The Truth Is Two Faced: Godard at the Margins of Bad Faith
Our Music (Notre musique). Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Avventura Films, 2004.
Jean-Luc Godard has played martyr and matador throughout most of his career, casting himself ostentatiously in his own films, even when he’s not in them. His self-reflexivity is signal; true to his own dictum, he usually finds some way of putting himself in the picture and his Our Music (Notre musique) from 2004 is no exception. Setting both himself and an array of committed and/or transnational figures (of letters, politics, architecture) in the reconstitutive space of Bosnia, namely Sarajevo and Mostar, Godard plays out his own attendance at the European Literary Encounters conference. He casts his figures—including and importantly, both Arab and Israeli—against the motifs of the rebuilding of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, shelled by Serbs in 1992, and the Old Bridge at Mostar destroyed by Croatian tanks in 1993. Godard steps into the Balkan ring.
Shot in three didactic tableaux—Hell-Purgatory-Heaven—Godard’s film ruminates for the most part somewhere about the middle, the mean where polemics (Brechtian more than Dantesque) take place among the ruins of a Sarajevo emerging from more than a decade of war. Godard deploys a characteristically attractive couple of young women to negotiate both the philosophy and the rebuilding; two young Jewish women attend the conference, both pursuing different answers to their existential dilemmas as victors living among the vanquished. “Two faces, one truth” is the refrain throughout this purgatorial mean, and these women are indeed looking for the truth, and more than one at that.
One, an aspiring journalist aptly named Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), seeks her own homeland in the relationship between the French Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina and her grandfather. Godard sets the scene at a reception for European Literary Encounters, an annual conference organized by the Centre Culturel André Malraux in Sarajevo. She brings a letter from her grandfather, “not for the Ambassador, for the man.” Either reluctant hero or collaborationist without due conviction, he appears to have harbored her grandfather and other Jews in Vichy, France, in 1943, a contender she feels for understanding and compassion. “Why Sarajevo?” she prefaces the reason for her own compassionate mission. “Because of Palestine and because I live in Tel Aviv, I wanted to see a place where reconciliation was possible.”
We can take from this that Godard sees the rebuilding going on in Sarajevo as precisely this motif of reconciliation, of bridge-building between peoples and cultures. The borders the West will have had drawn in Muslim blood (to paraphrase Samuel Huntington) Godard will redraw with poetics, with cultural platitudes and do so with some Judaism thrown into the mix. As the wound begins to heal in the Balkans, he uses that very space as a butcher’s block on which to dissect the Palestinian conflict.
Lerner wants to interview not the French bureaucrat but the free man, to have a conversation; she wants to talk not of military or political issues but about psychology and ethics: “Not a just conversation, just a conversation.”In his earlier Vent d’est (1970), Godard (and collaborator Gorin) played on the relation of ethics to aesthetics—a thematic of much of Godard’s work—a dialectical relation wrapped in the programmatic slogan: “Ce n’est pas une image juste, c’est juste une image/This is not a just image, it’s just an image.” (Colin MacCabe, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics [London: British Film Institute, 1980], 60). She extends the immediately personal, seeking out the Palestinian hero-poet Mahmoud Darwish whom she thinks might shed some light on her Existenz by way of an interview. (This is important, at least forLerner who confesses that she spends most of her time in New York.) Darwish, doubtless a minoritarian heavy-weight, brandishing his pen and poetry in a manner that has made him legendary both in Palestinian and other marginalist quarters, lends Lerner his ear. Lerner to Darwish: “You have written that “He who imposes his history inherits the land of words.” Aren’t you underestimating the connection Israelis have to this land? You claim there is no room for a Homeric poet, that you’re therefore trying to be a Trojan poet and also, that you like defeated people.” Darwish is backlit, smoking heavily in silhouette and has yet to respond when an interlocutor abruptly cautions: “Careful! You’re starting to sound Jewish!” This brings him to life: “I hope so,” he says, “that’s a good thing. It’s well regarded these days. But the truth has two faces….” He speaks of poetry as some aetiological fraction of the dispossessed—those who have, those who don’t—the victors controlling the language (poetry) of the defeated by mere dint of their authority. “Poetry might be more profound in defeat.”
