Politics and Aesthetics in the Straubs Films


Jacques Rancière, Philippe Lafosse and the public in conversation about Straub-Huillet’s work after a screening of ‘Dalla nube alla resistenza’ (‘From the Clouds to the Resistance’, 1979) and ‘Operai, contadini’ (‘Workers, Peasants’, 2001) on February 16, 2004, in the context of a Straub-Huillet retrospective in Nice, France. Translated by Ted Fendt (2011). Found on mubi.com.

PHILIPPE LAFOSSE: It seemed interesting to us, after having seen twelve films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and talked about them together, to ask another viewer, a philosopher and cinephile, to talk to us about these filmmakers. Jacques Rancière is with us this evening to tackle a subject that we’ve entitled “Politics and Aesthetics in the Straubs’ Films,” knowing that we could then look into other points.

JACQUES RANCIERE: First, a word apropos the “and” of “Politics and Aesthetics”: this doesn’t mean that there’s art on the one hand and politics on the other, or that there would be a formal procedure on the one hand and political messages on the other. I will define these terms first. Politics is certainly ideas about the way to organize a community, but it’s also a real community, a certain distribution of spaces, bodies, words, capacities… As for aesthetics, it isn’t form. I would say that, there too, it is a visible distribution of time, spaces, bodies, voices… A film by the Straubs is always a way of placing bodies that recite texts in a space; bodies, texts and spaces being almost inseparable. A film by the Straubs is always characters who recite texts: none of them speak in a traditional manner—in order to express feelings, for example—or in a reaction to fictional situations. They recite texts and sometimes in the most radical of ways, like in Workers, Peasants, with a notebook in front of them. These texts are strong, literary texts, thus never sketches, never scripts. The people always recite texts that talk about community, power, people, property, classes, the shared world, and communism. Also, what I, the spectator, see in a film by the Straubs is a mise en scène that is always a mise en commun of bodies and texts, texts that concern these bodies themselves. The Straubs reject everything in the order of mediation, what happens through story, characters… Traditionally, a political film is a film where you are lead to make political judgments through stories, situations, characters’ reactions to events. Now, there is never anything like that in their films. For them, everything must be present in the relationship of bodies to these texts that talk about ordinary things. They also exclude all forms of representation, representation in the sense of a relationship between something that is there, present, and another thing that is elsewhere, absent, represented by what is there. That does not mean that there’s no absence, even if it seems to me that there is less and less in their films. When there is absence, it can be said to be inscribed in the shot itself, in the film itself, and that it is never situated in a supposed “inside-outside” relationship: in Othon, to only take one example, the absence of the citizenry is in the film itself. After all, there is always a privileging of the direct, the present, which is marked in the treatment of time and space, in the treatment of the texts: space and time are always real spaces and times. To put it differently, they are never presented as fictional constructions and the characters say their texts over the noises of cars, insects, or variations in the light, of the air with time… Workers, Peasants is, from this point of view, exemplary of their methods: they remove blocks from a text that are theatrical blocks, blocks of dialogue. In this instance, these blocks are lifted from a book by Elio Vittorini, Women of Messina: these are four chapters of an eighty chapter novel, a novel made of assemblages and using different types of narration. In the book, these four blocks are stories that the people tell to someone who was absent from the community during winter. The entire context disappears in the film so that only the stories remain. In general, the modifications that the Straubs bring to the texts are very limited, but we can say that they consist of two kinds. Firstly, and this is also exemplary in Workers, Peasants, one goes from prose to a type of versification: with the actors, they transform Vittorini’s prose, which is written in continuity, into verses. Secondly, they always go from an indirect style to a direct style: for them, there must never be quoted words, they suppress everything that is in the third person, quoted voices or narratives, they don’t tolerate such things. There are never stories, but only dialogues, meaning uniquely words that are words performed and always kept in the first person. From which maybe sometimes come certain problems…like in From the Clouds to the Resistance, adapted from César Pavese. While the first part, consisting of dialogues taken in blocks, is perfectly satisfying, to my eyes the second part is less so: in only wanting to keep what can be put in the direct style, they eliminate a whole part of the novel, which is essentially a flashback. And, in this case, eliminating what can’t be treated in a direct style is to my eyes regrettable because this has the consequence of narrowing the novel and concentrating on the explicitly political issues, such as the priest’s speech or the statements of the reactionaries at the bar, which ends up losing something from Pavese. But let’s say that it’s their point of view: they don’t like narratives, everything must be direct. With the notable exception, it’s true, of Not Reconciled and Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach.


LAFOSSE: That is the aesthetic position that, for you, proves a political position true…

RANCIERE: One could say that in general their dispositif (1) contains a bit of open-air theater, with characters that may be in togas or in ancient garb in an open space. And this basically reflects a certain type of political utopia: one might think of the public festivals of the French Revolution or the Greek theater as it was dreamed of during the German Romantic period. It’s the idea of a people’s theater. The people are both in the audience and on stage. There is a similarity between theater and democratic assembly. At the same time, there is this culture-nature relationship, this myth of the Greek theater as the city-state in the middle of nature, nature being both its location and its foundation. For the Straubs, there is always this relationship reflected between three things: bodies, texts, and what the texts talk about. And the texts themselves, what do they talk about? They talk about people, about nature, and the relationship of one to the other. There again, it’s particularly striking in Workers, Peasants where, precisely, the community is not in the past: these are stories and yet one could say that everything is in the present, one could say that the community remains in the present in the text that talks about it. I think they made this film in opposition to another film with a similar subject: Jean-Louis Comolli’s La Cecilia, a film from 1976 on a utopian community of Italians in Brazil who dissolve a bit like the community in Vitorrini’s book dissolves. There are outside events, new things, the newly founded Republic, and the community falls apart. Comolli tells the story, we see people leave, we witness their misfortunes, their contradictions, and we see, finally, how this crumbles. And that is what the Straubs absolutely refuse. In their films, the community may be done with, but it is always there and it will always be there. It’s like kinds of visible blocks of intensity that are always present and always in the present. That’s the overall dispositif of the political aesthetic in the Straubs’ films.


