Jean-Luc Godard: a rare interview

The enigmatic French director speaks about the furore over his recent Oscar award.

An interview with Jean-Luc Godard was published last week in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung (available in translation here), and is so far strangely unreferenced in any of the passionate Anglophone articles written about the furore over his being awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last Saturday (an event he was conspiciously absent from). In the interview, Jean-Luc Godard seems to allay part of the storm growing over accusations of anti-Semitism, by commenting: "When the Holocaust happened, I was 15 years old. My parents kept it a secret from me, despite belonging to the Red Cross. I only found out about it much later. Even today I still feel guilty, because I was an ignoramus between the age of 15 and 25. I am sorry I couldn't stand up for them."

There is, though, much evidence to suggest otherwise (summarized here by The Guardian or given at length in this article for the American fortnightly, The Forward). The much recycled story of Godard calling the producer Pierre Braunberger a "sale juif" ("dirty Jew") in 1968 in François Truffaut's presence (an event which allegedly led to the collapse of the two director's longstanding friendship) is indeed, if true, shocking. But some of the other accusations leveled at him are more ambiguous. Benjamin Ivry, in his article for The Forward, submits that a line from Godard's 1964 film Une Femme Mariée ("Today, in Germany, I said to someone, 'How about if tomorrow, we kill all the Jews and the hairdressers?' He replied, 'Why the hairdressers?") is demonstrative of an underlying anti-Semitism. This seems both unwise and unfair. The film is after all a fictional work of art. Whilst the line is undoubtedly a tasteless joke, it is the character in the film and not Godard who is making it.

The interview with Godard in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung is enlightening in other senses though, namely how gratified Godard was to receive the award. When asked what the honorary Oscar would mean for him, Godard replied, "Nothing. If the Academy likes to do it, let them do it. But I think it's strange. I asked myself: Which of my films have they seen? Do they actually know my films?" He goes on to claim that the Academy must be making their award largely on the basis of his early criticism. When asked why he didn't attend the awards ceremony, Godard answered simply: "I don't have a visa for the US and I don't want to apply for one. And I don't want to fly for that long." It's hard, though, not to partly attribute Godard's no-show at the awards ceremony to a longstanding rancour towards the Hollywood establishment, who up until now have almost entirely ignored his oeuvre.

Godard's latest release Film Socialisme won't be coming out in Britain until April 2011, though when it showed in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes last August in was popular with critics, despite deliberately provocative sub-standard subtitles ("L'argent est un bien public" was subtitled in English as "Money public good") and the fact that Godard didn't deign to attend the screening. In Jean-Luc Douin's pensive review of Film Socialisme for Le Monde , he points out that what obsesses Godard, as it has done throughout his cinematic career, is the idea of "rejoining a family after having been excluded from his own, of reuniting with a tribe after having been excluded from the Godard house, after having seen the fraternity of the Nouvelle Vague fray at the edges." When Godard talks about himself as "the Jew of cinema", it is this continual search for a tribe, a band, a group, to which he refers. As he says in his most recent interview with Neue Zürcher Zeitung: "I want to be together with everyone else, but stay lonely."

Read Colin Maccabe's review of Antoine de Baecque's recent biography of Godard in the New Statesman.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage