Jean-Luc Godard

Translation by Aileen Derieg

This essay was written in December 1998 on the occasion of the Histoire(s) CD-Book-Package released by the ECM label, and was originally published in three papers: TAZ (Berlin), Basler Zeitung (Basel) and Die Presse (Vienna).

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The experiences of our senses are namely almost just as conservative as the theater directors. What is to be understood from look and sound cannot be too far distant from what is already familiar.

– Robert Musil

It’s the same problem again and again. How can one speak about the manner of speaking that Jean-Luc Godard has been practicing for nearly fifty years now? Wouldn’t it be necessary to argue not just with words, but with sounds and images, too? This piece, alas, is one more case of being bound to the written word. A much more unusual offer, however, has been made by the Munich-based record label ECM. On the occasion of the company’s 30th anniversary, ECM has transformed Godard’s eight-part video work Histoire(s) du cinéma into a collection of five audio CD’s (which contain the multi-layered music and voice track of the tapes) and four books, in which the spoken text is printed in German, French and English. This is complemented by a longer essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (including passages from an interview he did with Godard) and by a picture section with selected color video stills from the series.

In terms of aura, magnitude and cultural ambition, a presentation format of this kind confidently claims its place among the “critical complete editions” of canonical writers and the “catalogue raisonné” of fine artists. Indeed, very few other moving image works come to mind, which would rightly deserve this kind of treatment. Yet the differences are enormous: Histoire(s) du cinéma, produced between 1988 and 1998, is – not only in German-speaking countries, but especially here – far from being canonized. It appears as a footnote in public discourse about film; and the art world perceives it more as a one-night stand opportunity (at the 1997 documenta, for instance) rather than the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.

Yet even if the Histoire(s) were sailing on the mainstream of culture, it would still not be possible to contain them conveniently and hold them still as a complete work. They exist in diverse image, sound and text variants, but Godard’s own way of working, in the Histoire(s) and elsewhere, is wholly contrary to totality and completeness.. Thus it seems quite logical that the material results of his work on the history and histories of cinema can never really be completely “boxed”, distributed or owned – except in the rare, fleeting moment of projection (in which the constant sensuous overload makes it impossible to “capture” the whole anyway).

The Histoire(s) are always everything at once: moving image, photography, catalogue of paintings, pixel mutation, music, noise, fragment of film sound, speaking voice, writing in the image, literature quarry, essay text. They are sensation and knowledge, information and emotion, theory and practice of the cinema, writing the history and telling the stories. The Histoire(s) are less and, at the same time, more than a Gesamtkunstwerk, because they were never intended to be “a totality” and never “only” an artwork.

For a lack of better comparisons, Godard’s method in the Histoire(s) du cinéma is often explained through literary “affinities” – with reference to the most prominent meta-literature by Proust or Joyce. With the same sense of helplessness, but in honor of 1920s Austro-modernism and linguistic criticism, I would also like to add: Robert Musil – “The before and after is not obligatory, progress is only intellectual and spatial. The content disperses in a timeless way, everything is really always there at once.” Ulrich, Musil’s “Man Without Features” also has a Godardian idea: that history consists of unfinished, incomplete, suddenly interrupted sentences.

Conversely, Godard himself likes to take metaphors from literature when it comes to defining the movies. He once declared Baudelaire the prophet of cinema. Long before the invention of the Lumière machine, the poet-prophet wrote: “We want to travel without steam or sail. Propel your memories with their window horizon, illuminating the boredom of our prisons, across the taut screen of our minds.” (1) That may be cinema, but does it also apply to Godard’s own film work? May it not be better imagined if we look further back, for example at baroque polyphony with its transparent single parts, which only make sense in “conversation” with one another and related to something external? Here, in Godard’s case, the external is history; there, in Bach’s case, it was God in heaven. Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s concept of baroque music as “sound language” (“Klangrede” – the ability of music to convey its world) also indicates the significance of articulation: to articulate means to arrange, to present something one point at a time, particularly allowing the sounds and syllables to emerge clearly. In addition – in every kind of music – the “historicity of the sound”, its material origins (the sound of the bow on the string), should be played and heard. Within a well articulated baroque piece,