LAFOSSE: We were able to see the films they directed in the 1960s and 1970s as well as the recent films. Do you consider this dispositif to be found in all of their films, from Machorka-Muff to Workers, Peasants?

RANCIERE: There is most certainly an important evolution over time. I would say that, if an open-air theater is involved, we nevertheless pass from a one kind of theater to another: let’s say from Brecht to Hölderlin or, if you prefer, from a dialectic dispositif to a lyrical dispositif. This is a change of the dispositifs meaning that, I believe, is also a change of Marxism and of Communism between the films of the 1960s and their latest films. In the first configuration, what I’m calling the dialectic configuration, at the center there is a relationship of tension and opposition between words, what the words mean, and those who say them. I’m thinking in particular of Othon and History Lessons, films from 1969 and 1972. History Lessons is based on Brecht’s text The Business Affairs of Julius Cesar, a book that also presents itself in the form of interlocked narratives: supposedly living a bit after Cesar, the narrator goes to interview a witness, a witness who is getting rid of a manuscript of the freed slave who took care of Cesar’s accounts. Already at that time, and a bit like in Workers, Peasants, the Straubs made a selection: they take the dialogues, the characters’ discussion about Cesar’s career, etc., so that the film is a straightforward political lesson. Finally, these distinguished people, seated in a garden, make us understand that the logic of profit, the permanence of economic interests and class struggle underlies wars, revolutions, changes of leadership or forms of government. It is a straightforward lesson given across a series of processes of disassociation, gaps between bodies, texts and space. These dialogues borrowed from Brecht are recited by figures in Roman togas, who talk of Julias Cesar’s business affairs the way we talk about those of Jean-Marie Messier, except that they are in the garden of a villa in the present, arrived at by car. Moreover, their conversations are cut up by long sequences where people drive in the packed streets of Rome. A question: what relationship is there between traffic jams, the world, car horns, noise and the rest, between this contemporary urban city and the conversations in togas? It seems to me that there is an almost automatic distancing effect here. A game of current events is set up, a distance is created. It’s always the same and, at the same time, precisely, the distance is marked, the strangeness of this business is marked. After all, these car rides that have a pointless feeling are a way of miming the dialectic exercise. It’s a way of telling us to pay attention to the text, to those who recite it, and that it is necessary to learn to read reality on the model of the attention that one brings to the hazards of driving. It’s a bit of the same thing in Othon, Corneille’s tragedy recited in its entirety and recited on Mount Palatine, in the ruins of ancient Rome that overshadow modern Rome. It’s based here again on a system of gaps in the topography and gaps in the diction of the text. At the topographic level, first… This tragedy about clashes for power after Nero’s fall, this text, in sum, about Rome’s destiny is filmed on Mount Palatine between two Romes that are both absent: one is only ruins and the other is below. In most of the film, we hear, sometimes we discover, far below, modern Rome, with its cars and aggressive noise.


LAFOSSE: A modern Rome that has nothing to do with all these stories…

RANCIERE: Also, you could say that the text is situated in a space presented twice as inadequate. If we consider the diction of the text now… We notice that it is said by mostly Italian actors and in a monotonous and accelerated manner, as if the overall meaning was more important than the exactness of the text. It’s very different than what we saw this evening. In Othon, the talk is fast, a part of the text is chewed up, and we understand well that it is a supplementary demonstration that all these beautiful words are after all great intrigues between them, distanced from the people, and behind their backs. In these films from the 1970s, the dispositif that I’m calling dialectic makes it so that the texts are directed by their differences—the collision of words and things, the collision of the past and present…the collision of the working class and the nobility. And this collision is supposed to have a revelatory function; it is supposed to show the contradictions inherent to social reality. We therefore have a theater for a spectator Brecht dreamed of: the actor in social conflict is supplied the means to read reality, given the knowledge of what the words mean and so on. It is political cinema that operates the basis of demystification, of unmasking…of disrespect, and that allows a certain state of the world to be understood, meaning the state of the class struggle. The second dispositif, that we find later, for example in Workers, Peasants, is in my opinion completely different, even if there are still rather immobile bodies in a large, natural space. In Othon, Corneille’s text was sort of made into prose. Now, what is striking in Workers, Peasants is that there is, instead, a sort of versification of Vittorini’s text, like a desire to magnify each word, almost every syllable, and this is notably thanks to a kind of over-articulation. I would also say that their recent films substitute the dialectical dispositif of the past, made of disagreements and disassociation, with a lyrical dispositif of agreement between text, body, and place. In regards to the story, for example, it is now no longer about revealing the more or less seedy reality of the business affairs of the elite, but it is now about demonstrating in a directly visible manner the way in which people deal with their own business affairs. At its core, it is about directly demonstrating the power of a communism that is not a goal to obtain by arming oneself for a future battle, which is also not a past, nostalgic episode, but that is already and still here, and that, in a sense, is here forever. Therefore, there is a dispositif of agreement between what is said and the words that express it: we are no longer in the dissociation between words and the visible but rather in the relationship between equality itself in the visible—that is there, this stays, this continues—and speech, both dramatic and lyric. By dramatic speech, I mean words exchanged by characters in conversation. The construction of Workers, Peasants is remarkable from this point of view. Groups oppose one another: workers and peasants, leaders and masses, men and women… Each speaks in turn, lays out his or her problem. Each is in his own shot—it is very rare in the Straubs’ films that partners in an exchange are in the same shot; when they are, it’s generally from behind. Each one reads his text or looks at it or looks in front of him in an undetermined direction. None of the characters look at those that they are talking to. It’s like a kind of absolutizing of words, it’s as if everything was in the words. And these discussions between workers and peasants, between leaders and masses, between men and women, between the faithful and deserters, etc. are not heartrending dramas like in Comolli, for whom these conflicts are dissociated elements; in the Straubs’ films, these are, to the contrary, elements of consistency. This communist people exists. It exists in its own division and, at its core, by its capacity to affirm the division.


