Late last year, Martin Scorsese made headlines not so much for his latest movie, The Irishman, but for dismissing our contemporary multiplex hegemony, the superhero movie. “Cinema is an art form that brings you the unexpected,” he wrote in The New York Times. “In superhero movies, nothing is at risk.”
I thought about Scorsese’s lecture while watching a retrospective of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s films, now playing in New York’s Quad Cinema and coming next week to Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. If risk maketh movie, then we arguably haven’t a greater a filmmaker than the French philosopher: Here is in 1994’s Bosna!, wading through a muddy ditch in a frost-covered forest, so close to the war’s front line you could practically feel the frozen breath of the Serb snipers lying just a few meters ahead of him with their guns drawn. And there he is two decades later, in the thick of it again, rushing into battle with the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq and delivering a moment, emotionally terrifying yet cinematically sublime, when his cameraman, embedded with the warriors, rids a pick-up truck that drives right onto an ISIS landmine. The explosion is recorded. The screen turns white. Then, a moment later, Lévy shows us the mangled camera, a reminder not only of the terrors of war but also of the sacrifice it takes to tell real and urgent stories in film.
And urgency is Lévy’s most precious emotional currency. Even though the conflicts he captures in his documentaries—in Bosnia and Iraq and Libya—have most been resolved, some long ago, his films remind viewers of the ghoulish price we pay when we sit idly by and do nothing. In Bosna!, for example, the philosopher blasts the west for failing to intervene, sarcastically describing the tacit European support of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic as “desperately seeking despot” and showing us the cost of this acquiescence up close. In one terrifying scene, for example, Lévy suspends his narration, his score, and all other cinematic effects to give us more than a minute of a Sarajevo street in the immediate aftermath of a Serb bombing, the cobblestone streets coated thickly with blood, the stunned wounded sitting silently by the dead in broad daylight. This is not politics-as-metaphor, the approach most American intellectuals, sadly, seem to favor, taking to Twitter rather than to the battlefield. This is an outraged cry for liberty and, above all, human compassion.
It’s also a cry that American audiences, particularly now, need to hear. Journalism, we’re taught in these parts, is better practiced the more closely it resembles an algorithm mining data. We’re told that the press ought to be dispassionate and removed, objective and aloof, a swarm of flies on the wall who report so that we may decide. And when our reporters fall short of this patently inhumane expectation, we deem them and their vocation fallen. Lévy offers an approach that is intellectually and emotionally more sound: Even though he brings us immediate coverage in real time, he is very much a partisan and a participant, forever haranguing those in power to join in the good fight.
Sometimes, they do: In The Oath of Tobruk, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all show up on camera, talking to Lévy about his and their role in the liberation of Libya from Qaddafi’s dictatorship and providing something truly worthy of that old adage about journalism being the first draft of history. And yet, the film’s most powerful moment, perhaps, has nothing to do with these bright stars. At one point, Lévy pays a nighttime visit to a man in Misrata whose brother was shot in the head and killed. Shot using rudimentary equipment, the scene is eerie, its lighting appearing to emanate from within the people it depicts. With the ghost of electricity howling through the bones of his face, Lévy again halts the action and spends a few precious moments giving the bereaved Libyan a long, tight hug. The expression on both men’s faces—one of anguish but also of gratitude for this fleeting bit of human warmth—is more moving and telling and real than anything you’ll see from Robert De Niro, say, or Brad Pitt.
You may find it unfair to compare these Hollywood actors to a politically connected philosopher like Lévy, but the Frenchman’s charm, in part, rests on the understanding that politics, war, art, freedom, and loyalty aren’t ephemeral categories that belong in disparate compartments of the human experience. They’re all part of what makes our species so frail and so rotten and so glorious, and they all belong together. The movies, narrated by Lévy himself, all feature scripts (often co-written by Lévy’s long-time collaborator, Gilles Hertzog) that are as thick with literary references as they are with facts and figures. The snow-covered soldiers we see in an early scene of Bosna!, Lévy tells us, have come down to rest and “stock up on cigarettes, a soldier’s second weapon, as Orwell said in Homage to Catalonia.” The allusion to the Spanish Civil War’s greatest chronicler isn’t gratuitous; it’s merely a reminder that the fight against tyranny is an ongoing affair, taking on a different face in each decade and in each region, and that artists are just as obliged to fight it as soldiers are, often literally.
Watching the four films together, viewers are treated to an added touch of immersion in what you may call, with a nod to Marvel and its superheroes, the Lévy Cinematic Universe. Libya’s towns remind him of the Sarajevo he’d visited decades earlier, and footage from Bosna! makes its way to the other films, a reminder that neglecting to support valiant men and women fighting for their freedom is often a reflex with western democracies. It’s also a reminder of Lévy’s singular commitment to the cause of human liberty, which sounds like a silly statement but receives steely confirmation when you see him on screen, in film after film and decade after decade, risking his life for his principles. In the Oath of Tobruk, for example, he poignantly reminds some of his conversationalists that he is Jewish, a fact more timid documentarians would’ve likely chosen to obscure. Lévy can’t; he is a central character in all of his films not, as so many small-minded critics have argued, because of vanity, but because his films, whatever else they’re about, are also a manual for being in the world.
When the sun is setting, he believes, you go to where its darkest and try to shine a light. When most do nothing, you spring into action. When others trade in empty platitudes, offer help and a hug. That’s a deeply Jewish approach if ever there was one, and a fine model for anyone aspiring to be an engaged reporter, intellectual, or committed human being.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.