In honor of Jean-Luc Godard’s forthcoming Film Socialisme (the scandal of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, which will hopefully be opening in Chicago at the CIFF in October), I am reproducing a reworked version of an essay I wrote some years ago tracing the evolution of Godard’s art from Alphaville in 1965 to its semi-sequel Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero in 1991.
From Alphaville to Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro: The Evolution of Jean-Luc Godard
When writing about Jean-Luc Godard, most critics tend to separate his career into different phases, each embracing several individual works, in an attempt to view his prolific filmography in concise, easy correspondences. But this is a dangerous form of simplification, for most critics cannot agree on when a specific phase ends and when another begins – or even how many phases there are. While many share a fondness for the iconoclast’s “earlier, funnier work,” depending on the critic this might be a phase that ends with Weekend in 1967, Masculin Feminin in 1966, Pierrot le Fou in 1965, or even Breathless in 1960.
I argue that for Godard, every film represents a beginning and an end in itself. Not one to stay in the same place for very long (how many have still not forgiven him for not making another Breathless?), nearly all of Godard’s feature length film and video works can stand alone as individual “phases,” complete unto themselves while simultaneously looking forward to the next project. Charting the progression of Godard’s career can be a difficult task then, especially in short essay form. However, Godard has occasionally looked back, as in his 1991 film Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro (released stateside under the ungainly title Germany Year 90 Nine Zero), a surprise sequel to his popular 1965 film Alphaville: Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution. A comparison of these two films should provide some insight into the evolution of this mercurial director’s style.
When Alphaville was first released, it was successful with critics and the public alike and remains one of Godard’s most enjoyable and accessible films; it is also one of only a handful of his films to have been released on home video in the U.S. in successive VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD editions, the latter two in deluxe versions from the prestigious Criterion label. (Unfortunately, Criterion has since lost distribution rights, which means Alphaville is not one of the half-dozen[!] Godard films to have already received a release on Blu-ray disc in the still relative-infancy of that splendid HD format.) Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, by contrast, is typical of Godard’s late work in that it has never been released on home video in the U.S. in any format. This is partly due to the “difficult” nature of the work. It is neither pure narrative fiction nor essay, neither entirely film nor video but rather a crazy-quilt mixture of all of the above. Also typical of late Godard is that its challenging hybrid nature seems to deliberately mark it as a work of art that stubbornly refuses to function as an easily consumed cultural object.
The plot of Alphaville concerns the mission of secret agent Lemmy Caution to infiltrate the totalitarian society of the film’s title and destroy Alpha 60, the super-computer that controls the lives of Alphaville’s inhabitants. In keeping with a trend of the French nouvelle vague directors of the day, one of the film’s aims is to mix genres in order to explode them – Alphaville has been summarized as a “science fiction / detective thriller / romance comedy / with heavy political overtones.” While this genre-riffing aspect of the film goes a long way towards explaining its popularity, it does not, I believe, illuminate Alphaville’s most important function. Understandably, a lot of critics and historians have focused on the film’s nightmarish depiction of a negative utopia, which is destroyed, finally, by the transformative power of love. For them, the key reference points are the dystopian novels 1984 and Brave New World and they usually interpret Alphaville along similar lines – as a fictional narrative set in an imaginary future in order for its author to comment on the horrors of the present day.
I believe, however, that Godard is more concerned with the relationship between the past and the present, especially in terms of film history. Keeping in mind that Godard wrote film criticism for nearly a decade before making his first feature, his early films can be seen as an extension of that criticism; “Instead of writing a critique, I direct a film,” Godard famously stated in a 1962 interview. When Alphaville is viewed in this light, as critical essay as much as narrative fiction, its key reference points are no longer George Orwell and Aldous Huxley but instead F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks. This is because, as criticism, Alphaville’s chief objective is to point up the link between two important movements in film history: the German Expressionist films of the post World War I era and the American films noirs of the post World War II era.
