Is Jean-Luc Godard Antisemitic? Not a Gala Dinner (Third Episode, 1999)

A year later. Now, the heart of the matter. I'm starting, this time, with the documents.

Document 1. 18 March 1999. Letter from Jean-Luc Godard to Claude Lanzmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Dear Friends,

After our meeting a few weeks ago, these lines to let you know about the following thing.
I have been contacted by Msrs Gilles Sandoz and Pierre Chevalier, who are currently producing a series of one-hour films for Arte entitled "Gauche-Droite" [Left-Right], directed by various directors. For my part, I proposed to them a sort of reconstitution of our dinner the other night. The title would be "Pas un dîner de gala" [Not a gala dinner]. It would concern a three-way conversation in a place to be decided, opposing what, to simplify things, I would call partisans of the image and partisans of text. An alternative title would be Un fameux débat [A Famous Debate]. The idea came to me as I was re-reading Gérard Wajcman's piece ("The Godard-Lanzmann Match") in the review of Woody Allen's best friend.

Cinematographically, this television film would be divided into two parts: the dinner, the actual debate, which would last half an hour, recorded "live", as they say, by a director chosen by the producers. Then three shorts of ten minutes each, or five minutes if the dinner-debate lasts forty-five minutes, during which each of the dinner guests resumes his position in what he deems to be a favourable manner. The production will grant each one a budget and the desired technical means. I don't know what you will think of such a proposition and ask you to please let the said producers, whose coordinates you will find below, know. Furthermore, we must be able to do the thing during the month of June, 1999. Amicably yours,

Jean-Luc Godard

So, there we are.

This marks the genesis of the Pas un dîner de Gala [Not A Gala Dinner] project that Richard Brody and Antoine de Baecque both include in their biographies, but with some inaccuracies.

Note that the initiative for this project was Jean-Luc Godard's; as is often the case with him, everything evolved from a commission (in this case, the «Gauche-Droit» collection Pierre Chevallier had launched on Arte television channel that Gilles Sandoz was to produce for a company that was then named Agat Films. Sandoz had asked Godard to be the central figure of one of the programs, and he in turn suggested sharing the air time he had been granted with two others, Lanzmann and me.)

Note the mention of Gérard Wajcman's article in Le Monde of December 3rd, 1998, "Saint-Paul Godard contre Moïse Lanzmann?" [Saint Paul Godard vs Moses Lanzmann?], which was itself a reaction to an interview of Godard the previous October 21st by Serge Kagansky in Les Inrockuptibles, where Godard declared, notably, "I have no proof of what I am venturing to say, but I think that if I put my mind to it, with a good investigative journalist, I could find images of the gas chambers after twenty years; one would see the deportees enter and one would see in what state they left. It's not a question of pronouncing a ban, as Lanzmann or Adorno, who take things a bit too far, because we always find ourselves discussing ad infinitum different ways of saying 'it's unfilmable', do. People should not be prevented from filming; we mustn't burn the books, if we do, we can no longer criticize them."

And note, at last, the mention of "the other night's dinner", of which this film project was to be, at this stage, the exact reconstitution and that had taken place on February 4th at my home, in the presence of Nathalie Bloch-Lainé, Alain Sarde and Arielle Dombasle, at Godard's request, because he wished to meet Claude Lanzmann and knew he was a good friend of mine. Godard's idea was to get to know one another, to understand the point of view of the author of Shoah, and to begin to settle the unspoken quarrel that had gone on between them since the publication of the interview in Les Inrockuptibles, but face to face rather than through third-party hearsay.

What, then, of this dinner?

Since the film was supposed to be the reconstitution, what, exactly, happened?

This is the essence of what I read in the notes I had saved from that time.

Lanzmann told Godard that he had been shocked by the interview in Les Inrocks, that he had never, not ever intended to prohibit anything, and that he in no way considered himself one of the "partisans of text" as opposed to the "partisans of image" for whom Godard would be the standard-bearer. Having watched hundreds of hours of rushes and edited nine and half, to be treated as "the enemy of image" was too much. "You're beyond brazen, Godard!"

