Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that it will bestow an honorary Oscar on iconic Swiss-French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard on Nov. 13.
The announcement has raised a new question and revived an old one.
First, will Godard show up to accept the award?
Second, is he an anti-Semite?
Both questions can be answered with a categorical “maybe yes or maybe no.”
Godard, who will mark his 80th birthday in December, is one of the originators, and among the last survivors, of the French New Wave cinema, which he helped kick-start in 1960 with “Breathless,” still his best-known work.
He and his cohorts, among them Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, rebelled against the traditional French movie, and later against all things Hollywood.
The New Wave elevated the role of the director as the sole auteur of a movie and viewed film as a fluid audiovisual language, freed of the constraints of formal story lines, plot, narration and sequence.
As Godard put it, “I believe a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
To a small coterie of cinephiles and most professional film critics, especially in Europe, Godard is considered the ultimate cinematic genius. To others, his films often seem insufferably opaque and incomprehensible.
In the 50 years since his film debut, Godard has proven his vigor and inventiveness in 70 features and is credited with strongly influencing such American directors as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh.
Godard’s long career has been marked by constant artistic disputes and charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, as noted in three biographies: “Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70” (2003) by American professor Colin MacCabe; “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard” (2008) by Richard Brody, an editor and writer for the New Yorker; and “Godard” by film historian Antoine de Baecque.
The last was published in March in French and is not easily available. Material used in this article was drawn from reviews and analyses of the book.
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.”
Godard validated his anti-Israel credentials in 1970 by filming “Until Victory,” depicting the “Palestinian struggle for independence,” partially bankrolled by the Arab League.
The project was eventually aborted, but Godard used some of the footage in his 1976 documentary, “Ici et ailleurs” (“Here and Elsewhere”), contrasting the lives of two families — one French and one Palestinian.
In it, 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.”
Biographer Brody, like the other authors, is an ardent admirer of Godard the artist, but he notes that in the filmmaker’s later work, “Godard’s obsession with living history … has brought with it a troubling set of idées fixes, notably regarding Jews and the United States.”
Godard has been able to combine both targets in his attacks on Hollywood, and, of course, the Jews who run it.
He has always been obsessed by the Holocaust, and after the 1993 release of “Schindler’s List,” the film and its director, Steven Spielberg, became Godard’s favorite whipping boys.
As in many of his attacks on Hollywood, it is at times difficult to discern whether Godard’s hostility is based on artistic differences or anti-Semitism, or a bit of each.
The leitmotif running through Godard’s own work is the superiority of “images” as against “texts” or narratives, or, as he puts it, “the great conflict between the seen and the said.”
He faults, for instance, Claude Lanzmann’s monumental nine-hour film, “Shoah,” for its use of personal narratives by survivors and others, and proposes that the Holocaust can only be truly represented by showing the home life of one of the concentration camp guards.
Who is to blame for the Jewish preference of text over image? It is Moses, Godard’s “greatest enemy,” who “saw the bush in flames and who came down from the mountain and didn’t say, ‘This is what I saw,’ but, ‘Here are the tablets of the law.’ ”
For the untutored layman, unfamiliar with the methods and passions of movie making, this and other Godard pronouncements can take on an Alice-in-Wonderland quality.
A key may be found in a recent London Sunday Times story, in which a reporter interviewed one of Godard’s oldest friends, a retired geology professor.
“He [Godard] is on a different level from the rest of us, somewhere between genius and completely round the bend,” the professor explained.
Artistic differences aside, there are disturbing instances of Godard’s anti-Semitism, particularly directed against some of his closest collaborators. According to the three biographers, at one point Godard called producer Pierre Braunberger, an early supporter of the New Wave filmmakers, a “sale Juif ” (filthy Jew).
In another case, when longtime collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin requested some back pay, Godard noted, “Ah, it’s always the same, Jews call you when they hear a cash register opening.”
When this reporter submitted some of Godard’s anti-Semitic utterances to the Motion Picture Academy and requested comments, the request prompted the following written response:
“The Academy is aware that Jean-Luc Godard has made statements in the past that some have construed as anti-Semitic. We are also aware of detailed rebuttals to that charge. Anti-Semitism is of course deplorable, but the Academy has not found the accusations against M. Godard persuasive.