we can hear the ‘drawing’, the plan on the ground; at another level we find dissonant emphases, at the next level a voice, which is softly bound from its diction, and then another that is rigorous and hard in its articulation. All of this is synchronous, at the same time. It is not even possible for the listener to comprehend everything that the piece contains all at once, but rather he wanders through all the different layers of the piece, always hearing something else. (…) It is difficult for us to grasp and accept the simultaneity of different things; we want order of the simplest kind. In the 18th century, though, people wanted abundance, extravagance, wherever one listens, one receives information, nothing is homogenized. One looks at the things from all sides, all at once! (2)

The new ECM Edition makes Godard’s sensuousness and way of thinking accessible primarily through sound. It is advisable to read the text first and then – with a few basic concepts in mind – to listen to the overflowing sound language (mixed by Francois Musy into the highest “articulation”), which contains music by Bartok and Bach, Otis Redding and John Coltrane, etc., in addition to the voices of Paul Celan and Godard, Ezra Pound and Hitchcock, etc., sounds of the cinema and of nature, including (non-translated) film dialogues. In terms of the visual, the illustrated book edition published by Gallimard in Paris is even more inviting: no sound, only the French text (with a few omissions), but the full stream of videograms. In each case, the “actual” substance of the work delightfully eludes me; no: the constant elusiveness, the perpetual gap is part of the substance. This is what comes of God giving way to history.

And, aside from that, what are the Histoire(s) about?

We have nothing left. They had the Spanish Civil War; we do not even have our own war. We have nothing except ourselves, our face and our voice. But maybe that is what is important: recognizing the sound of one’s own voice.

– Godard, Le petit soldat, 1960

From war to one’s own voice and back again. From a play on words to a “play of images”, from film acting to acts of war. For instance, the Histoire(s) treat the gash that runs through the 20th century and through cinema. They talk about cinema’s culpability as a spectacle and about the Italian films after the war or “the poor news cinema / that has to wash clean of all suspicion / blood and tears / just as the pavement is swept / when it’s already too late / and the army has opened fire on the crowd.”

And they talk about all the film stories that there could be / that there will be / that have been / that have never been made. In the dream factories: in Hollywood and in Communism. Lenin, Howard Hughes and Irving Thalberg, the deathbed of the “Last Tycoons”, and the films, by Stroheim for example, that were never made because of them. War planes and the writing KINO PRAVDA, accompanied by Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”. The staccato of Godard’s electric typewriter and the action-image from Hughes’/Hawks’ Scarface, the machine-gun scene. Hughes’ airplanes, a song by Leonard Cohen, Rita Hayworth in Hawks’ plane pilot picture Only Angels Have Wings (1939).

And here we are again, as so often in Godard’s oeuvre, at the junctures of Love / Work / Cinema. A Cukor musical, Les Girls (1957). A picture of Godard and Anna Karina, his wife and leading actress in the ’60s; and a cartoon by Tex Avery: Big Bad Wolfie and Little Red Riding Hood stripping in a nightclub. The voices say: “All the ass stories / Dangerous Love Affairs / Don’t Play With Love / Farewell, my Lovely (=Adieu, ma jolie, spoken by Godard’s own voice) / The bottom of things: the ass.” More images from films that were never finished, Welles’ Don Quichotte, Renoir’s Tosca and Ophüls’ École des femmes, and two paintings by Manet and Degas as well.

Here comes an ass-war-story: Max Ophüls, Louis Jouvet and Madeleine Ozeray, 1940 in Geneva, ménage â trois on a film set in the midst of war. The German “Ophüls, he pounced on Madeleine Ozeray’s ass, at the same time that the German army was taking the French army from behind”, and the French Louis Jouvet, the ex-boyfriend, the impresario, surrenders. École des femmes remains a fragment.

German soldiers cross a French river, Fritz Lang’s Siegfried rides through the mist, Monet’s painting shows a French river. The song of Lili Marleen, a moment from Lang’s exile film Manhunt (1941) – the assassination of Hitler (of his actor). Real Hitler greets the crowd. War is here: fiction versus reality. One and the same white fabric: the movie screen and the shroud.