It is well-known that many of Germany’s top filmmakers, technicians and actors immigrated to Hollywood in the 1930s in order to escape the rise of Nazism. The new “Germanic” sensibility that could then be felt in American cinema was the direct result of the arrival of expatriate directors such as Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, 1944), Edgar Ulmer (Detour, 1945) and Edward Dmytryk (Murder My Sweet, 1947). The much beloved film noir cycle they helped to inaugurate might best be defined as a marriage between the shadowy visual style and exaggerated lighting effects of German Expressionism and the downbeat and fatalistic plot lines of the hardboiled American detective novels of the 1920s and 1930s. Since these new “black” films struck a chord in post-Pearl Harbor America, it wasn’t long before they proliferated, being created by both the original German Expressionists and the American directors, such as Welles and Hawks, on whom they were an influence.
So how, in Alphaville, does Godard use cinema to chart this evolution in film history? In several interesting ways. Most strikingly, he employs the self-conscious stylistic conventions of German Expressionism, such as exaggerated high-contrast and low-key lighting, but carries them to an even more operatic extreme. As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has perceptively noted, “(Godard) comments on the implicit thematic values of light and darkness in German expressionism by making them explicit, even self-conscious, in the film’s symbology.” Self-conscious because the very concepts of light and darkness are so prominent in Alphaville’s universe that the film’s characters frequently discuss them. For instance, when interrogating Lemmy Caution, Alpha 60 asks, “What illuminates the night?” Lemmy responds, “Poetry.” Later, in his hotel room, Lemmy teaches his love interest, Natasha, the meaning of love by having her read a Paul Eluard poem: “Light that goes, light that returns . . . sentiments drift away . . . I was going towards you, I was perpetually moving towards the light,” she reads. (Of course, Godard also pays homage to specific German Expressionist films: a dolly shot through a revolving door is a visual quote from Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann . One character is named Professor Nosferatu and some scenes use negative film stock in reference to Murnau’s pioneering vampire film, Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens . Several of Alphaville’s inhabitants cling to walls like Cesare, the somnambulist in Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari , and so on.)
If the film’s style, then, embodies Expressionism, it is the characters that embody film noir. With his trench coat, fedora and ever-present cigarette, Lemmy Caution is clearly modeled on Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade by way of Humphrey Bogart. This allusion also becomes self-conscious – Lemmy is seen reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep in his hotel room. (It’s also worth noting that Eddie Constantine was an American expatriate actor.) Alphaville’s “seductresses” have an equivalent in the femmes fatales of film noir, while the presence of actor Akim Tamiroff is obviously meant to invoke Orson Welles. Here, Tamiroff essentially plays the same seedy characters that he essayed in Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958), two Welles films for which Godard has professed his admiration.
Ultimately, Alphaville is the work of a cinephile. Through a complex series of inter-textual references, Godard has successfully shown, in part, how film language evolved in the first half of the twentieth century. In so doing, Godard is also celebrating the directors and films that helped make that evolution possible. But when he chose to resurrect the character of Lemmy Caution twenty-six years later, Godard’s purpose could not have been more different.
In 1990, Godard was commissioned by French television to make a documentary about the collapse of communism in East Germany. The resultant film turned out to be a semi-sequel to Alphaville with Eddie Constantine again playing the lead role. Although shot in 35 millimeter, the film premiered in France on television, thus lending ironic credence to Alphaville’s prophecy of the death of cinema in a line about movies only being shown in “Cinerama museums.” The title of the film, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, is an untranslatable pun; the word “neuf” in French can mean either “nine” or “new.” The title therefore refers to both 1990, the year the film was made and to Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 film, Germania Year Zero.
For Rossellini, “Year Zero” referred to the first year after the end of World War II when Germany had to start over from scratch, socially, politically and economically. For Godard, “Year New Zero” refers to the first year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Germany has to make a similar painful transformation. What does this have to do with Alphaville? Where Alphaville examined film history and the artistic impact of German cinema on a fledgling American cinema, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro examines world history and the impact of American cultural colonialism on a fledgling German society. In other words, it was a perfect time for Lemmy Caution to return.
