This interview was conducted in French over three afternoons in October 1998 (8, 15 and 19). The author transcribed, translated, abridged and occasionally amended these interviews.
EARLY FILM MEMORIES
SHAFTO: Before asking you some questions about Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s, tell us something of your early life. You were born I believe in Mulhouse.
BITSCH: Yes, in 1931.
When did you move to Paris?
In 1934, with my parents.
Was your childhood, like François Truffaut’s, that of a cinéphile?
Yes. My first film memories are very old. Last year or at the beginning of this year, I saw a German film on Arte, a film that my father had taken me to see. I must have been four or five at the time. It was a story that took place at the North Pole and it was silly: S.O.S. Iceberg [Tay Garnett, 1933].  There was an explorer on the ice that broke, and he found himself all alone on an iceberg. When a bear appeared, I became extremely uncomfortable, and my father had to take me out of the theatre. More than sixty years later, I recognized this film from its plot synopsis in the newspaper, and I thought, “It’s not possible”, because it is my first filmic memory.
I remember we saw it in a theatre called the Cinéac St. Lazare that was in the St. Lazare train station and that has since disappeared. I remember it very clearly: the box office, the entrance of the cinema.
The second time, I watched the film until the end. There’s a moment when the iceberg breaks and the guy finds himself facing a bear. But the story ends well …
It was in 1938, when I was seven, that I decided I wanted to make movies. I was living in the 17th arrondissement, where there was a cinema called Ciné Citroën that was very cheap and where I would go by myself when I had a little pocket money. My anxiety played a role again. I remember seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman . There’s a scene where Buffalo Bill falls into the hands of the Indians and he’s attached to a stake to be tortured, with the Indians dancing around him. And again, I couldn’t watch what was on the screen. But I didn’t want to leave the theatre either. Since I couldn’t bear looking at the screen, I turned around to look at the back of the cinema. And I saw that there was a hole with light and that there was a kind of beam and then I turned back to the screen, and then turned around again and I saw that there were things moving. Suddenly, the cinema became something less magical. I realized that the cinema was also something that was fabricated. That day I decided I had to learn how to make images like that.
That’s a wonderful story. I wonder if you have memories of any other particular cinemas, like the Grand Rex?
I discovered the Rex later. But one cinema I do remember from my childhood that was absolutely superb was the Gaumont-Palace in the 17th arrondissement where we lived.
You might have crossed paths with Truffaut there.
Yes, we might have. At one point, we moved into the rue Barye in the 17th arrondissement, and it was the closest theatre. I remember my parents used to take me there every Saturday evening.
Do you have memories of the cinema during the Occupation?
Yes, this is just the period I’m talking about. I saw a lot of French films, because at the time there wasn’t much else to see. I do recall a few Italian films, adventure films in the Amazon. I remember seeing a few German films too, like White Slaves [Weiße Sklaven, Karl Anton, 1936]. It was only later, after seeing Battleship Potemkin [Bronenosets Potyomkin, Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1925], that I understood that the German film was a response to the Russian film.
And then, after the war, you discovered American cinema.
Yes, and it was a shock, but it wasn’t a total discovery because I had seen a few American films before the war. The last film, or one of the last films, I saw before the defeat of France in June 1940 was Bringing Up Baby [Howard Hawks, 1938]. After the Liberation, I dreamt of seeing it again because I had such an extraordinary memory of it. I was already a Hawksian because the first American film that really transported me was Air Force .
CAHIERS AND COMPANY
Between 1951 and 1953, you studied at the École Nationale de Photographie et de Cinéma. Did you finish a degree there?
I believe you published your first article for Cahiers in 1955; the article was “Naissance du CinémaScope” (2). How did you come to Cahiers?
At that time, there were two schools that were recognized in the profession. L’IDHEC  and ENPC , popularly called the École Lumière, where I went. Lumière was more technically oriented than L’IDHEC; the ENPC trained people to make images and sounds. L’IDHEC, on the other hand, was a school for people who wanted to become directors or screenwriters or editors. I wanted to direct, but it was a world where I knew absolutely no one. I thought that if I learned a métier in a technical school, I would perhaps have more of chance later on to do things, which was how it happened.
I met the Cahiers group because I was a fervent cinéphile and belonged to a Cine-Club, called Objectif 49. I was one of the members of this club. I was present at the Festival de Biarritz that this Ciné-Club organized. I attended that year and there were rooms there for young people on holiday. Truffaut, Alexandre Astruc and Jacques Rivette were also there that year.
And Jean Cocteau?
Yes, Cocteau was there, but he was far away because he had lodging in a hotel.
And Jean-Luc Godard?
No, Godard wasn’t there. Neither was Eric Rohmer.
And Roger Leenhardt?
Leenhardt I never really knew … That was my first contact with what would become the Cahiers group. I spent a fair amount of time discussing films with them.
Do you remember the screening at Biarritz of Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne?
Yes. It was a film maudit; it bombed when it came out in 1945. 
After the festival, we all went our own ways; we didn’t even exchange addresses. I finished my studies at the Lumière School, which at the time was located on Vaugirard Street in Paris, very near the Montparnasse train station. Nearby, there was a cinema called the Studio Parnasse, which was directed then by Jean-Louis Chéray.
Chéray screened foreign films in their original version, and every Tuesday night he led a discussion after the film. One of the advantages of those evenings was that they were preceded by a game, a kind of film quiz, and the one who answered the quickest won a free ticket to the cinema. I was very keen because at the time money was rather scarce. So, on Tuesdays, I would attend these screenings in the Jules Chaplain Street and it was there that I met up with my old pals Truffaut and Rivette. We started to make appointments there on Tuesdays to see other films by Jacques Becker, Alfred Hitchcock and others. We began to see each other more regularly as friends. And since I was studying to be a director of photography, I also began to work as a cameraman; Rivette asked me if I could shoot a film in 16 mm.
What was the film?
It was Le Divertissement . So, that’s how I began to work as a cameraman for Rivette, and then one day Truffaut said to me: “Listen, you ought to write a review for Cahiers.” I wasn’t very enthusiastic because I had never written a review. He replied that he had never written one either, until one day. So I gave it a try. I think that my first one was on a film by Richard Quine.
You wrote a review of a film by Quine in 1956, but I don’t think it was your first one.
The film by Quine was a musical comedy in CinemaScope.
The title of your article was “Quine hourra!” (6); it was a review of a film entitled My Sister Eileen by Richard Quine. But I think your first article for the Cahiers was “Naissance du CinémaScope” in the June 1955 issue. After the publication of his infamous article, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” in January 1954, Truffaut seems to have really been an important presence at the Cahiers.
That article stirred things up a bit. The details of that story are very well told in Antoine de Baecque’s history of the Cahiers  and also in Serge Toubiana and de Baecque’s biography of Truffaut . Truffaut rewrote the article several times because André Bazin wasn’t happy with it. When the article appeared, a big deal was made of it in the film world.
It was funny because I remember that Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, who was a little older, was a real mondain, a man-of-the world. He liked meeting film people to have a drink or have lunch with them. In contrast, Truffaut was only interested in people he admired; anyone else he wasn’t interested in meeting. The offices of the Cahiers were then on Champs-Elysées, where there were also many offices of film producers and other film people. After Truffaut’s article appeared, Doniol noticed that when people saw him on the Avenue, they would change to the opposite side of the street!
It’s incredible the effect the article had. Truffaut was after all only 22.
As a result, Truffaut became influential. Protected by Bazin, he brought Rivette into the Cahiers, and little by little other friends like me.
But not Godard at this time.
Godard came later.  In any case, Godard was always more on the sidelines. Actually, he and Rohmer were always on the fringes of our group. Rohmer no doubt because he was older; he was almost of another generation. The rest of us “tutoyed”  each other, but we never “tutoyed” Rohmer.
How did you address Bazin?
We “tutoyed” him. Bazin was very direct like that, very open. Rohmer, on the other hand, was more distant. He had a lot of activities that we were never very aware of. We were all the time stuck in a cinema. We were a group of three or four who often went to the movies together. Rohmer, though, never joined us; he went to the movies on his own.
Godard was a little like Rohmer in this respect. He was very reserved, even secretive. Later on, I worked a lot with him, but we were never friends. Whereas someone like Jacques Demy was a friend. My friends often came over to my place for a meal or I ate with them.
Did you read Godard’s interview in Libération (11) yesterday? He says that he is never invited by his friends.
Well, it’s not completely true. There was a very intense period at my parents’ place, after my parents returned to Paris in 1954 or 1955 and they took charge of a café called Le Café de la Comédie, near the Palais Royale, just in front of the Comédie Française in the first arrondissement. There was a café on the ground floor and my parents and I lived upstairs. We wrote the script for Rivette’s Le Coup du berger on the first floor of this café in the afternoon. We wrote other scripts there, too, like the script for Rivette’s first feature entitled, “Les Quatre Jeudis”, but that was never shot. We did a lot of things there. We wrote our reviews; we read each others’ reviews, and we corrected each other. Truffaut was less present because he was already so busy as a journalist. My mother was pleased to have all these young persons at her table. Claude Chabrol was often with us in the afternoon, although he was already married and a father. Godard came a few times. His joining us was always due to unexpected circumstances. We would be together at noon and I’d say, “Alright, let’s go have some lunch at my place. Jean-Luc are you coming with us, too?” And sometimes he would. It wasn’t regular with him, because he’s an unusual person. It was three or four times Godard, and 150 times Truffaut and Rivette. We were lucky because the food was excellent.
Thanks to your parents.
Yes, and it continued later, too, when my parents left Paris and took charge of an inn, 60 kilometres outside of Paris, called the La Croix d’Or. In this area, we shot scenes for Jules et Jim [Truffaut, 1962] and Les Bonnes femmes [Chabrol, 1960].  Godard came there, too. I remember that my girlfriend at that time mistook Jean-Luc for my father.
Why did she think he was your father?
Because, in 1959, he always wore dark glasses and invariably had a three-day beard. I introduced her to Jean-Luc; it was just before he shot À Bout de souffle.
Besides your parents’ restaurant, did you all spend time in some of the well-known cafés in Montparnasse, like the Select, the Coupole or the Dôme?
No, that’s not where we went. We spent time in the cafés around Place Clichy and Place Blanche. There was a café in Pigalle where Truffaut, Rivette and I often went in the evening. I don’t remember its name. We did not spend much time in Montparnasse, except at the Studio Montparnasse. And we spent a lot of time on the Champs Elysées because of the cinemas and because of Cahiers. On the Champs Elysées, when we wanted to drink something, we often went to the Deauville because it had the advantage at the time of being a little less expensive than the other cafés. Truffaut and I also frequented a café near the newspaper France-Soir; this café was well known for being open all night; it never closed. It was frequented above all by journalists; sometimes after a film Truffaut liked to go there. And occasionally I joined him to drink a beer and read the newspaper.
In my research on Cahiers, I noticed that many of its critics adopted pseudonyms: for example, Maurice Schérer for Rohmer, Hans Lucas for Godard and Robert Lachenay, I think, for Truffaut.
Robert Lachenay was his friend, but I don’t think he ever wrote an article.
Bazin used Florent Kirsch. Kirsch was his wife’s maiden name, wasn’t it? And Florent was his son’s name?
Yes, that’s right.
Yves Goutte was Chabrol’s nom de plume?
Yes. Goutte was the maiden name of his first wife.
In the February 1963 issue of Cahiers, I found an interview with a certain Yves Kovacs. I imagine that that name is another pseudonym. Do you know for whom? I recently asked Laszlo Szabo, because the last name sounds Hungarian. Laszlo didn’t know, but he told me about the name Laszlo Kovacs, which is Belmondo’s name in À Double tour . Chabrol gave a Hungarian name to Belmondo in honour of Laszlo’s presence. Apparently Laszlo Szabo in Hungarian is the equivalent in English of John Smith or Jean Dupont in French. And Godard used the same name as an alias for Belmondo in À Bout de souffle. Did you also adopt a pseudonym?
Yes, but not very often. I think I only used it in Arts. Mine was Louis Chabert, because my name is Charles Louis Bitsch. Louis Chabert contains all the letters of Charles Louis Bitsch.
Why did you all have this penchant for pseudonyms? Is it something that comes in your opinion from the Occupation period, when it was fairly common to assume another name?
