Richard Brody, who writes about film at the New Yorker and who, quite literally, wrote the book on Jean-Luc Godard, explained to me one afternoon upon returning from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that watching a Godard movie without understanding Godard is like watching a 3-D movie without the 3-D glasses.
Film Socialisme, Godard’s latest, features staccato-paced montages of short scenes and vivid images supplemented, at times, by cryptic three-word subtitles written in what Godard coined “Navajo English.” Though challenging to follow—I saw two people walk out of the theater halfway through—the film is undeniably beautiful, if at times jarringly abrupt to take in. But any recent consideration of Godard’s work, particularly within the American Jewish community, has been compounded by questions of the filmmaker’s alleged anti-Semitic tendencies. Film Socialisme was met with a similar distrustful suspicion, especially when it was learned that there was a Jewish character named Goldberg (which turns out to be only half-true!) and lines about Jews inventing Hollywood. So: Is Godard’s new film anti-Semitic? Well, it’s complicated. (Is it anti-Zionist? Er, yes.)
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott suggested that the first section of the three-part film could have been titled “Film Socialisme of Fools,” which is, Scott explains, a take on “socialism of fools,” itself “an old term for the anti-Semitism that in Mr. Godard’s case seems more like a vice than a full-blown prejudice.” Brody argued that while in Film Socialisme, Godard “mentions Jews on several occasions and in ways that are substantial and, to say the least, non-trivial,” for the most part the larger discussion of Godard’s attitude toward Jews “has been conducted sensationalistically and superficially, which is unfortunate, because Jewish themes have been important, even central, to Godard’s films for almost thirty years.”
Brody explained the filmmaker’s obsession with the history of the Holocaust in the modern world: “He sees it as the breaking point in history,” Brody told me gravely, “a black mark in humanity and art from which humanity and art have yet to recover, and might never recover.” Yet Godard’s parallel obsession with the significance of Jewry in the world shines through in Film Socialisme, and, as Brody pointed out, there’s no other ethnic group that gets the same kind of attention in the film. The references to Jews, however, in the fast-moving, highly visual film, are ultimately not many.
“This is an incredibly complex work,” Brody added, clearly in awe, “and even if he’s expressing his own prejudices, he’s providing ways to escape from them.” The answer, according to Brody, “is to see the film and think about it.”
That sentiment, that the film’s power is in its contemplative spark, is echoed by David Phelps, who compiled an enormously thorough guide to it. Phelps spoke to me about his interpretation of the film, emphasizing a line near the end—”poor thing, they’ve had their names imposed on them”—and insisting that to do that to Godard, or to the film, is antithetical to the film’s purpose.
Those who want to find anti-Semitism in Film Socialisme must be prepared to do the legwork. For example, according to Phelps, nearly all the quotes used in the Palestine sequence are from a Jewish thinker or text: “Scholem, Rosenzweig (and the Derrida allusion), Jakobson, Genesis, Song of Songs, Colpet,” he wrote in an email. The scene with a French quote from Genesis shows an image of a sheep followed by a clip from his 1967 film, Weekend, in which people run through a field of sheep. The accompanying audio is Joan Baez singing a Pete Seeger song in German, which was apparently translated by a well-known German-Jewish songwriter. “That’s what, three seconds of the film where he has that song on?” Phelps argues, impassioned. “If you want to say Godard is anti-Semitic, you have to deal with that much information.”
However, both critics acknowledge the very real anti-Zionist elements of the film (“I think that’s a question Godard wants us to grapple with,” Phelps told me), and perhaps in acknowledgement of the expected, and encouraged, cultural backlash, the final shot of the film is a black screen with white text reading, “no comment.”
“It’s a magnificent work of art, but at the same time, he has a way of saying something without saying something,” Brody explained. “That he has no comment doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t comment.”
On a Mediterranean Cruise Ship Steered by a Godardian Crew [NYT]
‘Film Socialisme’: Humanism and Paranoia [The Front Row]
‘Film Socialisme’ Annotated [Museum of the Moving Image]
Is Jean-Luc Godard an Anti-Semite? [Jewish Journal]