As alluded to earlier, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro is not a fictional narrative (not even tangentially, like Alphaville), but neither is it a non-fiction documentary or, in the manner of Godard’s compatriot Chris Marker, an ”essay film” (the category into which most critics feel comfortable lumping late Godard). It features fictional characters and a series of scenes but there is not the dramatic shape that we usually associate with commercial cinema and the dialogue consists mainly of quotations from literature, philosophy and other movies. At the film’s opening, Lemmy Caution, referred to as “the last spy,” is hiding out in East Germany under an assumed name. He is visited by an intelligence agent, Count Zelten, who informs him that the Cold War has ended and that it is safe to emerge and return to the West if Lemmy so desires. The remainder of the film is a rich tapestry of sound and image upon which Godard hangs his thoughts and feelings about Germany at the end of the millennium. Lemmy wanders around the newly reunified Germany, asking the people he encounters, “Which way is the West?” The first sign of encroaching capitalism comes in the form of a street vendor selling “a piece of history, only ten cents, stones from the Berlin Wall.” Scenes such as this are juxtaposed with clips from classic German films (some of which have been digitally slowed down) and punctuated with inter-titles quoting German literature. The film’s dense soundtrack gives Godard the opportunity to craft a kind of German fantasia, mixing quotes from Hegel and Goethe in voice-over narration with snatches of music from Bach and Beethoven. (The sound design, always a highlight of late Godard, won a special award at the Venice film festival in 1991.)
The film’s use of quotation is also in marked contrast to that of Alphaville. For example, when Lemmy first arrives in Berlin, he says, “Once I was across the frontier, the shadows came to greet me.” This is an allusion to a similar scene in Nosferatu where Hutter, the film’s Jonathan Harker figure/protagonist, crosses a bridge that will take him to the castle of the vampire Count Orlok. The corresponding inter-title in Nosferatu reads “When he reached the other side of the bridge, the phantoms came to greet him.” No longer content to merely celebrate the films he loves, Godard instead uses this reference to make an equation between capitalism and vampirism. This point is furthered, hilariously, by an advertisement for “West” cigarettes featuring a scantily clad woman. For Godard, the corporate capitalism that brought down the Berlin wall has already begun to “feed” off of the citizens of the former East Germany by wasting no time in aggressively marketing to them as consumers. As Lemmy surveys Berlin at night, all gaudy neon lights and department store window displays, he ruefully states, “Christmas with all its ancient horrors is on us again.”
It is not until the final scene, however, when Lemmy checks into the Berlin Inter-Continental Hotel that Godard seemingly alludes directly to Alphaville. In the earlier film, Lemmy refused to let the hotel staff handle his bags, telling them to “Get lost” instead. In Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, not only does the more world-weary Lemmy relinquish his suitcase, he only gets it back after tipping the bellboy. Upon entering his room, Lemmy says, “Someone forgot this,” indicating a book on his bedside table. The hotel maid responds, “No sir, that’s the bible, it’s always there.” In Alphaville, the “bible” was a dictionary from which all words connoting emotion were systematically removed (hence, the need for Lemmy to teach Natasha the meaning of love). In the final shot of Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, Lemmy opens the slim volume and says with resignation, “The bastards.”
In the span of a quarter of a century between the release of two of his best films, Godard’s art had undergone a radical transformation. In 1992, the year after Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro was released, he described it thus: “When I made (Breathless), I was a child in the movies. Now I am becoming an adult. I feel I can be better. I think that artists, as they grow older discover what they can do.” For Godard, discovering what he could do meant broadening his concerns from film criticism to social criticism, from an appreciation of plastic beauty to an appreciation of pastoral beauty. After watching Alphaville, one knows that Godard loves movies, but after watching Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, one knows that Godard is deeply concerned about the world he lives in. The difference between the two films is the difference between criticism and philosophy, between innocence and experience.
1. Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. SUNY Press: New York, New York. 1997.
2. Jean Luc Godard Interviews. Editor, David Sterritt. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, Mississippi. 1998.
3. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard”. Placing Moives. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1995.
4. Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. Inc.: New York, New York. 1984.
5. Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Lemmy Caution. Film. Gaumont, 1991.
6. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Dir. F.W. Murnau. Perf. Max Schreck. Film. Prana-Film GmbH, 1922