I don’t think it is linked to the Occupation. I think it has more to do with literature, where a fair number of authors had used pseudonyms. And then, of course, there was a simpler and more concrete reason. We didn’t want to give the impression that the Cahiers was written by just 3 people; if we all had pseudonyms, instead of being 3, we were 6. And for someone like Truffaut, adopting a pseudonym was also a way of exercising a different style. His style as Truffaut is not the same as when he wrote under the name Robert Lachenay or Robert de Montferrand. It was a stylistic exercise.
You began to write for Arts in 1959.
I was at Cannes as a journalist in 1958 and 1959, and in 1959 I was there for Arts.
And in 1958 you were at Cannes for Cahiers where you and Bazin did an interview with Orson Welles that was published in June 1958. (13) Was it Truffaut who invited you to join Arts?
Yes, of course. Little by little, the head editor of Arts gave him carte blanche over the cinema page.
Did you usually walk from the Cahiers office on the Champs to the Arts office on the Faubourg St. Honoré?
Yes, we usually walked from one office to the other.
Can you describe the daily atmosphere at Cahiers in the 1950s, when Bazin and Doniol were running things?
They got along well, although almost all of the Cahiers collaborators had been introduced by Truffaut. There were a few who came from Doniol’s side, like Philippe Demonsablon, and there was one or two whom Bazin brought in, like, for instance, I think Fereydoun Hoveyda. But the majority were recruited by Truffaut.
Bazin was much more respected than Doniol. I liked Doniol a lot, but my pleasure in speaking with Bazin was much greater, because it was infinitely more rewarding to have a conversation with Bazin. With Doniol, the conversation was confined to trivial topics.
The imbalance at Cahiers was compensated by the fact that Doniol was ultimately much more present than Bazin. Bazin in this period was very busy because he wrote for several newspapers and then his health was very fragile. He was less present at Cahiers than Doniol and he didn’t come that often. Doniol was much more present. Consequently, he played a larger role in the journal, evident for example in the layout and in the choice of the articles. Doniol’s presence can even be discerned in the table of contents of the magazine. It was Doniol, for instance, who decided to do a special on women in cinema.
I imagine that the little drawings in the magazine at that time were also Doniol’s idea. Am I right?
Yes, it’s true.
All those people wrote for Cahiers almost by accident. They didn’t want to be critics but directors. While waiting to make movies, they wrote some criticism. Moreover, it was either Truffaut or Rivette who said, “The only real criticism is to make a film.”
Yes, the only real critic among you was Bazin. All the others were either filmmakers-in-the-making or professionals from another discipline, like Georges Sadoul, who was a historian.
Between 1953 and 1959, you wrote several articles for Cahiers, including reviews, bio-filmographies, interviews and articles on a particular theme. Is there one of which you are particularly proud?
I very much admired Truffaut, Rivette and Rohmer for their writing, for their capacity to theorize. I preferred to write reviews. I spoke of something concrete, which was perfectly materialized by the images that were in a metal can. Speaking about the cinema from a theoretical standpoint always made me uneasy, and as a result I rarely did it. What I most enjoyed doing though were the interviews; they are my best memory of this period, for instance the two interviews that Bazin and I did with Orson Welles. Those were extraordinary moments: there was the way Welles received us, what he said before, what he said afterwards. I saw Welles once in Cannes and then we met again in Brussels where there was a screening of Touch of Evil . He came out of the cinema and as soon as he saw me, he called out my name “Oh, C H A R L E S” in his stentorian voice. We had a good time together. It was really great. These were moments that stay with me, even if it’s not evident from the transcription of the interview itself.
In our group, outside of Doniol who spoke English, I was the only one who could actually carry on a conversation in English. My English is purely scholastic but I improved it by watching films in their original language. So, I was the designated victim for doing interviews in English. I had a great time with Nicholas Ray, but he wasn’t easy. The first Cahiers interview with Ray was done in two sessions, because the first time he spoke so little. That made it difficult and, at the end of the interview, we agreed to see each other again. I don’t know if he was having problems in his personal life. The next time, it went well. We saw each other regularly even without an interview and we often spoke. The last time I saw him was in Sweden. We happened to both be in Stockholm at the same time.
One of your other Cahiers colleagues, Fereydoun Hoveyda, wrote two famous articles on Nicholas Ray (“À propos de Nicholas Ray” and “Tâches de soleil”).
What has become of Hoveyda?
He has been living in the U.S. since the 1960s. For a time he was working in politics at the U.N. [He passed away in late 2006. Ed.] You told me that you were never very close to Godard. How is it that you made several films with him, but, as far as I know, none with Truffaut, who was a close friend?
You’re more or less right. I didn’t do much with Truffaut. I did the sketch film of L’Amour à vingt ans (1962), “Antoine et Colette”. I was Raoul Coutard’s assistant cameraman on that film. In Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), Jacques Demy and I have small roles as policemen who imprison Jean-Pierre Léaud [Antoine Doniel]. But it’s true I didn’t do much with Truffaut. I don’t know why it happened like that. Truffaut was someone I continued to regularly see. I would stop by his office at the Films du Carosse. We would call each other; occasionally we would eat together in a restaurant. We told each what was going on in our lives. We spoke a bit about what we were reading, or about what films we’d seen. Why didn’t I work more with him? Undoubtedly in part because of our various commitments. At that time, I was working more or less year-round for Godard. I would work eight months for him and then I would take some time off. In any event, working as an assistant director would take around five or six months, from the preparations to the end of the shoot. So I had to be available during all that time.
WOMEN AT CAHIERS DU CINEMA IN THE 1950s
Thanks to your earlier remarks, I can better imagine the atmosphere at the Cahiers office. But one thing that still surprises me is the almost complete absence of women in that milieu. I say ‘almost’ because Lotte Eisner occasionally wrote articles for Cahiers. During the 1950s, we see the names of very few women in the pages of Cahiers. There was Jacqueline Audry, Nicole Védrès and Agnès Varda. I know that there were a few female assistants in the office, like Doniol’s wife, Lydie, but their work was a little like yours as an assistant director: invisible. It’s well known that after the war there was a group of young men who were serious cinéphiles. As a woman myself, I find it a little difficult to imagine that there weren’t a few women of your age who had a similar desire for the cinema. What do you think?