A quarter of a century after Le Mépris (1963), Godard continues his “obituary” for the cinema in Histoire(s). A fake Bazin quote recurs, as does a wonderful pun: “Pauvre BB” carries his/her lies to market – Bertolt and Brigitte B., Janus head, head of Medusa, the dialectic of cinema. Only the melancholy has become much greater in the meantime. Godard’s practical film theory in the 1980s and early ’90s was strongly influenced by a lively exchange with the film critic Serge Daney and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (and vice versa). During the course of work on the Histoire(s), both of them died. Perhaps this even strengthens the impression that cinema, authorship and Godard-self are mostly observed here from a “retrospective point-of-view”. The end of the last episode balances between sentiment and death wish. An old English actor’s voice reads a poem, “limbs that we left in the house of Circe; unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre”, and Godard speaks of the border between life and dream. I have to think of the old Major Amberson at the end of Orson Welles’ damaged masterpiece: a kind of absent-minded self-questioning, a speaking in tongues, already almost “on the other side” – his face mirroring the wild flickering of the fireplace.

The film JLG/JLG (1994) was also conceived as a review of life, and I remember Godard’s voice at the end (black leader) intensively and perhaps incorrectly. I hardly speak French, but the English subtitles said something like: “A man, nothing other than a man. No greater than the others. But no other is greater than he.” Now I notice that these subtitles are perhaps based on Anglo-American democratic wishful thinking. The German subtitles in the version broadcast by the Arte channel go roughly like this: “… a man. Who is equal to none. And no one is equal to him.” In the first version, He, who speaks, enters into the community of mankind at eye level with the others. In the second version, He and every man for himself stand alone, apart from others. I like to hope that the French original actually contains both options.

The “death of the subject” in postmodern philosophy has been linked by some cinephiles with the death of cinema. But maybe the subject is still alive? As long as someone says I like Godard in his recent films and separates the other word toi from the word histoire, we may still believe in a cinema that conjoins the individual with the world.

“Cinema” here means more than film. For like the moving picture industry, Godard also invented new machines early on and learned to deal with them in his own independent way. The Histoire(s) are the most extensive attempt so far to utilize the digitally expanded video device for the free essay form: “Some think, they say / others act / but the true human condition / is thinking with one’s hands / I wouldn’t speak ill of our tools / but I’d like them to be usable / although it’s true in general / that the danger isn’t in our tools / but much more in the weakness of our hands.”

Thanks to the possibilities of mutation at the digital workplace, Godard can now effectively think “with his hands” and, better than ever before, with his ears, too. In the interview with Rosenbaum, he says: “Video is closer to painting or to music [than to film]. You work with your hands like a musician with an instrument, and you play it.” Thus once again – image and sound language: articulation, arrangement, dissolution. “To find the solution to a problem, regardless of whether it is a chemical problem or a political one, you have to dissolve it: dissolve hydrogen, dissolve parliament. Therefore, we will now dissolve images and sound.” (Godard, Le gai savoir, 1968)

In French, the lovely word “magnétoscope” is used for the video recorder. The way that Godard deals with this device in his happy-melancholy science (and the device with him), one could say: the “camera consciousness” from Vertov to Hitchcock gives way to a “magnetoscope consciousness” in Godard’s later works. This consciousness does not “invent”, it takes in other things (that which exists) through attraction and transforms them. Seeing and hearing become magnetic (as a way of thinking) and invite everyone to proceed just as freely. Instead of a “copyright”, at the beginning of Histoire(s) it says: “non©1988 jlg films.”

In Nouvelle Vague (1990) there is a beautiful line: “The past and the present that they felt above them were waves of one and the same ocean.” JLG is the friendly pirate on this ocean. See and listen to him tearing across the oceans of the world on the magnetoscope: every new wave washes up noises, debris, shipwrecked travelers to him. He makes history out of them, and stories. Adventures.

non© Alexander Horwath, 1998


  1. As spoken in Godard’s video 2 x 50 ans de cinéma français (1995)
  2. The German version of this quote is from Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Musik als Klangrede, Residenz Verlag, Salzburg/Wien 1982, p.55