LAFOSSE: Ah, dialectics…

RANCIERE: Yes, we find there their dialectical side. For there to be a community, it must be divided. One exists by two. And it is dramatic speech that speaks of this division, but not in the style of a story because they don’t recount: they declare. Thus to declare is the occasion to demonstrate capacity for communism, to begin by an ability to speak. And, on this subject, what is remarkable is that the working class characters are played by non-professional actors who do not speak a working class language: they speak a kind of poetic language, it’s practically Virgil. In such a way that there is something like a game, something like a jumbling of hierarchies. The more humble the characters are, the more grandiose their language and tone. Think of the widow Biliotti, a country character played by Angela Nugara, who plays the mother in Sicilia!: she incarnates the nobility of the poor, a nobility of speech, an ability to elevate herself and to speak by bringing the greatest attention to language itself. There is nothing of a working class language; it consists, on the contrary, of a magnification. We can think of Carmela too, the one who does the accounts in Workers, Peasants and who says who leaves, who returns: everything is performed in her mouth; we constantly see her try to be at the height of the situation by her speech. We have before us the affirmation of a capacity for elevated language. And, as this speech is deployed, I would say that we pass from the dramatic content—in the sense of the exchange of arguments and disputes—to a common lyric power of words that affirm the community as it is. This culminates in the Ricotta episode and the episode of the departure to go looking for laurel, which are such great utopias staged through speech. Let’s take the Ricotta episode… She tells how it is made, how they come together around her, how it is shared, and we see that all the power of the community is put in three things: first, the savoir-faire, in the sense that, for the Straubs, there is a peasant savoir-faire that is opposed to a vision of socialist engineers or technicians; secondly, the grandness of the ceremony of sharing to which this savoir-faire leads; thirdly, language itself. This is interesting because an elevated culture—which is the culture of speech or based on speech—is often opposed to a working class culture—which is based on gesture and artisanal, manual savoir-faire. Now, here, this opposition is refuted absolutely: the same power is in the Ricotta and in the speech that talks about this Ricotta. There are no working class arts and, opposite them, bourgeois arts or arts cultivated by speech, but a shared intensity to words and what words says. At this moment, communism becomes an intensity, a degree of intensity of perceptible experiences. There is equivalency between Ricotta, sharing, and eloquent speech. It’s almost the same thing in Sicilia!, when the mother evokes the past. She is seen preparing her small dinner, there are long shots of the fish cooking, then she gets up and starts to talk of the lovers she has had, evokes the grandfather who was socialist but who nonetheless led the St. Joseph’s Day parade, and all of this is like a kind of working class grandeur that is found at all levels: in savoir-faire, in language, in storytelling, in tradition. But let’s go back to Workers, Peasants: there, Ricotta is like a communist Eucharist…like a consecration of the community. And I believe that that is an illustration of the reversal of the Straubs’ initial dispositif: the dialectical theater of the past becomes the theater where the dialectic is judged for its pretension to judge. Let’s look at Umiliati, which is in a way the sequel to Workers, Peasants, and let’s examine its dispositif. These are also short extracts from the end of Vittorini’s book—if it is only from there—it’s the end of the community, the moment when it explodes, through contact with the outside. A more or less enigmatic character who serves as prosecutor explains to the people that the world is a world of properties and that, consequently, they do not have the right to settle like this on a small bit of earth in order to make a community. There are also three characters, who are hunters in Vittorini’s book and partisans in the Straubs’ film. And the prosecutor and the partisans explain to the others that they are rather backward: together, they form the tribunal of history. The partisans are comfortably set up in the shade, in the ravine, while the members of the community are up high, under the sun, filmed like prisoners about to be executed. They teach them the lesson, they explain to them the laws of the economy like Brecht explained them in The Business Affairs of Julius Cesar. Except here the mise en scène itself refutes these economic laws. Visually, for example, it is apparent that this discourse and these lessons bore the peasants, the worker peasants of this commune. You can see how much the mise en scène refutes them, in the smallest gestures, such as that of the old peasant who lends a hand when another is speaking in order to finish off by simply saying, “Here, it’s another affair.” What other affair? We don’t really know, but a distance and a refutation are created, a refutation of the triumphant discourse of the laws of history and progress. Likewise, when the one who I’m calling the prosecutor explains these rules to them, it is a speech worse than a legal speech, and he delivers it with a wild look and a ventriloquist’s manner of talking, which makes what should be a brief statement become a funeral dirge, so that the dialectician clearly refutes himself. And then there’s obviously the last shot: Siracusa, the leader’s companion, is prostrated on the doorstep of the house, her head in her hands, it’s over but, when the camera lowers, her hand becomes a tight fist. That is a final gesture, a final image that comes to refute the tribunal of history.