I don’t really have an answer for why there weren’t any young women who wanted to make movies. There was one in any case, but perhaps you haven’t heard of her: Annie Tresgot.  She was a young woman whom we often saw at the Cinémathèque in the first row. We were seated in the first row and she was, too. But we never spoke to her; we’d say “Hello”, but nothing more. It’s true that in our group women were absent. No doubt part of it was due to our modesty, a certain reserve; that wasn’t even something we ever spoke about. We didn’t tell each other about our youthful adventures; we more or less suspected certain things but we never spoke about them. It was taboo.
And at Cahiers, even if it’s true that in the colloquia women were completely absent there were nonetheless two women who were the backbone of the enterprise, one whose name I am embarrassed to say I have forgotten but who was the secretary and answered the phone and took care of the accounts. Then there was Doniol’s wife, Lydie, who at first appeared just from time to time and who little by little took over the daily running of the magazine for several years. She oversaw the subscriptions and the daily administration that she took care of with great competence, as well as a lot of kindness and humour, which made it particularly agreeable to see her in the Cahiers office, which was one big room.
So, except for Annie Tresgot and let’s say Agnès Varda, but she wasn’t a cinéphile in the 1950s, there weren’t any other women?
It’s true that Varda came from another path – i.e. the theatre, photography – and so we were in contact with her only later, after she had made several films, when she had become Jacques Demy’s wife. Demy was someone we’d known for a long time, especially me. I knew him better than the others because we had studied together at the Ecole Louis Lumière. He was finishing his studies there just as I began, but we saw each occasionally. We used to reminisce and joke about our teachers at the Lumière School.
ON BEING AN ASSISTANT DIRECTOR AND CAMERAMAN
You studied to be a director of photography and were the cameraman on Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (1960). Why did you decide to work as an assistant director instead of as a director of photography, since that is what you studied?
I don’t know, perhaps I was wrong, but, as I already said, I wanted a métier that I could practice in the event I couldn’t direct my own films. So, I learned how to shoot a film and I worked for Jacques Rivette to help him out, because I worked for free.
I also did a lot of shooting with Jean-Pierre Melville and Chabrol. On Melville’s Le Doulos , I began as an assistant director but I ended as cameraman. In Deux Hommes dans Manhattan , I often framed the shots. At the time when I was working for the producer Georges de Beauregard, I frequently shot additional footage; at the end of the shoot, there would be scenes or shots to add. For Landru , for example, I shot an additional scene in a studio. I also shot all the insert shots for Le Doulos.
With Chabrol, you also worked on Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Bonnes Femmes. Can you describe your contribution to these two films?
I was the assistant director on these two films …
It’s true that my idea was always to direct my own films but I wasn’t sure I would make it. Perhaps I would have done better to continue as a director of photography. I also shot Rohmer’s Véronique et son cancre (1958). I accepted working as an assistant director because it was thought to be the job closest to the filmmaker, while Truffaut, Chabrol and the others started making movies without asking too many questions. I was more timid and less sure of myself; I wanted to learn. I remember that Chabrol used to say, “You can learn all that you need to make a film in 48 hours.” I didn’t completely agree with this idea. I thought you needed a lot more preparation than that. It’s true that Langlois’ Cinémathèque was a good school. But, at the same time, I also thought that working on a set was an excellent apprenticeship.
In retrospect, perhaps all this seems a little confused, even contradictory. But it’s true that as an assistant director I had much less satisfaction in my work than on the films where I was cameraman. The job of an assistant director is one of organization and mediation: a film crew communicates on the set with the director via the assistant director.
The basis of an assistant director’s job is organizational; those organizational details are quickly forgotten but are nonetheless fundamental to the final film. It’s also worth noting that for each director, an assistant must adapt him- or herself accordingly. There are some directors who require their assistants to be very present on the set, while other directors prefer the assistant to be as invisible as possible. And, in between, you have all the intermediary levels. And, at the end, the spectator does not see this work in the film. Nonetheless, an assistant director’s job is very precise and even indispensable. But it’s little talked about, just as, for instance, the contribution of the grips. At that time, I knew a lot of grips who were real geniuses with machinery and others who were very mediocre. Just as there are inspired directors and others who are hired hacks, it’s the same with the grip.
In choosing to work as an assistant director because you thought it would be the most direct path to become a filmmaker, were you thinking of the career of someone like Robert Aldrich?
No, in fact I noticed that in the United States that while Aldrich and one or two others had managed to become directors after working as ADs, in general that was not the way to become a director. The assistant director is someone who would more likely end up as a producer. In the U.S., other avenues might lead to becoming a director, like being a scriptwriter or editor or director of photography. But in France the tradition was that to become a director you had to first be an AD.
Whom were you thinking of? Jacques Becker?
Yes, I was thinking of Jacques Becker. My desire was to become the equivalent not of Jean Renoir or Bresson or even Godard but a second Jacques Becker. I liked his trajectory and, what’s more, I thought it suited me. I felt very close to his way of filming and to his characters, as in his films Rendez-vous de juillet  and Édouard et Caroline , etc. They were films that spoke to me very directly; in relation to what I wanted to do, they seemed exemplary. So, while I admired a lot of Renoir or Ophüls’ films, I knew I could never do what they did. But with Jacques Becker, I had the impression I could follow in his footsteps.
Are there other French directors whose path was similar to Becker’s?
Yes, there were others, like Louis Daquin, who began as an assistant. There are others, too, but for the moment I can’t remember their names. Oh yes, there’s also the example of Jacques Tourneur, who I believe also began as an assistant.
Jacques Tourneur is a little different, isn’t he, because he was the son of a well-known director.
That’s true, but I think he began working as assistant director not for his father but for other directors. And perhaps in this group we can include René Clément who made his first film with Jacques Tati. There are quite a few French directors who began as assistant directors. In any case, my model was Becker, although Becker hadn’t studied in a film school.
In reading your review of a review of an American film called The Big Combo (1955), I was struck by the fact that you used the review not to talk about the director, Joseph Lewis, but the director of photography, John Alton. You say that the film, although disappointing, is not “without interest, thanks to John Alton, one of the greatest, if not the greatest director of photography in Hollywood” (19). You go on to remark that the list of American films that owe as much to their director of photography as to their director is long. In your role as a critic, do you think that your studies in photography gave you a particular insight into the contribution of directors of photography?