“I am the son of a people,” he continues, “who have not been sufficiently recognized until now. I want to talk in the name of the absent.” He argues his people “are only recognized because of the Jews. Do you know why we, Palestinians, are well known?” he enquires of his interviewer. “Because you are our enemies. Interest in us is as a result of interest in the Jewish issue. You have caused us defeat but given us fame,” he ruefully comments. Lerner avers: “We are your Ministry of Propaganda.” As a Palestinian, he is a poet of the vanquished. He argues, “If they defeat us with poetry too, this will be the end. I carry the pliant language like a cloud,” he continues as a beautiful Native American (Mexican actress Leticia Gutiérrez) glides through the room, alluringly punctuating his burden as if by some portentous ellipsis. (Pure Godard!) “A people without poetry is a defeated people,” Darwish concludes.
Godard places a number of Native Americans throughout the first two tableaux of his film—from the elliptical “Hell” sequence, as footage from American westerns counter-posed in the elaborate montage with other victims of war and pillage, to the trio who appear during “Purgatory,” bearing witness and delivering testimony on the crimes of war from Columbus to those of today; they appear as the conquistador’s reluctant “Indians,” the representatively vanquished. Their apparition reinforces a declaration made to a Muslim archivist in an early sequence in the Library: “Isn’t it about time…” begins the female, ironically silenced by her male companion. “Isn’t it about time, stranger,” he intones overbearingly, “for us to meet face to face in the same age? Both of us strangers in the same land.” His companion addresses the archivist who appears less than interested: “Both of us are strangers to the same land,” she seems to be berating the local, “meeting at the tip of an abyss.” Godard’s Indians come courtesy of Darwish and these lines are taken from his poem “Speech of the Red Indian.”Mahmoud Darwish, “Speech of the Red Indian” The Adam of Two Edens, eds. Munir Akash and Daniel Moore (Jusoor and Syracuse University Press, 2000), 127–145. Darwish pushes the identity politics envelope to the point of perversity, assuming “the voice of a Native American faced with the brutal reality of violent conquest, [he] yokes the Native Americans and Palestinians together, with the poem’s narrator urging a Columbus type figure, ‘Then go back, stranger/Search for India once more!’”Ben White, “Dispossession, Soil, and Identity in Palestinian and Native American Literature” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, 12 (2 & 3) (2005): 149.
Peter Handke similarly and infamously “yoked” the Serbs and Native Americans, this time in defence of the Bosnian Serbs, by means of a metaphorical inversion. Handke likens the geography of the siege of Sarajevo to that portrayed in the genre of the typical Hollywood western, with the “bad Indians” ( “die bösen Indianer” ) clambering high over rocky crags ( “oben auf den Felsklippen” ), apparently laying siege and waste to the passive settlers’ wagons ( “die friedlichen Ami Karawanen” —Handke also lays siege to the Americans!) in the valley below. Handke argues, despite their apparent upper hand, it is the siege-layers who are in fact the “freedom fighters”( “Freiheitskämpfer” ), that the “driven men” ( “die Zwangherren” ) in the valley below, while gaining our sympathies as victims and thus fitting the narratalogical sway of a good Hollywood western, are the real colonizers of land of the Southern Slavs …Peter Handke, Sommerlicher Nachtrag zu einer winterlichen Reise (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998), 249–50. Accusing Handke of some fetishistic “interpassivity” as he sidled up to the Serbian cause, the Slovene, as if in defence of his own authenticity as a “new European,” averred: “No wonder, then, that he has turned to Serbia as the last vestige of authentic Europe, comparing Bosnian Serbs laying siege to Sarajevo with Native Americans laying siege to the camp of white colonizers…”Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), 126-30; see also, Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! (London: Verso, 2002), 39.