LAFOSSE: Space plays a very important role in the system the Straubs set up…

RANCIERE: We can talk a bit about that if you want. What is striking in Workers, Peasants, as in their latest films, is that the place of the characters is more and more nature itself. First, nature is the subject of the discussion—hence the argument in Workers, Peasants: on one side, there are workers and what one could call the soviet ideology that wants to put nature to use, to make roads, to transform it and so on, and to order total mobilization, and, on the other side, one finds peasants, those who agree on the time of germination, of waiting, of the harvest, of rest, of respect for the earth. That is the first aspect. Next, there is nature, which is before speech, and which eventually gives up its place and its power to speech. It’s what is there, what is always there without reason, before all reason, and what does not stop acting, reproducing itself and altering itself at the same time. From which comes the importance of the continual agitation while the men and women are talking: nature doesn’t stop moving. These are insect noises, bird songs, the effects of light on the plants, the trees, on the moss-covered rocks and the dead leaves… The activity of this undomesticated nature is constant. You’ll note that we’re talking about a peasant community but that at no time do we see it in the shot, for example: this is clearly voluntary. The partner is the wild nature, the ravine, undomesticated nature; and, after all, communism, for the Straubs, in this last part of their work, must necessarily be linked to a nature without rhyme or reason. There is also a dispositif that pronounces a rupture with the idea of nature that accompanied Marxism for a long time: nature as transformable material that man must model in his image and the idea of history as the humanization of nature. One could say that, now, the Straubs’ politics and mise en scène stands up for a certain inhumanity of nature. Nature is like a continual power and rumble that limits humans.


LAFOSSE: In your opinion, this change, this reversal can be situated at a precise point in their work?

RANCIERE: I would say that the film that is the turning point is From the Clouds to the Resistance, a film from 1978 adapted from Pavese, that I’ve already talked about and that has two parts: first, six of the Dialogues with Leucò, then very selective extracts from The Moon and the Bonfires. I believe that this meeting of the Straubs with these Dialogues is very important. Pavese wrote Dialogues with Leucò early in the post-war period, at the time when he rejoined the Communist Party and when he was writing a novel to announce this conversation, The Comrade. But, while rejoining the Communist Party, Pavese took a considerable theoretical distance not only vis-a-vis contemporary political and social events, but also from the technical tradition of Marxism. Thus, what he wanted to do with Dialogues with Leucò was to root what had been fascism, war, resistance, and communism in a much older drama of the relationship between culture and nature. This is why he went and looked at ancient mythology and, basically, what he recreated is a drama about the origins of tragedy: we can think of the original proceedings of Greek tragedy with the quarrel between the old and new gods, the establishment of justice, the passage from a maternal time—of the time of mother earth, the titans, the monsters—to the order of the Olympian gods. In 1978, the Straubs directed these six Dialogues with Leucò on the theme of the creation of a universe of justice and, consequently, on the time of the differentiation of gods and men, on the end of the religion of the earth. But, while they directed these dialogues, I believe that they placed themselves in a drama that marks their political aesthetic more and more. At this moment, the relationship of bodies to space becomes more and more this relationship to an inhuman nature, an inhuman nature that is the basis of another idea of culture. We move to a peasant or ecological communism, opposed to the communism of Soviet engineers. After all, this nature has no pastoral qualities. It is an ancient nature: a play of forces, a play of conflicting elements. One thus finds in their work what one could call an ancient philosophy of the elements of nature—water, earth, fire, air—and their conflict. To put it differently, with this film in 1978, there is a division between the heavy elements—water, earth, elements of heaviness, duration, secretiveness, waiting—and the light, volatile elements—brightness, light, elevation, air and fire. In a sense, Workers, Peasants is a discussion between men of fire and men of the earth, and everything plays on this war that also takes places in this setting. All the elements intervene all the time. You can think of the roles that water and air, insects, and wind play, the role that fire (meaning the sun) plays. The film is a war of elements that arrives at a reconciliation: the story of the Ricotta, the story of the fire, how to make the fire… The reconciliation of the elements is conceived as an apotheosis of the community, knowing that, at the same time, nature is also what is there before all arguments, as what is nameless. That’s why I say that for me, at a point, there is in their films a reversal of the dispositif between two communisms and two mise en scènes. In the first period, what was important in their work was the power of words over images—think of Moses and Aron, with Moses as the man of words and Aron the man of images, and the Straubs who, in this conflict, are on Moses’ side—and, this period is followed by a lyrical model where the power of what precedes words affirms itself over words, when something unnameable appears that gives words their meaning, all while imposing on them a form of respect. I have voluntarily opposed these two models in a rather blunt manner here, but I think that this opposition exists.


LAFOSSE: What you’re saying, and what you’ve shown with these examples is that at a certain moment, there is an ideological reversal for the Straubs: they move from a worker’s communism to a peasant’s communism, they move away from a Marxist dialect à la Brecht, to get closer to a “defense of the earth” communism.

RANCIERE: That’s the general context, but when I say that there is a dialectical model and a lyrical model, or a model of dissociation versus a model of agreement…at the same time, of course, the mise en scène only exists in so far as it works these two logics. And, there again, one could say that films like Workers, Peasants and Umiliati are a way of putting these two logics in the same space. In both, there is this play between a dramatic, dialectical dispositif of exchanges and a lyrical dispositif of affirmations…

LAFOSSE: And of movements of nature, as if everything was also in agreement: the respiration of the men, the vegetation and things.

AUDIENCE: You’ve talked about singing, but never of operatic singing, while sometimes there are poses that could make you think that the Straubs think of themselves like that. Is the presence of singing a new element in the Straubs’ films or has it always been there?