Yes, of course. I learned the basics of how to make images on filmstock, to make a standard image. Later on, you need to learn how to forget what you’ve learned, in order to do things differently, but in any case that education influenced the way I looked at a film; I figured out or tried to figure out how a scene was lit, and in what way a cinematographer could leave a stylistic imprint. What are the secrets? What are the tricks? My interest in the image has never waned; it’s always been much greater for instance than in the sound. It’s true that in the cinema sound is often seen as the poor relative and that everything is sacrificed for the image.
Were the others at Cahiers as sensitive to the contribution of the cinematographer?
I don’t think it was particularly because of me but we were all sensitive to the contribution of the cinematographer. Leaving Godard and Coutard aside, it was obvious that a director found in one of his main collaborators a kind of medium for expressing his ideas on film. Occasionally, there are happy encounters that lead to almost marriages, and in those cases it’s interesting to follow the trajectory of the director of photography. We noticed that there were a fair number of DPs like that – Joe LaShelle, MacDonald, John Alton, Robert Burks and, in France, Nicolas Hayer, Claude Renoir and Henri Decaë, just to talk about those two countries. So, there was a certain number of cinematographers whose careers we followed as closely as certain filmmakers, just as we followed the careers of certain actors, and would go to see a mediocre film just because James Stewart was in it.
ON PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT
In 1958, you started working on Rivette’s first feature, Paris nous appartient. By all accounts, that was an unforgettable shoot. Can you say something about it?
After a couple of weeks of shooting, Rivette, Jean Gruault, who had written the script, and I took stock of the situation. Given the fact that we had a very small crew, we were shooting pretty quickly. And after about two weeks of filming, we realized we had 15 minutes of film and that that represented not even ten per cent of the script as it was written. So, I said to Jacques that we couldn’t go on like that. Already making a film with no money is complicated. To make a 90-minute film is really difficult. To make a 2-hour film is even more difficult, but to do a 5-hour film without any money, well, I didn’t know how we would make it until the end. We would need fifteen or twenty weeks of shooting and Rivette wouldn’t be able to keep the same crew for that length of time, without paying them. And when I say without paying them, I mean without paying them!
We began working in the morning and we’d finish in the evening. At lunchtime, we’d all go to a restaurant and everyone was responsible for paying for their own meal, because there was no money. We all volunteered our time but it was even more than volunteer work, since it cost everybody money to come to work. Gruault and I told Rivette that we couldn’t go on like that. There was a big fight because Rivette really didn’t want to imagine cutting anything from his script. Then, at the end of three weeks, the shoot was interrupted because there was no more filmstock. Gruault and Rivette took advantage of this pause to try nonetheless to reduce the film’s dimensions. I think the final version of the film is 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Initially, Rivette had asked everyone to be available I think for 6 or 8 weeks, but in reality the shoot extended over a year.
ON WORKING WITH JEAN-LUC
Tell me about your work with Godard. Originally you intended to work on À bout de souffle. What happened?
I didn’t work on À bout de souffle because I was still shooting Paris nous appartient.
You didn’t work on Le Petit soldat (1963) or Une Femme est une femme (1961), either?
During this period, I was working on either À double tour or Les Bonnes Femmes by Chabrol and also Melville’s Deux Hommes dans Manhattan. And then I had a health problem that forced me to stop working for a year. I began working again in 1962; it was on Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux, which was my first film with Jean-Luc. I shot a scene. I no longer remember why, but Coutard was unable to finish the film. So, I was Coutard’s assistant on the film with a fellow named Georges Liron. Toward the end of the film, Coutard left the set with Liron, and I took over. As cameraman, Godard asked me to do things completely contrary to the conventional methods. I shot the conversation scene on the Champs-Elysées between Sady Rebot [Raoul] and Anna Karina [Nana]. There was a sort of travelling shot, and Godard said to me: “You see that you must cut the travelling there.” But I told him that that wouldn’t work because we would see nothing of Sady Rebot, just his neck. And Godard responded: “That’s exactly what I want.”
I was led to do things not in the habitual way. And I had good reason to worry because at the time there weren’t any video monitors. So it was only in the screening that the director would realize if the film was a failure or a success. With Jean-Luc, I had many a scare, because if his ideas were very precise on what he wanted, he wasn’t always very clear in his explanations. As a result, I was usually very anxious during the screenings.
When was the shoot of Vivre sa vie?
It must have been in March. I remember it was pretty cold and it was towards the beginning of the year.
You worked on Les Carabiniers in December 1962 and January 1963, and the film was released that spring, not long after the release of Le Petit soldat in January 1963. Both were commercial flops.
What’s extraordinary is that on the set of Les Carabiniers the crew was in a state of incredible enthusiasm, which is rare. We all thought that the film was going to enter the history books. It was as if we had worked on Battleship Potemkin. The actors were perhaps a little less carried away because they were all unknown and hadn’t worked with Godard before. But the crew was made up of a number of people who had worked with Godard before, and we all thought that the film was very special and that it would be a big hit
Why is that?
In part because of the subject, but also because of the way it was filmed. It was shot silently with a portable camera, a Caméflex. 
And Godard explained that he wanted to imitate the look of documentary footage from the war?
Yes, that too. The special treatment of the image and the completely unreal war. All in all, we had the idea we were making an important film. And practically the same crew, or a good part of it anyway, came together a few months later in Italy for Le Mépris . Les Carabiniers came out while we were shooting Le Mépris. We were waiting to know from Paris the number of tickets sold. The first day of its release we received a call in Rome. Coutard, myself and a few others waited for the news, and Jean-Luc told us that the film was released on the Champs-Elysées and at 2:00 there were 12 spectators and, at the end, only 3. We were very sad, because we couldn’t understand it. In addition, it was a difficult shoot. We shot it on the outskirts of Paris, and the weather was very cold. There were a number of adventures on the set because we had so little money.