I said, and Nathalie Bloch-Laîné backed me up, that Godard's argument, on the surface obvious and a polite challenge, actually concealed an additional perversity: imagine that, even with the help of the "good investigatve journalist", "at the end of twenty years" you have found nothing. What should one conclude? That the gas chambers did not exist? That there is at least a doubt as to their existence? What strange reasoning...

Godard repeated to us his eternal credo, his religion of cinema, of the inextricably linked text and image. He opposed us and developed his argument during the meal, his version of the Hegelian theorem we had of course understood but that was the very one that was the cause of confusion, «all that is real can be filmed; only what has been filmed is and remains fully real». And, with a hint, in doing so, of bringing grist to the negationists' mill, he said no, of course, that has nothing to do with the subject at hand and that to expect cinema to confront the event of the century, command it to tell the story with its own means, insist that it would not live up to itself and its duty if it were unable to accomplish this task and to give the thing form in its language and its syntax is just to pay homage to the cinema and recall how much we all, including film makers, in this case, have an obligation to this unique page in modern history.

The discussion was lively, but frank and amicable.

It was a real debate on the question of the representation, or not, of the Shoah, the powers and responsibilities of art, even on Lanzmann's film, Shoah, which I was unable to find out if Godard had seen in its entirety, but to which he referred with respect.

There were also amusing moments like the one when Godard, taking his leave and feeling, I sensed, intellectually dominated by Lanzmann, said this curious thing to him, which Lanzmann didn't know how to take, "It took us the same amount of time, you to shoot Shoah, and I, Histoire(s) du cinema."

But let us be clear.

That the remark about the "images of gas chambers" found «at the end of twenty years" by "a good investigative journalist" could seem over the top and be taken the wrong way, I am the one who emphasized it that evening, and I am more conscious of the fact than anyone.
That this manner of transforming Lanzmann--and, in passing, Adorno--into abominable censors on the sole pretext that the one spoke of the difficulty to write poetry after Auschwitz and the other considered the fictionalization of horror neither reasonable nor healthy, I also abundantly emphasized it during the same dinner, and there can be no doubt that that should be counted as one of the Godardian "ambiguities".

But that any of us, in the course of the discussion, were witness to I don't know what actual act or even Freudian slip expressing antisemitism, that one sensed the shadow or the ulterior motive in the entirety of his remarks, that Godard, in other terms, revealed himself on this occasion and exposed his true face, no, that I cannot say--and I do not believe any of the other guests at this famous dinner could have said so, not then, and not now, today.

Document 2.

18 June 1999. New letter from Jean-Luc Godard to Messieurs Gilles Sandoz, Claude Lanzmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Julien Hirsch

Dear Friends,

Following my previous letter, please find below a few specifics and modifications.

(I) The sequence in the dining room could have been filmed as is during our dinner at the hotel of Rossellini, Le Duc Thuo [sic] and Kissinger. I no longer think the idea of a circular travelling shot is required. A single camera, filming the three people in question in a conventional way, simply and fixedly. Julien Hirsch rightfully suggests using a Pro DV camcorder, which provides an hour's autonomy. If the exploration of a common cause, of shared sentiments, or on the contrary of opposing ideas calls for it, the recording can last an hour longer, with perhaps a camera angle that is either more distant or closer. If we insist on maintaining the idea of a circular travelling shot, it should be done only in the vaguely luxurious setting of the dining room. Hence a very slow movement in one direction and back lasting a half-hour each. A few extras strike me as appropriate, (in addition to the waiters coming and going as they work). Then we could extract from these one or two hours the approximately nine minutes allocated to this sequence. Theoretically, I am for a single extract of approximately nine minutes, and not several extracts, even if they follow one another through simple superimpositions. It is not in fact a debate that is being filmed, just the image of a debate; and it is important to preserve the idea and feeling of blocks (in this case seven.)

