Breathless but not broken-hearted: Jean-Luc Godard’s casual anti-Semitism

In a move that values artistry over politics, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will confer an honorary Oscar on iconic French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard on Nov. 13.

This week’s Jewish Journal cover story asks: Is Jean-Luc Godard an anti-Semite?

As writer Tom Tugend notes, Godard is considered by cinephiles and film critics alike to be “the ultimate cinematic genius”, and a spate of biographies about the revered film artist reveal a controversial and outspoken man, especially on issues related to Israel and the Holocaust.

Tugend’s investigation addresses Godard’s family history, his reputation among colleagues and scholars, and the three biographies that shed light on Godard’s relationship to the Jews. What emerges is a complex portrait that raises questions but delivers few answers.

Tugend writes:

The early seeds of Godard’s alleged anti-Semitism and acknowledged anti-Zionism may have been planted in the home of his affluent Swiss-French Protestant family.

In a 1978 lecture in Montreal, he spoke of his family’s own political history as World War II “collaborators” who rooted for a German victory, and of his grandfather as “ferociously not even anti-Zionist, but he was anti-Jew; whereas I am anti-Zionist, he was anti-Semitic.”

At the very least, it’s refreshing to learn that Godard distinguishes a difference; a theme I addressed earlier this week. What can be gleaned from this article is that Godard’s anti-Semitic offenses are much less clear. According to Tugend’s report, Godard once called producer Pierre Braunberger a “filthy Jew”; another example has him echoing the classic refrain of Jewish greed.

But Godard’s statements seem more an expression of casual anti-Semitism, which is practically a cultural rite in France, than hardcore Jew-hatred.

“There is a casual anti-Semitism in French culture that is quite different than that of the virulent anti-Semitism of the extreme French right, and that is very much connected to a kind of antagonism towards Jews in power,” Maureen Turim, professor of English at the University of Florida, explained. 

Film critic Bill Krohn, the Hollywood correspondent for the iconic French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, may have picked up on this in his defense of Godard. He excused Godard for calling Braunberger a “sale Juif ” (filthy Jew), by dismissing the remark as banter between friends, insisting it was a reference to Jean Renoir’s indictment of French anti-Semitism “La grande illusion.”

Turim, who is at work on a book about Jews, Anti-Semitism, and Resistance in the French Cinema, thinks Krohn is missing the point.

“No amount of reference to ‘La grande illusion’ allows you to make that kind of comment,” Turim said by phone from Gainesville, Florida where she is teaching a graduate seminar on Godard. “It’s not a joke; it’s not a joke in ‘La grande illusion,’ which is one of the strongest statements in the history of French film that anti-Semitism exists in France, and that it’s a horrible thing, and you can’t just turn it into a joke.”

“Godard should just say ‘I’m sorry, I spoke terribly.’ But there’s a whole way that people find to excuse such unconscious anti Semitism that runs through [French] culture.”

Locating Godard’s anti-Semitism is challenging, since, as the article suggests, his work reflects more of what might considered anti-Zionist impulses.

As Tugend notes: “In his 1976 documentary, ‘Ici et ailleurs’ (“Here and Elsewhere”)… Godard inserted alternating blinking images of Golda Meir and Adolf Hitler, and suggested, in reference to the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, that ‘before every Olympic finale, an image of a Palestinian [refugee] camp should be broadcast.’”

His other offense? “He has always been obsessed by the Holocaust,” Tugend writes.

Having spent many college nights avoiding seedy bars and watching Godard films instead, I can say unequivocally that there are few more fascinating filmmakers alive. Godard’s works function as a meeting place for art and philosophy, politics and class struggle, for the reverence of images above narrative, and creation over commercialism. It’s hard to imagine him as narrow-minded as the ‘anti-Semitic’ label would suggest, but I suppose it’s always difficult learning that those you’ve irrepressibly admired might not like you very much (I remember how crushing it was, in elementary school, when I read a Vanity Fair piece about Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism; James and the Giant Peach was never as juicy after that).

“I don’t think he’s a right wing, conscious anti-Semite,” Turim said of Godard. “I think he reflects certain things in French culture where you don’t examine anti-Semitism and its relationship to anti-Zionism carefully enough.”

As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in a 2008 Village Voice review of Richard Brody’s 700-page tome, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, “[T]he complications introduced by showbiz gossip about mythical and controversial figures are endless: While these stories make for compulsive reading, they interfere with criticism and scholarship.”

But even if Godard is anti-Semitic, is it possible to separate the filmmaker from the films? Is he any less talented or worthy of the Academy’s honor? In Hollywood (and I mean ‘Hollywood’ in the broadest sense—Godard would likely cringe to be lumped in that category) there is a tendency to conflate the artist with the art, when the art alone has something to teach us.

“Godard is great filmmaker,” Turim said. “I look at a fair number of great writers who are anti Semitic and study them, but I don’t stop recognizing that they’re anti-Semitic, in fact it’s a major reason I look at [French writer Louis-Ferdinand] Céline or [Ezra] Pound.”

Turim said she hopes the controversy surrounding Godard does not inspire censorship of his work, but transforms the conversation about anti-Semitism. Instead of asking, ‘Is Godard anti-Semitic?’ Ask “people who say that they’re anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic how they can conceive of the future for the current Jewish population of Israel.”

“[Anti-Zionism] never answers that question; it never looks at the real political prospect of settling the situation for both people.” A critique that only identifies with Palestinians and doesn’t ask the same question on behalf of Jews is a flawed critique.

How might Godard respond to that?