In any case, I spent a lot of time with Godard and I worked with him a lot. But at the same time, he didn’t often come to my place for dinner. He wasn’t a pal; he was someone with whom I worked and with whom I got on with fairly well. I think the reason he liked working with me was because I was able to manage his kind of madness on the set. A crew needs to have a few certainties from time to time. It needs to know what we’re going to do, not tomorrow, but in half an hour. That’s a minimum for a film crew. But with Godard, it was often a crazy adventure. And somehow I managed to play a pivotal role between him and the crew. I managed to understand more or less what he wanted to put before the camera, without any precise explanations from him. He was rarely explicit. He spoke quite a bit with Coutard because it was a necessity, but it’s safe to say that he wasn’t a director who put people at ease. After he had destabilized the crew and the actors, he needed someone behind him to calm everyone down. You could say that I was an ambulatory nurse on the set.
I imagine Godard’s lack of script caused you a lot of headaches.
Of course. Sometimes he would ask me for something, and it just was not possible. If he asked me for an elephant in half an hour, I wasn’t going to be able to come up with one. But he granted me a certain confidence to renounce what was impossible, to renounce without making a big deal of it. In which case, we would do something else and do it differently.
But it’s true that the greatest difficulty on the job was always the lack of an effective base for working that is always needed with the actors, the accessories, the set, the costumes. It’s true that the absence of a script complicated everyone’s life, starting with the actors, to whom he would give a piece of paper right before shooting, saying: “Here’s your text.” That said, all the other directors I collaborated with worked differently, but it wasn’t necessarily more interesting.
Godard’s mother, Odile Monod, died in 1954. Were all of you at Cahiers aware of that?
No. In any case, with Godard, I always had difficulty imagining he had a father, a mother or a sister. For me, he was really an extra-terrestrial. He was someone from another planet.
What you say reminds me of an interview Godard did with Alan Riding in The New York Times, where Godard calls himself an extra-terrestrial who has landed on earth just to make images. (21)
Well, that’s the impression that his recent films give me; they come from elsewhere. They come from another dimension, another planet. It’s true that that does not facilitate understanding them. It’s like seeing a Japanese film without sub-titles and without images. You hear Japanese spoken, but you don’t understand anything.
You have described Godard to me as someone mysterious: you said he had a secret life. Can you expand on that?
I don’t know what to say. It’s true that there were times when he would stop by Cahiers du Cinéma. He would be there for two or three hours, for an entire afternoon. We would sometimes go all together to a screening. But there were also large periods of time when we didn’t know where Godard was, because we didn’t have the reflex when we saw him to say: “Where’ve you been?” Or, “What did you do last night?”
Do you have an idea why Godard sometimes suppressed the credits? It must have seemed astonishing at the time.
Yes, it’s astonishing but he often kept in the credits certain elements when he could play around with them. I imagine he suppressed all that he thought would ruin his pictures. In a painting, you have the painter’s signature but he doesn’t note where he bought his tubes of paint. I don’t think that he cut them out because he didn’t esteem the work of his collaborators. I think rather that he was concerned to remove everything but the essential. That’s all. Anyway, I never asked him the question. Also, it’s important to remember that there are no established rules, only conventions. Let’s say that he freed himself from a cinematographic obligation. Ultimately, no one managed to do this before him, except in a certain way Sacha Guitry, who spoke his credits rather than transcribing them as text. It was Sacha Guitry who on the soundtrack used to say Mr. W has shot the film, and I thank Madame Y for playing the role of …
As Godard does in the credits for Le Mépris.
Yes, exactly. Godard had a great admiration for Guitry. It’s true that outside of Guitry, who transgressed the tradition of film credits, there was Godard who manhandled them.
You mentioned your work with de Beauregard. What did you do with him?
Georges de Beauregard was a producer and he had produced a few films before Breathless. One of the reasons why de Beauregard produced À Bout de souffle was because he was on the verge of bankruptcy. He had no more money; he had nothing. He happened on this young filmmaker who proposed doing a film for such a ridiculously small sum that Beauregard accepted because in scraping the barrel he was able to find this sum. For de Beauregard, it was perhaps a last chance to not go bankrupt. I wasn’t on the shoot, but I heard rumours and it was by all accounts dramatic. I don’t know what happened but when de Beauregard saw the rushes he was completely panic-stricken; he thought it was over for him. When he met Godard, he was already on the edge of a precipice and he thought that Godard had pushed him over the edge. But his end turned out to be a new beginning, a rebirth. With the success of À bout de souffle, he was able to revive his productions. Afterwards, he made films with Demy, Rivette, Melville and Chabrol, and these were the people with whom I worked or whom I knew. And then he also made several films with Godard. During a period of my professional life, I almost never left de Beauregard’s office either because I was working with Godard on a film or I was working with Melville, etc. I spent a lot of time with de Beauregard and knew him and that’s why he produced my two sketch films. He offered to give me a hand in producing my first film.
ON A FILM NEVER MADE: GODARD’S “POUR LUCRECE”
You mentioned last week that you worked not only on the films that Godard did but also on the films that Godard did not do. There is a scene in JLG/JLG – autoportrait de décembre (1995) where the cinema inspector who is tallying up the director’s films tells him that the secretaries forgot the most important thing: “all the films you didn’t make.” Could you elaborate on this topic?
Well, there is one in particular. There were many projects that remained in an embryonic state. He’d have an idea and would talk about it for a couple of days, and then it didn’t go any further. But there was the project based on the Giraudoux play, Pour Lucrèce, where the production was all in place.
When was that?
I should check my notes but I think that it was before the shoot of Les Carabiniers, which was shot in December 1962 and January 1963.
So it would have been between Vivre sa vie and Les Carabiniers.
Yes, that seems right. For “Pour Lucrèce”, there was Anna Karina, Sami Frey and a third actor – I wonder if it wasn’t the trio from Bande à part, Claude Brasseur – and I did my work as assistant. With Godard, I looked for a location where we could shoot; he very much wanted to shoot on Louise de Vilmorin’s estate.  The two of us went to visit her and she gave her permission. After, I spent some time at her place in order to take care of a certain number of details for the shoot. We prepared all the production and hired a crew and the actors. On the first day of the shoot, we went to set up in the garden of her estate.