(II) The three sequences (blocks) known as "exposés" are introduced simply by the titles of the exposés. Scientists would say communications. In fact, it's as if in the realistic sequence of the dining room, at a given moment, we were to move from the person speaking outwardly to his inner self, as though passing through a kind of door, then to hear his real "credo". The shot or shots making up the exposé (he who exposes himself`) must therefore correspond to a situations--reconstituted, certainly, but plausible for this person. In the exercise of his functions as they say. In a reality that is his own and thus cannot be invented. Not a slice of life, as "progressives" used to tactfully say, or else it is up to this exposed subject to choose this moment of life. I would say, if I were not afraid of being about the only one to hear a difference, that the words spoken in the dining room are televised, while those of the exposés are cinematographed. In short, it's not a question of a work but the delivery of a belief, a conviction or a doubt, hope or despair, etc. It's not necessarily what the person exposed says that should come across as the truth, but the person himself seeking the truth. Still briefly, it's no longer a question of a conversation like the one at the hotel, however serious and sincere, but already a music. Otherwise put, before we said what we thought, now we think what we say. The camera and/or the eventual shot(s) must respect that, principally if other people are filmed with the person in the chosen situation.

(III) The last three sequences, known as film1, film2, film3, are introduced by the films' titles, but this time along with the names of the author and director of the film in question. Thus we are dealing with works, with compositions whose three faces and three bodies, visible during the three exposés, are absent. So first of all, we are dealing with an illustration, a plea, a prayer, a demonstration, a footnote, etc. But it could also be something more vast (even in about seven minutes) or something more ordinary having a less philosophical, more sentimental rapport with the concept of left/right.

(IV) Here, dear friends, are the few thoughts that came to me while contemplating our project. Actually, they, strangely, only define the exact shape of the vase in which we will soon arrange more flowers or less. May that make a prettier "bouquet" than that of TF1, Canal, and company.

Amicably yours,
Jean-Luc Godard

In this new letter (addressed to Claude Lanzmann and me, but also to Gilles Sandoz as well as Julien Hirsch, Godard's collaborator whose name would come up again several times in the course of these discussions), Godard had modified his project. Or perhaps he had improved it. And we went from the pure reconstitution of the dinner in the Boulevard Saint Germain to an elaborate plan in which the dinner would become simply the hors d'oeuvre (just the "image of a debate"), the essential constituting: first, three declarations of intent (Godard was almost ready to call them «communications»,or, instead of, as in the prologue, "saying what one thinks", according to him, one should "think what one says"); and, second, three "films" written and filmed by the three authors, but from which they themselves would be physically absent ("an illustration, a plea, a prayer".)

How did the project develop, then? Why? Under the effect of what influences or circumstances?

Once again, I come back to my notes, taken, as always, day by day.

First, one must know that, a little less than a month earlier, on Monday, May 24th, the three of us met at Lanzmann's home, in his impressive study, overflowing with books and photos, where, I think, the editorial committees of Les Temps Modernes have met ever since Sartre's death. A strange meeting where, contrary to what happened during the dinner in Boulevard Saint-Germain and the mood of unfettered expression that had prevailed then, the subject of our films was never explicitly broached. "The" subject, Godard said, "the thing", he stressed, leafing through a book, a review, a newspaper, as he had at my place. "The object", he would repeat, but never saying more, never saying "the Shoah", for example, nor "the Jews". Lanzmann and I--let's be honest, with hindsight this is not the least extraordinary aspect of the entire matter--said no more in this respect than he. To the extent that, at a given moment, no longer able to contain myself, I risked a brief outburst, intended, no doubt, to ease the atmosphere but which remained just as absurdly cryptic and made the air still thicker instead of clearing it. "Our project is no longer/ Not a gala dinner, but/ How to beat around the bush, and we'll soon have to call it that".