The other longer, reflective face in Our Music is Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu), a French Jew of Russian descent whose character emerges slowly in Godard’s narrative through the purgatorial streets of Sarajevo. Late for Godard’s lecture, she runs through the streets of Sarajevo to hear her distant mentor reflect on the relation of text to image and other relations, filmic, cultural and political. “The image is joy,” he announces. “But beside it is a void. The image’s power can only be expressed through that.” As he displays some stills of a classic shot-reverse shot from Hollywood (Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell from Hawks’ His Girl Friday), Godard deduces this device is proof Hollywood can’t tell men from women … “The truth has two faces … Shot: reverse shot. Imaginary: certainty. Real: uncertainty. The very principle of cinema,” says Godard, paraphrasing Merleau-Ponty, “to capture the light and shine it into the darkness. Our music.” Really?
Godard’s views on montage and its codification in the seamlessness of the shot-reverse shot are well known and nowhere better expressed, in a most beautifully formal sense, than in his Vivre sa Vie (1962)—here, he not only dispenses with the convention but sets to analyze and stylize it in a manner that parodies the apparent seamlessness of it all. From the first scene, where the protagonist Nana (Anna Karina) is introduced, we see her only elliptically and from behind, with most of the two-shot setup between her and boyfriend Paul shot over their shoulders in the mirror across a bar—the Hollywood code by another means. As Nana later meets her prospective pimp in another café, a similar but more formal (and now legendary) setup is played out. The scene is captured in a continuous left-right-left arcing dolly shot, sweeping continuously with the pimp framed from behind, repeatedly obscuring Nana’s face as he tells her about her new life as a prostitute. At this point Godard’s camera lingers on a pensive Olga as she sifts through some images of inter-titles from Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. They appear as if only for her, unrelated to Godard’s disquisition (a reference, however, to his Nana from Vivre sa Vie, whom he also had watching Dreyer’s Jean d’Arc, portentously alone, and in tears …). She now finds her calling as the titles seemingly address her directly—an epiphany: “AND DELIVERANCE? AND VICTORY? THAT WILL BE MY MARTYRDOM. TONIGHT I WILL BE IN HEAVEN.” Godard continues, as if to give her victimology countenance. “In 1948, the Jews waded through water to reach the Holy Land. The Palestinians walked into the water to drown. Shot and reverse shot.” He shuffles images from this time to demonstrate. “Shot: reverse-shot. The Jews became the stuff of fiction; the Palestinians a documentary.”Godard had in fact made such a ‘documentary/fiction,’ Ici et Ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere) (1976) with Anne-Marie Miéville and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Begun as a Al Fatah-commissioned project with his old Dziga Vertov Group partner Gorin as Jusqu’à la victoire (Till Victory) in 1970, the project faltered over political differences, the deaths of many of their subjects in the violent clashes between Palestinians and Jordanians in the ‘Black September’ of that year, and Gorin subsequently leaving the Dziga Vertov partnership. Godard and Miéville returned to the project as a reflective piece on ‘text and image’ in which technique and positionality are examined (a patent revision, in fact, with a suitably self-reflexive, if subtly exculpatory narrative … Shot-contre shot) and completed Ici et Allieurs in 1974, released 1976. See MacCabe, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics. (Miéville has been Godard’s personal and creative companion since and is credited with ‘Artistic Direction’ in Our Music.)
But Godard pulls an interesting card-trick here in this “documentation” of the Palestinian peoples by means of a diverting but seemingly disingenuous parallel that works at inversion. He shows two images of Jews—one he argues is that of a half-crazed prisoner titled “ Juif,” the other from the final days of the death camps titled “ Musulman.” Without discussing them, this apposition does however advert to the perverse irony that the lowliest Jews in the Lagers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and in all the camps, were called “ Muselmänner”—the German for Muslims. Beyond help as a result of malnutrition, other ravages and despair, these emaciated souls—be they gypsies, Jews, communists, homosexuals or other “moral criminals” (those Lyotard would call “the jews”)—became derisively called Muselmänner, muslims, and were usually destined for a swift demise. Where eminent survivors such as Primo Levi have eloquently aired this nominative perversity for what it was—another interpellation of extreme otherness, of subalternity, a nomination of “the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose disposition would have a general significance”See Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (London: Abacus, 1996), 64, 77. —Godard, questioned on the subject, attributes this pejorative solely to the Germans, thereby aligning the Nazi and the Jew, leaving the real subaltern for his cause here, the pitiful Muselmann, to those Levi called “the crematoria ravens,” the Sonderkommandos who tended the ovens and other funereal tasks.Ibid., 25 Levi chronicles the horrible lengths to which the fittest in the camps went to distance themselves from the Muselmänner, to ensure a complete lack of reflexivity, of identification.