RANCIERE: If we talk about the direction of the music, in the literal sense of the word, it is certain that music has always been present in the Straubs’ film. Proof of this is that the first film of theirs that was seen—even if it isn’t the first that they made—was Chronicle of Anne Magdalena Bach, in 1967. Then, in 1974, there was Moses and Aron and, in 1996, From Today to Tomorrow. Thus, there is a very strong relationship with music. But, to respond to your question, we also note a stronger and stronger relationship to a form of total spectacle. I talked in regards to them about the Greek tragedy as it was thought about during the Romantic era, and we know that at first, opera wanted to be a recreation of Greek tragedy. This idea of a total spectacle is there, a complete spectacle that is a hymn. In regards to their films, you could therefore talk about operatic qualities. To this is added a displacement of the status of speech itself, an obvious displacement when you see Othon—with its delivery and way of talking that make it so the close relationship between language and speaker does not exist at all—and Workers, Peasants—where Vittorini’s sentences are treated like tragic verse, indeed as an operatic element. In this sense, there has also been an evolution and you could say a new element.

AUDIENCE: In Workers, Peasants or films like that, the actors sing the text…

RANCIERE: I wouldn’t say that they sing the text. They don’t sing it literally, but let’s say that they utter it in the fashion of poetry which implies the idea of singing: in the vein of lyrical poetry. The reference to a language that would not separate prosaic speech from song is very present. In that film, one finds the utopia of the Romantic period when speech and song formed a primary entity.


LAFOSSE: Over the course of these days we’ve thought about the coexistence in the Straubs’ films of materialism and spirituality. Could we address this question?

RANCIERE: It’s a bit complicated and rather dangerous. Basically, in their work there is a kind of radical materialism in the mise en scène that wants to eliminate every representational element and that wants everything to be shown, direct, present. And there is equally an idea of communism as an entirely material matter: in the place of relationships of production and productive forces, there is the Ricotta, snow, ice, stars… So there is this aspect that can be qualified as materialistic. But, at the same time, this materialism recalls the dream of the Romantic era (and that’s due to their proximity with Hölderlin and German Romanticism), meaning to the idea of a world where there would no longer be on one side the intelligible world, thought, and law and, on the other, the visible world, but a world where a common law would be incorporated in the visible world itself and where there would no longer be any opposition. This is what gives the Ricotta a Eucharistic quality, a desire to transform everything—gesture, human speech—into a sacrament. In a way it means uprooting sacraments to the heaven in order to now consecrate human bread and blood in place of the bread and blood transformed by the son of God. It is in this way that a materialism that is not against idealism, against spiritualism, is found in the Straubs’ films. There is also a second aspect that responds to this question but that, for me, is less interesting. It’s an aspect that’s a bit provocative and fashionable: you constantly are meeting people who explain that Marxism is religion, that Brecht was Catholic and Claudel a materialist… For me it’s a game, a rather simple reversal and, if it occurs to the Straubs to sometimes concede this, it remains secondary. What is essential in my eyes is really the refutation of the opposition itself that we talked about, it’s the fact that the spiritual is found entirely in the gestures, in the consecration of gestures. It’s the fact that thought is entirely found in the materiality, not in the Soviet vein of transforming of the world by thought, but by a realization of thought as in accord with the rhythm of nature.

AUDIENCE: Aside from the question of the opposition between materiality and spirituality, what I found interesting in their work is that there is maybe a mystical approach which leads them to do radical things, including in the vein of representation and form.

RANCIERE: There are different ways to overcome an opposition. One can overcome it by the classical model of thought that realizes, that transforms the world in its image, or by an inverse model of thinking that puts itself in agreement with nature. I don’t know if you can call that mystical. What is certain is that it is a matter of going back to a religion of the earth that existed under diverse forms during the Romantic era. The Straubs’ Marxism has more and more of a tendency to move towards Heidegger and to distance itself from the Brechtianism of thirty or forty years ago.

AUDIENCE: I remember in a film a scene of a supposed fusion of the hero with nature, with the stars. But the way in which the Straubs talk about the stars has nothing to do with the way in which Goethe, Novalis or Hölderlin do. For Goethe, Novalis, and Hölderlin it is always upward, while there, to the contrary, it’s downward: the hero sees the stars almost below, it’s absolutely amazing…and there is nothing inseparable about it. The relationship with nature is not inseparable at all. Also, I agree with you when you’re talking about another relationship to nature—fire, not electricity—, but not when you talk about fusion with nature. It’s also for this that the relationship with German Romanticism, it seems to me, needs to be used with a bit of precaution.

RANCIERE: It isn’t me who’s making this relationship, it’s them. It’s maybe not your Hölderlin, but it’s theirs. As for the fusion, I would say that it is without a doubt more at the level of the relationship between nature and culture than at the level of an inseparable relationship of men with nature. The fusion with the stars is one thing. But what is at the heart of German Romanticism is the idea of a visible world that would no longer be opposed to an intelligible world. And it is this idea that the Straubs take up, the reference to Hölderlin being massive.

AUDIENCE: But Hölderlin isn’t a Romantic!

RANCIERE: You can say of anyone that “he isn’t a Romantic.”

LAFOSSE: A question of fusion, and even if Hölderlin’s Empedocles is unfinished, his goal is nonetheless to melt himself in the volcano, and totally. At its heart, it is also a question of that kind of fusion.

RANCIERE: Yes, of course.

AUDIENCE: Don’t you think that the connection you’re making between the Straubs and Heidegger distances them from any idea of progress?