And then, one must also know that another dinner Godard mentioned took place on June 9th, eight days before his letter, at the Hotel Raphael (the same one he calls the "Hotel Rossellini", because Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini had lived there twenty years before). An even stranger dinner. And even, when I re-read my notes, completely astounding. Empty restaurant. Lanzmann grouchier than usual, moreso than he is at home. Godard arriving, unshaven, and keeping his raincoat on all the way through dinner until dessert. Gilles Sandoz seated at a table a little ways away with a few of his associates, peeking at us from afar, very worried, panicked even, easily perceiving that things weren't going well, no doubt itching to intervene and offer us his insights of a great, experienced producer--looking, as one of the three of us remarked during one of the rare almost spontaneous moments of those two terribly ponderous hours, like one of the courtiers who waited every morning outside the door of Louis XVI's and Marie-Antoinette's nuptial chamber for the confirmation of the consummation of the marriage. And, in fact, a sort of conversation, if one could call it that, that occurred in three phases.

1. The same beating about the bush as at Lanzmann's: Rossellini, who had lived there and that Godard remembered having come to see in room number 7 on the ground floor, one that he occupied for the year; an article by Robert Redeker Lanzmann had found fascinating that had appeared in last Saturday's Le Monde; a public conversation Lanzmann and I had just had concerning the question of Kosovo, of which Godard thought a trace should remain, in one way or another, in our films (Lanzmann condemning in principle as well as by instinct the American aerial bombings of Belgrade and I, in my last column, supporting my defense of the intervention of NATO forces with the concept of the just war); funny and clever judgments of the comparative merits of mineral waters the maître d"hotel offered us, etc.

2. Godard, for the first time, stopped beating around the proverbial bush, but still just skirted the outside, and reluctantly so. A secret about his father, who was a Red Cross doctor and who may have «known about the camps»; a muttered remark about «this question» (still unnamed--but this time the allusion was clear) which, he tells us, has never ceased to be on his mind ("I'm obsessed by it, it's all I think about, I stop thinking about it and then I start thinking about it again insistently"); a frightened look when Lanzmann, referring to his legendary friendship with Alain Sarde, remarks, "you are completely Jewified", and Godard replying, with a voice suddenly quite soft and almost plaintive, "Oh no, you cannot say that that way."

3. A third, downright comic phase, where Godard explodes but on the most absurd of pretexts, "I've had it, it's always the same ones who travel. For the time being, it's me, I've come to Paris five times. I've travelled 1200 kilometers five times, that's 6000 kilometers. And what about you? It's always the same ones who move, the Parisians look down on us." I immediately replied, partly out of politeness but in part also because I thought, this will give me the chance to see François Musy, this soundman I did Le Jour et la Nuit with and who works with Godard, in Rolle. "Well, it doesn't matter, next time we'll be the ones to make the trip and we'll come to see you in Rolle." And Godard then, with the air of a man who is completely panic-stricken because he has started an infernal machine and doesn't know how to stop it, "No, not Rolle, especially not Rolle,"-- but without any further explanation.

That's where we were when we received this letter of June 18th.

That was the climate in which Godard wrote it -- and which makes the extreme, fanatical, impassioned precision of these notes so much more bizarre, but also, kind and friendly.
I have difficulty, gathering up my memories as I do here, imagining that the man who pouted, griped, absent, at the Raphael and at Lanzmann's home is the same one who dreamed here of his "lovely bouquet".

The film, in any case, is there.

He has it, at the end of his pen and his viewfinder.

I do not know what he was alluding to in mentioning "five trips" to Paris, because I can only count three, perhaps four if I count our last tête-à-tête in the Boulevard Saint Geremain, where he first expressed to me his desire to meet Lanzmann. But it's not important. The film, I repeat, is there. All that remains is to shoot it. And to rediscover, even just once more, the tone of friendship and relaxation that prevailed during that first dinner.

This post is part of a series. To be continued.