In an interview for Le Monde, Godard appears to do a little (selective) identifying of his own—it seems he’s cast himself as the “fourth Jew in the film”: “I’ve never succeeded in knowing what it really means to be Jewish. The only way for me to understand it is to tell myself that I’m the same: I want to be with others, and at the same time not with others. This is a feeling I have myself.”Godard, “In Sarajevo, the ‘Jew of the cinema’ cultivates a sense of optimism,” Interview with Jacques Mandelbaum and Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde in Notre Musique Pressbook (New York: Wellspring Productions, 2004). He describes his predicament and career well. Further, he is asked what he means by “the parallel he makes between Jews and Muslims in the film, based on the two photos of Nazi death-camp prisoners? Where did you get the photos you used for that?” His answer is telling:
The first photo is well known, it’s a picture of a prisoner with bulging eyeballs, which I believe was taken when the camps were liberated. The other photo, of a deported person, gives you the feeling that the end is near. They’re the ones who were so exhausted physically they were nearly dead, who were called “Muslims” in the camps. I’ve always wondered how it happened that the Germans called Jews “Muslims.” And then I realized that this was where the Middle East conflict started. You’re in an apartment, and someone arrives and says, “I have been appointed by God; I will now occupy this apartment.” I wanted to make a movie about that with Marcel Ophuls, where we would show the two of them in that apartment. We talked, we tried to solve the question between ourselves, as if we had the power to do so, but it didn’t work out.Ibid.
Little wonder it didn’t work out. The story arc would doubtless have been difficult for Ophuls to follow: from a German word meaning Muslim to its hegemonic but common usage by their enemies against their own to a story presumably about Jews boosting Muslims out of their Palestinian “apartment.” Woody Allen, maybe, but Godard needs new material. He made the same non-sensical assertions in his voice-over in Samir Gloor-Fadel’s 1999 documentary Berlin-Cinema, all the time wondering why the Germans called Jews “Muslims.”
Judith visits the Mostar bridge reconstruction and meets its supervising architect Gilles Pécqueux, who talks about the symbolic meaning of the rebuilding. Again, “It’s not to restore the past, it’s to make the future possible … Combine the pain and the guilt. Two faces, one truth … the bridge.” She reads some Levinas and, though perplexed about his ontological musings, remains optimistic. Godard can barely resist a beautiful woman reading a book; it’s a fantastic leitmotif throughout his work (Anna Karina in Bande à part, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Brigitte Bardot in Contempt, Anna Wiazemsky in La Chinoise, Marina Vlady in Two or Three Things). Judith is dipping into Levinas’ Entre Nous: Essais sur le penser-à-l’autre, a collection of essays on the ethical moment of human dialogue as the mainstay of existence—apposite, despite her protestation: “This seems difficult to me.”
Taking photos of the Mostar reconstruction, Judith turns to reflectively gaze on Godard’s Indians who skip stones on the river and, with their belongings in a laundry bag, pile into a beat-up car like some local Bosniaks. As Judith quizzically looks on, they appear again, framed by the bridge and the river’s edge, themselves looking on silently, bearing witness, replete with horse and traditional costume, as if to represent some solemn symmetry between themselves and local Muslims. In another scene some Muslims answer the call to prayer at a mosque as the Indians sit on a street bench, echoing the call with spiritual incantations of their own. Strangers “meet face to face … strangers in the same land.” The ethnic circle is closed.