RANCIERE: From progress surely, but they are deliberately anti-progressive! They want to be in this anti-progressive revolutionary tradition, in the way Benjamin criticized progress. They are developing an idea of progress completely at odds with an idea that would inscribe it in the continuity of the development of the sciences and social relationships. There is a “back to the earth” quality, in their work. This is seen in the layout itself, in the distribution of characters between high and low, between light, brightness, and appearance, and withdrawal, the earth… And this is a dramaturgy very close to Heidegger, a dramaturgy that corresponds to a certain form of contemporary thought that draws from Hölderlin a model of revolution and communism separate from progress. You may find this paradoxical but they take up this paradox with the same willfulness that Benjamin had in breaking the course of history and advocating a return to the past. Like Pavese going back to myths to re-interrogate and question the relationship between nature and culture in order to re-situate and re-think communism, the Straubs are radically isolated from the tradition that links communism to Enlightenment thought, progress, and scientific development. They demand it.

AUDIENCE: When one talks about progress or development, it is important to know what one puts into those words. What is progress and development in the Western world? Today, these are things that are questioned, outside of all dogma, and including by those who want to be considered progressives. It seems important to me to add nuance to it and say that the notions of progress and development do not come down to certain harmful models that wanted to be imposed as universal standards. The progress of knowledge is not necessarily the progress of techniques, the ravaging of the quantitative and the increasing of production!

RANCIERE: In the strongest sense, progress is the idea that all developments work in unison. If we leave behind the rather ordinary usage of the term “progressive,” meaning someone who is rather to the left, on the side of the people and for justice, if we try to give a more precise meaning to the word, progress means an idea of history as going straight forward and with all developments contributing to one effect. It is this type of progress that is at the center of Marxism.

AUDIENCE: Maybe, but that doesn’t sum up progress, progress doesn’t reduce to that!

RANCIERE: No, but it is always necessary at a given moment to make summaries. One makes choices and, when one makes choices, one makes summaries. It’s what the Straubs do in this case.

LAFOSSE: You’ve talked about story, about narrative. You say that plot never really interests the Straubs. On the choices precisely, there is something striking in their work: the position of the bodies in relationship to the narrative. The narrative advances through the bodies but at the same time there is a force that could be qualified as a refusal. In their films, don’t the bodies also go against the narrative?

RANCIERE: Bodies put everything that is narrative in the present. Said differently, they appropriate the text. In Vittorini for example, there are people who, in contrasting manners, tell what happened to them over a period of six months. But in Workers, Peasants, that’s not what it is: there are groups who confront their past and this past is absolutely present. So, basically, the bodies are there, upright with their text, with the reasoning of their arguments, and, as they speak, everything that was narrative, becomes direct speech, dialogue, affirmation. This doesn’t mean that they make the past into a blank slate, but the film is always in the present tense. Also, bodies take possession of the text, putting it entirely in the present tense. If we don’t forget that, fundamentally, narrative doesn’t interest them, that they don’t want that, and that, everywhere that it is, they eliminate it—as in From the Clouds to the Resistance with the examples of the flashbacks that I was talking about, a flashback necessarily being narrative—, well, you realize that speech has to unceasingly re-conquer its power over everything that puts it in the past tense, that makes it not current, outside of reality. Of the narrative. And, as you said, bodies that take possession of the text through speech are therefore also going against the narrative.

AUDIENCE: Can one not think that everything must be in a film and that a film doesn’t have to need ulterior explanations?

RANCIERE: It’s a choice. What is a film? A film is something that one sees like this, that one sees once and, often, it’s over for a long time. A film is an extremely volatile object that does not necessarily need to constantly be explained or commented on, but extended. In any case, films continue to live within us, even without commentary: we make our own commentaries on them. In eight or ten days, this film that you have seen this evening will become another thing. Shots, words will leave; a new film will be constructed. You can’t ignore this extension. Memories of films are not uniquely memories of what has been before our eyes at a given moment. Memories of films are memories of everything that, afterward, gets buried. The cinema is made of this sedimentation. Also, if I don’t think that films have to be explained, I believe that one can try to extend them outside of all commentary, interpretive aims. Cinema needs to have created for it a space for speech that is a space of sedimentation: that’s the role of talking about films. Personally, when I see a film, I want to read the things behind it. Not to explain it to myself, but so that it resonates differently, so that other connections are created, so that the film is made to live in a larger space.


LAFOSSE: This extension through words is something very present in the cinephilic tradition starting at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s. If we look into everything that made up the New Wave, we see that for those filmmakers it was indispensable that there was, after the film, an extension via words that could be even more important than the film. It was the period of film clubs, of repeated viewings of films. To associate vision with talking is something that is linked to cinephilia, which was part of the resistance, a counter-cultural network, and a parallel society, places where one thinks and debates as well. And that was a discourse that was not really on the level of explanation but in the order of exchange and of another life for the film. Films don’t die after the words “The End,”—for them, at least, I’m sure of it. Outside of their body, they can still unfold.

AUDIENCE: I think that this is part of this genre of films. The Straubs’ films are made to be thought about and to incite people to think. You think and afterwards you talk, it can’t stop there. It’s made for thinking.

LAFOSSE: To think, to feel… The fullness of the idea in the colors: it’s what Cezanne says of Véronèse.

AUDIENCE: I’m discovering the Straubs here. And I’ve asked myself about the place of children in these films because the only one that I saw was this evening in From the Clouds to the Resistance and I have the impression that they were embarrassed to film him, a bit like Godard. Could you talk to us about their experience with children? Are there many of them in their films?