Godard wanted the actors to recite the text of the play; that was our script. Godard told me that the scene would take place in the living room, and I knew that when he said it would take place in the living room, I had to be ultimately prepared to shoot in the kitchen or in the garden. Nothing was ever set in stone with him. Still, that allowed me to prepare a work plan for the film. So we were all together and Godard decided for the first scene to use a long travelling shot. While we were setting up the tracks for the travelling, we brought the camera on the set and it began to rain. Very quickly the grip covered the camera with plastic so it wouldn’t get wet and everyone jammed into Louise de Vilmorin’s house to take shelter. We waited a half an hour, an hour, two hours, and it was still raining. And at the end of several hours, Jean-Luc turned to me and said: “Alright, Charles, tell the crew to fold everything up.” So I said to him: “Wait, it may stop.” And he responded: “No, fold up the material.” I answered: “But what about tomorrow?” And he answered: “Fold up the material because in any case we’re stopping the film.” At first I thought he was joking. But he said: “We’re stopping the film for good.” By then, I already knew not to be surprised by anything. But finally I told the crew that this first day of shooting was the one and only day of shooting for “Pour Lucrèce”. The first day of shooting where nothing was shot. Nothing was filmed. That’s how it ended and it cost Jean-Luc a fortune because he had to reimburse the production company: all of the contracts for the actors and the crew had already been signed. It was written in the contracts that you had to pay, even if the film wasn’t made. There had already been expenses during the preparation. And all that Godard’s company, Anouchka Films, was obligated to pay back. It cost him heavily. I don’t know if it was a carefully thought-out decision on his part.
In your opinion, why did he do that?
Suddenly, he no longer wanted to do the film. Why did he no longer want to? I think that perhaps one of the reasons why he liked me and we were able to work together was because I had a rule to never ask him questions about his motives.  I just would ask him, “What do you want to do?” And he’d say, “I want to do this”, and I’d say, “Alright.” Never “Why?” I never asked why or how. I would wait and would try to do as many things along the way so he could do what it was he wanted to do. As to why he no longer wanted to do the film – that was not my problem and I never asked him. So, I don’t know why he called it off. But I imagine he did so because at a certain moment everything became too heavy for him and he no longer wanted to continue. It’s an extreme case, but there were many times when we would meet in the morning on the set and he’d say to me: “You can get back in your car; everyone can go home. Today we’re not shooting because I don’t have any ideas.” In the case of “Pour Lucrèce”, instead of sending us all home for the day, he sent us home for a month, because 4 weeks of shooting had been planned.
There were other films, too, that weren’t made, but there was only this one that was an event – only with him could something like that happen. In the history of cinema, there are other films that were not finished, usually for financial reasons. At the end of a week of shooting, the producer would declare bankruptcy, and the film would be stopped because there was no more money to continue. But that was definitely not the problem for “Pour Lucrèce”. All the financing was in place. Godard’s problems came from elsewhere.
Was there a script based on the Giraudoux play?
No, there was nothing written besides the Giraudoux play; the play itself was a tool for the production of the film. And I had some notes jotted in a notebook, based on the play. I asked Jean-Luc a certain number of questions regarding the text, and he would say “That passage needs to be cut …” I was happy when he confided in me like that because it helped me to do my job. But he had nothing written down and, in any case, his idea for the film was to suppress the actors and the physical book to speak the text, that is, to read the play. He saw it almost as a reading of the play. He wanted the actors to stick to Giraudoux’s dialogue, without making any changes.
It astonishes me that Godard wanted to do a play in such a theatrical way. (24) Godard adapted several novels, and apart from Le Mépris where he follows fairly closely the Moravia novel, his adaptations at best can be called free. It’s often hard to recognize the original in Godard’s version. The most flagrant example is, of course, his King Lear (1987). One thing seems certain: Godard was interested in Giraudoux’s work. Hélas pour moi is a loose adaptation of Giraudoux’s Amphitryon 39. And in Prénom Carmen (1983), there is an explicit reference to Giraudoux’s play, Cela s’appelle l’aurore.
Yes, it’s true that Godard was very Giraldician. It was probably some kind of homage to Giraudoux on his part. Godard had the habit of pilfering phrases from everywhere that he would then turn into his own dialogue. And then suddenly he completely changed his tactics and decided to film a text in a certain way. It was really to film the text more than to film images or scenes. The book had such an importance for him.
ON JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE
You’ve also mentioned you worked with Melville. I understand his studio was in the 13th arrondissement. Can you tell me where?
Yes, it was in the rue Jenner. It no longer exists because it burned down. That street often served as a backdrop in Melville’s films. There is also a small street just behind where the studio was, a street perpendicular to the Jenner Street, where Godard shot the final scene in Vivre sa vie, where Anna Karina [Nana] is shot. It is perhaps the rue des Abondances. Melville’s studio was right on the corner. Between Godard and Melville, I spent quite a bit of time in that area.
Let me see if I can find the rue des Abondances on my map here … I don’t see it.
You know that the 13th arrondissement underwent great changes. We need an old map of Paris. Wait a minute. I may have one upstairs …
You think the street might have changed?
Yes, because there was a street from the rue Jenner to the rue Jeanne d’Arc that no longer exists. You know that Paris is not static; the city evolves … Here, I found it. The name of the street is not the rue des Abondances but the rue Gustave Mesurier. That’s where Anna dies as Nana in Vivre sa vie. This map was published in 1969. The street begins at the rue Jenner and ends at the rue Esquirolle.
Godard liked the 13th arrondissement?
No, it wasn’t that. It was rather that Godard liked Melville and shooting in this neighbourhood was a way of making a veiled reference to him. … Godard often chose locations, exteriors or interiors, in relation to something very precise in his life that we usually weren’t aware of.
We spoke earlier about Godard’s habit of working at the last minute, without a traditional script. In your opinion, is there a contradiction between this way of working and his taste for precision?
No, not at all. He needed to feel himself in danger, and therein perhaps lies his particular genius.
CHARLES BITSCH’S OWN FILMS
My first film, Le Dernier Homme, (1969), was a total flop. Except for the fact that I won a prize.
I thought you did a few films before Le Dernier Homme?
I did sketches for two omnibus films: “Cher baiser” in 1963 for the film Les baisers and “Lucky la Chance” in 1964 for the film La Chance et l’amour. And then, in November 1967, I began my first feature.