A girl with a red bag is walking toward the camera. “It’s like an image, but a distant one. They are two people, side by side. I’m next to her. I’ve never seen her before. I recognize myself.” Olga comes into focus, her aesthetically framed beauty foregrounding the renascent Sarajevo. “The level of poverty is obvious. It is becoming more so. The landscape is strewn with wire, the sky red with explosions.” She is drawing a clear parallel between Sarajevo and the perilous state of affairs between Israel and Palestine. “As this ruin didn’t spare even the notion of culture, one must have the courage to dismiss it … When the house is on fire, why save the furniture? The defeated are the lucky ones.” She is mournful about the desolation of the exilic life. She is waxing Darwish, becoming Palestinian. Olga is resolute, telling her uncle— the translator at the conference for Godard’s literati—of her plans to martyr herself in the name of the vanquished. “Who’s speaking?” he asks, incredulous. “The Jew or the French woman?” Olga: “I’m not quite sure.” But there is one thing of which she is certain: she carries the guilt of the victor like a cloud. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” she mouths Camus, “and that is suicide.”See Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955), 11. Importantly, especially in view of Judith’s optimistic spirit and her short tussle with Levinas and his ethico-ontological moment, Camus goes on to say: “I have never seen anyone die for the ontological.” (ibid. , 11) This is, perhaps, obvious … And she decides to solve the problem. Godard is given the news as he tends his garden. Olga entered a cinema threatening a suicide bomb in Jerusalem. Giving the audience five minutes to leave—she was no terrorist, like her director, she was a humanist—she was shot dead by the Israeli special forces. No bomb was found in her red bag, just books.
Olga’s martyrdom is uneventful. She wanders by some wood by a river. A strangely camp-looking US sailor sits with machine gun at his side, fishing as he listens to the Marine’s Hymn (SFOR/NATO=US imperialism), barely offering Olga a glance. Heaven is peopled with jugglers, someone reading Street of No Return (Godard’s nod to Sam Fuller), some kids having some fun and another soldier with whom Olga, of course, shares an apple. Paradise is a damp squib.
Questioned on the theme of suicide in his movies Godard quotes Camus, having Olga mouth it for him. It’s a philosophical image he says, one that has “stayed with me.” He goes on to elaborate the ethical problem of the writing a suicide bomber into his narrative, rationalizing thus: “I thought, if I were to commit suicide, I wouldn’t want to throw myself out of the window—I’d be afraid of hurting myself; I don’t know how to buy a gun; I can’t ask my doctor to give me cyanide—he’d refuse; I can’t ask someone who loves me to suffocate me while I’m asleep. On the other hand I could, little by little, join some terrorists and commit a terrorist act. But I’d do it like Olga. I would achieve my suicide because I’d know the soldiers would shoot me three minutes later … I am an image who has his friends, the books, in his pocket. And I said to myself, that I can do. I expected this to be criticized, but nobody has mentioned it. It’s unchallengeable.” Godard says he wanted Judith to be the suicide bomber in her own land—the optimist drawn to the same conclusions—but Israeli actress Sarah Adler refused.Godard, “The Godard Interview: I, a Man of the Image”, Interview with Michael Witt, Sight & Sound (June 2005), 12 April 2007 <http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/issue/200506/>. Unchallengeable? Someone begged to differ.
Godard’s bad faith here is palpable. All marginal quarters and ideological positions are apparently covered in this superficially poetic even bet. Positions are spoken, adopted and disavowed. A mean only of artifice, neither reason nor virtue. History is both rewritten and obfuscated, the director using his political foe as fodder (fair enough) and his avowed allies as mere ideological leverage. He’d said as much in his earlier piece of didacticism Le Gai Savoir (1968): “What is at stake here is one’s image of oneself.” In all its poetic and aesthetic chicanery—it is, after all, a clever and (despite itself) sophisticated palette—we end up with a simple disposition: a man—it appears—just wants to tend his own turf.
But this is precisely the problem with the Godardian pose. He doesn’t want to suicide in case he gets a bloody nose. He wants to be Jewish and he wants to be Palestinian and he wants to direct the proceedings in the Balkans. He wants us to take sides but doesn’t know which one he’s on himself. He’s anti-American. He’s anti-European. He’s a peacenik warrior and feminist who pulls the chicks but refuses to be a member of that club that will have him as a member. He directs all this by increasingly cryptic and contradictory means that lend themselves more to video art than they do a polemic that could be taken seriously.