RANCIERE: There aren’t a lot, and it seems to me that there is no problematic of childhood. There are two children in From the Clouds to the Resistance because they are in Pavese’s book and his novel is also a story of transition, transmission and passage from an old order to a new order. In The Moon and the Bonfires, there is the story of the deformed boy, and that of the father and son, where a relationship between an old world and a new world is expressed, and where the child brings a negative judgment on humanity, and in En rachâchant, a film from 1982, a child resists his teacher… Does this mean that there is a child figure in the Straubs films, indeed a figure of resistance? Never forget that they work from texts that are addressed to an adult community to ask it where it is with itself, with its past, with its future and, if there aren’t children in these texts, there aren’t any in the films. It happens that the child serves certain questions but it is rare that he is really put in the foreground and treated as a character. For the Straubs, the child is not the future of the world.

LAFOSSE: Would you say that this cinema treats a sort of lost innocence?

RANCIERE: Can one speak of innocence? Maybe. There again, from the turning point that is From the Clouds to the Resistance, we notice a nostalgia for a certain innocence, not in the sense of lost purity but of a world before good and evil. It is present in Pavese and even Hölderlin: there is a confrontation with a world in which the gods no longer exist; there is a relationship between man and nature before the division of good and evil. This could be called innocence in the sense that Nietzsche talks of the innocence of becoming, of a world that is beyond good and evil. However, I’ll say it again: the Straubs’ nature is absolutely not a pastoral nature, it is savage, worrisome, cruel and inhuman. It is not idyllic.

LAFOSSE: We’ve sometimes asked here how we’ve come to the Straubs’ films… Can you, Jacques Rancière, tell us how you came to their films?

RANCIERE: A bit in a zigzag. I first saw Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach when I was young. I was happy to see it but I can’t say that it marked something specific in my life. After that—it was the period of an extreme left—, the people at Cahiers du cinéma recommended I go see History Lessons. I’ve always had a bit of an imposed relationship with the Straubs: “go see it and come talk to us about the Straubs,” they’d say to me. So I saw History Lessons for the Cahiers and I remember that it rather depressed me. It’s true that next I immediately loved the magnificent way that they treated Dialogues with Leucò in From the Clouds to the Resistance: it’s fabulous. Even if I continue to hold it against them for, in The Moon and the Bonfires, completely avoiding the three girls who are the body of Pavese’s novel and having instead made a sort of easy bit of anti-clericalism by giving a spectacular visualization of a priest’s speech that is only mentioned in the book. At other times, I saw a film that I liked, then films that I didn’t like at first but that I liked afterwards. Let’s say that I saw in a rather chaotic manner certain films at very different moments, without at all feeling myself to be an aficionado of the Straubs. And then, two or three years ago, some young, fanatical Straubians told me they wanted to unite their two passions by hearing me talk about the Straubs. To do this, they sent me to see Workers, Peasants so that I would talk about it at a philosophy convention in Nantes. I went to see it, saying to myself that it wouldn’t necessarily be very amusing, but I was seized by its lyrical power. I talked about it, this pleased the Straubs. And there you have it. Afterwards, I was asked to write about Umiliati and Pedro Costa’s Where Lies Your Hidden Smile?. So you could say that I found myself as an accidentally inundated specialist of the Straubs. There are things that I love tremendously in their work, there are other things that I like less, and, finally, there are films that I don’t like at all. In any case, I didn’t have an epiphany with their films, I had a relationship spread out over time with considerable variations in approach and feeling. And I’m trying to talk about all this.


See also this film made on the occasion of the Straub-Huillet retrospective in Paris (November, 2007 – March, 2008), organised by Philippe Lafosse.

And this debate with Jacques Rancière after the projection of Europa 2005, Joachim Gatti, Corneille-Brecht and O somma luce, in Paris, January 2011.

The non-legendary period of Cahiers


By Serge Daney

Originally published as ‘La période non légendaire des “Cahiers”. Pour préparer la cinquantième anniversaire’. In ‘L’exercice a été profitable’ (Paris: POL).

1. For a long time I kept a bundle of “internal texts”, as were common, until the mid 1970’s, among militant groups, circles or cells – such as Cahiers du Cinéma which at one time wanted to “organize” itself in a revolutionary cultural front. It was a poor bundle of critical pieces, auto-criticism, assessments and quotes, responses and resolutions, in between theory and practice, a bit along the lines of the Chinese model of “individual perfecting” (line of Liu Shaoqi*).
I had skimmed through them so much that it was hard not to find these texts silly; the kind of silliness you can also find in the films of Godard and Gorin from that period (the Dziga Vertov group*). I kept them with a vague idea of making them into a comedy one day. Indeed, what comedy is more beautiful than that of the ideal? What failure is more pathetic than that of the Militant, this frail being which finds itself regularly inept and duped and often has blood on its hands? Which groups of actors are more hilarious, because of their seriousness, than those filmed by Oshima, the Taviani brothers, Kramer and, of course, Moretti? And what a silly group, this Cahiers of the 1970’s: “deranged” enough to form a splinter group, but also clever enough to work together, which allowed each of its members to smother their own distress in that of the last Parisian avatars of the communist idea. Haven’t we decided, one day at Cahiers, to pay ourselves according to the principles of the Da Zhai model, that is to say “according to merit”*? I even remember being granted 900 francs (in those days).

