor Europe. Not purified, but corrupted by the suffering [la souf-France, a pun]. Not exalted, but humiliated by reconquered liberty.”

A less successful student than Constance is the other non-Mediterranean traveler, Patti Smith. In the question-and-answer session following the screening of Film Socialisme, Godard explained that he realized he was going to “go after” the Americans for bringing the plague to Italy along with liberation in World War II, but he had no American tourists in the cast. Though he had never met Patti Smith, he asked her to come on board. She appears in her room and wandering the boat, guitar in hand, the lost soul we met in Just Kids who went to Charleville to commune with Arthur Rimbaud. This time she does find le bateau ivre.

I take Jacotet’s project I mentioned above as Godard’s in Film Socialisme. The master takes us there, but we will learn nothing we don’t teach ourselves. At one point, the philosopher Alain Badiou appears in the film lecturing on geometry to an empty room. When asked about Badiou’s appearance by another viewer, Godard responded that he wouldn’t be questioned if he had shown a dog or a cow in a room alone. He added that the lecture was announced on the cruise ship, but no one showed up for it. If the Euro-bourgeoisie on board produces none of Jacotet’s students, the upside is that there is also no one being inculcated with a repressive hierarchy by their dutiful presence in the lecture hall.

Film Socialisme is subtitled in what Godard calls Navajo, meaning a few English words, usually nouns, drawn from what the actors speaking French are saying. (There are also spoken passages in German, Russian, Spanish, and Italian, but these are not subtitled.) Seeing individual nouns without the verbs that establish relationships among them forces the viewer who does not know French to create connections between these nouns on the screen. Though the title uses French nouns, it can be seen as putting all viewers, whatever their linguistic competency, in the position of Navajo readers. What is the relation of film and socialism? Godard provides one answer in an appendix to the published script of Film Socialisme. There he reproduces a 2009 letter from philosopher-actor-playwright-screenwriter Jean-Paul Curnier (Curnier plays himself in Godard’s 2004 feature Notre Musique) in which Curnier, whom Godard had sent the script, turns Godard’s working title Socialisme into Film Socialisme and praises this title for treating two subjects, “beacons of the past century,” which have been poisoned and remained stained and are now used with “an uncontrolled vulgarity.” But brought together (by Godard), Curnier sees hope for both.

Is this Godard’s project? He doesn’t want to say. However, he is pleased that the script got Curnier thinking. That is the schoolmaster’s job, not to give answers. Godard does not address either film or socialism as subjects directly in Film Socialisme, though he gives us guidance with the oxymoron “one can only compare the incomparable, not the comparable” which appears twice in the script. In Godard’s In Praise of Love (2001), this idea appeared as the aphorism that to think of something one must think of something else.

Godard has long criticized the production, distribution, and modes of reception of film. Film Socialisme concludes with the infamous FBI warning against copyright infringement that is placed on DVDs and videotapes of movies, and the comment “When the law is not just, justice goes before the law.” In an interview with a couple of journalists from mediapart.fr (not the question-and-answer session after the screening of the film, also arranged by mediapart.fr), Godard commented that the shooting of the film was “very socialist” and refers to his work with his collaborators as being “autogestionnaire [self-managed] from a cinematic point of view.”

However, the most revealing intervention on the movie business in Film Socialisme comes in the form of a comment by a former Nazi spy: “A strange thing is that Hollywood was invented by the Jews.” This is immediately preceded by another’s observation that “Hollywood was called the Mecca of the cinema. The tomb of the Prophet. All look in the same direction. The movie theatre.” The metaphoric appropriation of Islam’s sacred sites may offend Muslims as the succeeding comment will offend Jews, but that Godard sees his role as the master providing the materials for students to teach themselves leads him to incorporate in his script comments like these which can offend all. The most important of the many references to Jews and to Palestine in Film Socialisme, however, suggests the possibilities Godard sees film can produce in the stalemate of antagonistic relationships. In the words of the script, “Ideas separate us, but dreams [or nightmares] bring us closer together.” Godard includes a clip of two trapeze artists (gleaned from Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès) cooperating together as they fly through the air to a soundtrack of one girl singing in Hebrew and another in Arabic. This is superimposed to produce a harmonious polyphony introduced by a variant of Godard’s preferred oxymoron: “Writing for two voices generally doesn’t succeed except when the dissonances are introduced by a common note.” This may be the film of socialism as Godard envisages it today, but if so, it is a socialism with a central place for cultural identities, something downplayed in traditional marxisant forms of socialism and communism.