* * *
Bitsch received a loan of 250,000 Francs from Godard’s production company, Anouchka Films, to shoot Le Dernier homme. It was enough to shoot the film but not enough to finish it in post-production. As a point of comparison, Bitsch recalls that the budget for La Chinoise (1967) was about 4,000,000 Francs. Bitsch had a crew of 6 and Godard 25. Pierre Lhomme shot Le Dernier Homme silent, with a Caméflex. In 1968, Bitsch received another 50,000 Francs from Philippe de Broca and family, thus enabling him to finish the film.
* * *
Here is the grand prize I won for it. It is in glass because it was fabricated by a Murano artisan for the Festival of Trieste. When I arrived at the festival where my film was in competition, I saw the first prize in an illuminated display case and I said to myself, “The poor bloke who is going to get that.” And it was me.
It was the prize for my first feature. Then, little by little, I began to work for television and from 1972 I worked almost exclusively for French television.
All photographs from the collection of Charles Bitsch. All rights reserved.
- The film was co-directed by Arnold Fanck and written by Fanck and Edwin H. Knopf. Leni Riefenstahl is the female lead.
- Cahiers du cinéma, No. 48 (June 1955), pp. 40-2.
- L’IDHEC is an acronym for L’Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques.
- ENPC is an acronym for École Nationale de la Photographie et de la Cinématographie.
- Editors’ Note: For a fuller discussion, see Wheeler Winston Dixon’s article on Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and, in particular, Jean Becker’s comments.
- Bitsch explained that the title of his review puns on the British expression “Hurrah for the Queen!”
- Antoine de Baecque, Les ‘Cahiers du cinéma.’ A l’assaut du cinéma: histoire d’une revue 1951-59 (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1991).
- Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, François Truffaut (Paris: Gallimard, 1996).
- Between 1952 and ’55, Godard travelled a lot. See Colin MacCabe’s biography for more information: Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (London: Bloomsbury, 2000).
- “Tutoyer”: to use the familiar form of address in French, “tu” as opposed to the formal “vous”.
- “’Faire un film, c’est renoncer à tout’ Point de vue du cinéaste [Jean-Luc Godard] sur son oeuvre et sur le monde”: Godard interviewed by François Arnmnet, Gérard Lefort, Mathieu Lindon et Louis Skorecki, Libération, 7 October 1998, p. 4.
- For the 40th anniversary of Les Bonnes femmes, Bitsch collaborated with Canal + for the restoration of the film. After the film’s calamitous reception at its avant-première in March 1960, Chabrol cut about 20 minutes. Bitsch managed to find these parts and they have now been restored to the film. The DVD currently available of the film unfortunately does not include this addition.
- Bitsch published with Bazin in June 1958, No. 84, pp. 1-13, an initial interview with Welles, included in this issue of Senses of Cinema in translation. That September (issue no. 87), he, Bazin and Jean Domarchi published another interview with Welles, pp. 2-26.
- Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol, “Entretien avec Anthony Mann”, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 69 (March 1957), pp. 2-19.
- Charles Bitsch, “Entretien avec Vincente Minnelli”, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 74 (Aug.-Sept. 1957), pp. 4-18.
- Charles Bitsch, “Entretien avec Nicholas Ray”, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 89 (Nov. 1958), pp. 2-14.
- Charles Bitsch, “Entretien avec Richard Brooks”, Cahiers du cinéma, No. 92 (Feb. 1959), pp. 4-23.
- Annie Tresgot went on to become a filmmaker and one of the co-founders of the well-known collective production company, Agat Films. Four of her films are available for viewing in the médiathèque of the Bibliothèque du Film – Portrait d’un homme ‘à 60% parfait’: Billy Wilder (1980), Hello Actors Studio (1987), Un demi-siècle déjà (1990) and Elia Kazan, Outsider (1982) – along with La Punition (Jean Rouch, 1960), which Tresgot edited. In retrospect, Charles Bitsch notes that Suzanne Schiffmann, who went on to write the screenplays of numerous films by Truffaut and Rivette, was another regular at the Cinémathèque Française.
- Charles Bitsch, “Rendons à John Alton”, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 56 (February 1956), pp. 45-6.
- The same camera that Coutard used in Breathless. Coutard first used the Caméflex when he worked for the French army in Indochina.
- See Alan Riding, “What’s in the Name if the Name is Godard?”, The New York Times, 25 October 1992, B11, B18.
- Louise de Vilmorin (1902-76) was a writer and grande dame of French society; her Sunday suppers at her chateau in Verrières-le-Buisson were legendary. Several of her books were adapted for the cinema, the most famous of which was Max Ophüls’ Madame de… (1953). She was the companion of André Malraux towards the end of his life. Source: Wikipédia. For additional information on Louise de Vilmorin, see Christine Rousseau’s article, “Le tourbillon Vilmorin: l’oeuvre et le destin d’une romanicère et épistolière passionnée”, Le Monde/littérature, 28 March 2008, p. 4.
- In a 1967 interview, Godard paid homage to Bitsch, without however naming him: “I don’t have a screenwriter, but I have perhaps someone better, someone that [an Otto] Preminger does not have and whom I need. An assistant with whom I can speak, who is both my friend and my assistant, who doesn’t just help with the film but who helps me because he lives the film while I am creating it. A Preminger does not have that; he has people whom he pays, who work for him.” Godard in an interview with Henry Chapier, “Jean-Luc Godard à batons rompus”, Combat, 17 August 1967, p. 9; quoted in Sally Shafto’s “Filmography” in MacCabe, p. 337.
- It occurs to me now, in 2008, that Godard’s desire to film the Giraudoux play so faithfully may have been in response to Rivette’s similar experiment at just that time. After his trials in finishing Paris nous appartient, Rivette apparently wanted to avoid writing another script and he adapted Jacques Diderot’s La Religieuse for the theatre with Anna Karina in the lead role. By all accounts, the play was a great success, which led to Rivette filming it. The film (1966), although a success de scandale because it was initially banned, seems stillborn, and Rivette has said that his over-familiarity with the text made it near to impossible for him to listen to his actors during the shoot. Godard’s decision to shut down “Pour Lucrèce” suggests that he felt the exercise of reading the text would be, if not sterile, at the least limited.