Godard told the film audience that socialism and communism are “very ancient, very archaic ideas.” And in the interview with mediapart.fr, he explained that “the only time communism existed” was in the play of the Hungarian soccer team for two forty-five minute periods in a match with England in 1953. There is no footage from the match in Film Socialisme—the trapeze artists take its place. Godard, however, is of a political generation deeply marked by the discourse of Soviet Communism. He opens the public question-and-answer session by discussing an advertisement for a perfume, “L’homme,” in the center of a two-page spread of Le monde. In a self-administered Rorschach test, Godard says it reminds him of Stalin saying, “L’homme [Man] is the most valuable capital.” Stalin, Godard concludes, “is named Dior today.”

This is an observation which might escape us. And this world seen only by those with a certain political experience is an underlying theme in the first part of Film Socialisme. Gold is omnipresent in the first and third parts of the film; the third presents a run-through of urban sites along the Mediterranean the ship visits. A storyline in the initial part, drawing sustenance from a loose retelling of historical events, is explained by the characters most prominently involved in it—a one-time Nazi spy, a Russian major, and a French investigator. However, Godard in an un-Godardian fashion, produces a text in an appendix to the published script (totally X-ed out so readers know they are reading something whose value comes from being something not intended to be read). Here, Godard appears in the third person to explain the important elements of the story and how the Spanish “doubloons from the time of the Incas” that appear in Film Socialisme, were used by a figure from real-life, the shadowy film financier Louis Dolivet, to fund Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Jacques Tati’s Play Time (1967).

What is the story Godard tells? Gold that Spain had taken in the 16th century from its colonies in the New World and held in the Bank of Spain was shipped for safekeeping by the socialist Spanish Republic to the Soviet Union, when, to draw a line from the script, democracy and tragedy came together to produce civil war in Spain. But a portion of the gold disappeared in Odessa and more in Moscow. The former Nazi spy (now, in Film Socialisme, going by the name Otto Goldberg, as in mountain of gold, we are told) was apparently responsible for taking the gold in Odessa. That some historians give a Nazi spy of many identities, Richard Christmann, this role suggests that he is Goldberg as well, as evidenced by the gold necklace of Spanish coins worn by his granddaughter, who accompanies him on the cruise, and by the French agent onboard interested in Christmann’s role in torturing French resisters during the war. Within the film one sees characters carrying and referencing a book by Roger Faligot, Markus, devoted to Christmann.

A Russian major on the ship, who travels with enormous Matryoshka dolls, as if to remind herself that every story contains another, is on the trail of the rest of the gold. In a post-USSR world, she is revealingly more concerned with the disappearance of gold under Soviet control than that she knows it was taken by the Nazis. Godard’s X-ed out text and the film script suggest that the money passed through hands of Comintern impresario Willy Münzenberg. But nothing is resolved in the film. James Bond couldn’t make the trip. Making the fate of the gold under Soviet control a centerpiece of the film provides a commentary on socialism. Depending on the Soviets to protect socialism opened up socialism to depredation by the Soviets and the Nazis. It is significant that Godard rewrites the history of when and where the gold left Spain to make the departure in 1937 from Barcelona, in order to coincide with the Communists’ brutal suppression of the anti-Stalinist socialist Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), described by POUM volunteer George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. A subsidiary plot line in the film concerns Palestinians and an Israeli agent on the cruise liner and the disappearance of gold from the British Bank of Palestine, an implicit recognition that the Israel-Palestine conflict shares narrative lines with another hegemonic conflict of the 20th century.

To return to film financing, Louis Dolivet, Münzenberg’s Communist collaborator before the war, emerges after the war and Münzenberg’s death as the film financier in Godard’s Xed-out text. He ended up with funds from the Spanish republic that Münzenberg had been using for Comintern cultural projects. The young Godard had “begged” Dolivet to finance his first feature-length film, but Dolivet turned him away and financed Welles’s Mr. Arkadin instead, and later Tati’s Play Time. Mr. Arkadin, Godard tells us, was “an enormous failure” and Play Time “a yet more enormous failure,” in financial terms at least. Godard wants us to know that those who use the remains of state socialism to make films should do so with care or they will suffer the same fate as state socialism.

The second part of the film concerns the Martin family, who operate a gas station in eastern France. The mother (Catherine Tanvier) is planning to run for office, and her children, Florine and Lucien, get the same idea. A television crew hangs around trying to get some footage of the candidate. This section of Film Socialisme has the delightful air of a reality-TV show in which the uncooperative subjects sometimes add to the air of unreality by talking to one another in passages from others’ poems and prose. “When I talk to myself,” Florine explains, “I speak the words of someone else . . . that I say to myself.” However, Florine and Lucien can speak for themselves. They tell the camera crew that they don’t talk to people who use the verb “to be.”

There are suggestions in the script that the mother running for office was a nod to Ségolène Royal’s campaign for president of France in 2007. “Et alors dans LA présidence il n’y a pas LE,”—presidency is gendered feminine, not masculine, in French—the mother tells us, echoing the “La France Présidente,” prominently featured on Royal’s campaign posters. As part of her campaign, Royal put online an interactive book which internet users could modify, entitled Le Désordre démocratique (Democratic Disorder). Rancière is quoted in the first chapter, which led Paris-Match to see Rancière as Royal’s political inspiration. Whatever the validity of this claim, it is just the kind of comparison of the seemingly incomparable that Godard appreciates. And it is the two children, students à la Jacotet, who teach themselves about liberty, equality, and fraternity, in a family where, to mark the fact that they were both born on August 4—the day the nobles forsook their rights in 1789—the parents signed an agreement to have a debate with the children each year. Florine and Lucien are implicitly paired with two children of the same age in the first part of the film, Alissa and Ludo active and knowing, but far from the confrontational questioners Florine and Lucien.

Where does Godard take us or, more appropriately in the project I’ve given Godard, where do we take ourselves? An anarcho-communist distrust of money and the state infuses the film. We are told that “money was invented so as not to look men in the eyes.” In the public presentation, Godard said that there is less travail (work) now than when he was young; emplois (jobs) have taken its place. As a result there is less solidarity. States, like money, are the enemy of the camaraderie and community which characterize socialism for Godard more than a particular social or political system. “The dream of a state is to be alone,” Florine tells us. “The dream of individuals is to form a couple.” Her platform is “no power, a society, not a state.” Part two of the film ends with a reference to a small resistance group during World War II named the “Martin family” whose credo was the anarchist watchwords “Liberate and federate.” The collapse of states can have positive consequences. Godard tells us that Simone Weil greeted the defeat of France by Germany in 1940 by saying that the date would be remembered as “a great day for Indochina.”

The Europe represented on the boat is a moneyed leisure class interrupted only by a coterie of figures living out obscure tales of political hopes and nightmares past. But the spirit of Jacotet that informs the film suggests that we can learn to be different. Only when we see this do we smile during the film, as when Lucien flits about in a red CCCP T-shirt animatedly conducting an imagined orchestra with piece of piping that he also uses to chase away the journalists. In the interview with mediapart.fr, Godard pulled out the iconic photograph of Dany Cohn-Bendit smiling joyously and defiantly at the state police in May 1968. It is inscribed with a phrase Godard attributes to Denis de Rougemont, “Socialism. A smile that dismisses [congédie, as in letting employees go] the universe.” This is a line Godard reworks in the film to say that “in manifesto [manifeste] there is main [hand], not a draped sentiment, but an ideal, a smile that dismisses the universe.” Manifeste here refers to the immediately preceding lines and to images from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin about a manifestation [demonstration] in the Russian Revolution of 1905, when soldiers shot demonstrators because the demonstrators’ “joy, their happiness” was “manifest.” This passage near the end of Film Socialisme suggests why this insubordinate smile, that which films preserve but for which the learned schoolmasters’ history has little place, is the face of a truly radical manifesto.

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