2. Time passed and I lost the bundle. Who would have laughed at those excesses anyway? Not us, who saved our skin, one by one, without laughter. Not those who, after us, have and would make the Cahiers. It was before that we should have laughed, even hollow, even alone. The truth is that the priceless seriousness of the French political theater, with its revolutionary and/or snobbish draping, certainly was not a subject for comedy. I should have know, me who was part of the comity who “took over” the Odéon (which was open anyways) in 1968, even if I didn’t like theater. Also true was that this Cahiers generation was not really a generation of filmmakers and that in a more general way the stars of ’68 wouldn’t create much except for communicative know-how.
The truth, finally, is that we didn’t do anything but reliving, in extremis and in vitro, the intimate remake of the rancid great passions that the PCF (French Communist Party) had conducted for fifty years (so the PCF grew tired and we blamed them for it). From guilty delights of bad faith to the utopia of the counter society already realized in the group, from rites of exclusion to homegrown doublespeak: we haven’t invented a thing. It didn’t last long (’72-’74) and didn’t cause many deaths. It even hardened us (“The heart has to break or to gild”, according to Corneille)

3. When I was asked, at the occasion of the 40th birthday of the old magazine, to write a text about these years – the “non-legendary years” (not to say “shameful”) of the Cahiers, I said yes, then no, then yes, then I diagonally read eighty editions and decided to make what one always makes in such cases: a witty and elliptic dictionary. I had a go at it and didn’t find it funny at all. It’s not easy to answer a question that isn’t posed anywhere (that of the heritage of the seventies) and even less easy, twenty years later, to continue to say “us” and to continue to say it as “me”. The history of these fifteen individuals who, for ten years, have made Cahiers into their beacon, scalpel and anguish: it’s up to the historian – Antoine de Baecque* – to tell it, if he wants. For me, if this text is still written under the sign of an unobtainable “us”, you can rather consider it as my farewell to the first person in the plural.

4. And then there’s the spirit of the era. Observing the way in which the despicable BHL (Bernard-Henri Lévy*) recently buried a century of thinkers of the French intelligentsia on television, I was appalled by the way in which, once more, the mediatized forty-somethings of my generation behave badly when they have to hold up in public a certain image of them “thinking”. That the baby gets thrown out with the bath water is one thing but perching on the bathtub, posing on television to say that there was no thinking at all: that is too much. From Lacan to Barthes, from Bataille to Foucault via Althusser: the Cahiers’ “non-legendary” years carry their signature and it seems to me that this theoretical theater, with its seductions and its terror, hasn’t been replaced by another, more normal and smart, but has rather become gradually disused.
That’s why, when I reread the Cahiers from the seventies, I’m less struck by the jargon, the arrogance, the ukazes, the dubious mockup, the lack of photos and the overflow of quotation marks, bolds and italics, than by the certainty we felt (and that I miss now) that cinema was worthwhile thinking about – thinking hard about. So, I don’t feel like apologizing anymore because once, fifteen years ago, we lacked the good manners of some bourgeois wanna-bees. For the first time, I rather feel like pleading pro domo.

5. Why is this era so hard to apprehend? In 1970 we published a long series of hard-wrought articles on Jancso’s film The Confrontation (aka Sparkling Winds, ‘Fényes szelek’, 1969). But it’s not so much these texts that have disappeared than the film itself, which served as collective pre-text. Who remembers Jancso’s films anyway? Do they even exist outside of the encyclopedias of cinema? The question is obviously more general: the liberty of tone, the crazy rhythm of storytelling, the polite but total indifference for the “taste” of the audience and the box office, the desire to mark out, willingly or not, a road for cinema that diverges from the route held in place by the American model: it wasn’t only Jansco, it was all those global “new cinemas” from the post-Nouvelle Vague years (’65-’75), a continent that by now has almost vanished. That’s why the seventies are in purgatory: most of the film that made us write are no longer part of the collective memory, nor part of the video libraries or the dominant discourses. We thought of everything except this: that these films could disappear.

6. That cinema is not longer where we found it, that is to say “in the middle of the world”, is not necessarily a sad thing but it’s all the same quite something. Rereading the non-legendary Cahiers, I have the impression that we were like students of Latin who were not able to accept – like grumpy buffoons, always first-in-class – that it had become a dead language, something from the past. Cinema is the art of the present, that’s what Bazin used to say, and there are axioms that we recognize, in this period of ten years, in all styles and forms, in all theoretical bindings, in every editorial, under every guise, be it in the rags of militant cinema or the unisex uniforms of today’s television. And Cahiers’ axiom was that cinema has a fundamental rapport with the real and that the real is not what is represented – and that’s final.
And that the real doesn’t wait. And that time is not given, that it has to be invented, created, earned. Even the wavering time of the magazine, when Serge Toubiana and me asked ourselves in all seriousness if we had enough “of ourselves” to quickly make a simple issue or if we had to wait a month so we could make a double. And at the same time, as soon as there was an unforeseen film that we liked, we started from scratch, we remade the theory, the grammar, we launched new ukazes and established new gateways, because we needed to have Straub, Godard, Syberberg or Kramer on one side and always Lang, Hitchcock, Eisenstein and Rossellini on the other. That gives way to a chaotic functioning, a not very gracious shuttle where the revelations were always staggering, the new line immediately impaired by receding lines, the time to calm down regularly lacking and impatience the common lot.

7. Looking back, obviously, we see how the decade, at Cahiers as well, is divided in two parts: before and after 1975. Up to 1975, we felt like we had to answer “present” to politics. But afterwards? Politics passed, the present stayed. I don’t find unworthy, certainly not after the Golf War, our special issue about “Images de marque” (76), nor the first texts about television (that we amiably called “answering machines”), about films shown on television, nor the texts written by Rancière about the spirit of the “communal programme” in cinema, nor the reflections on cinephilia. Always this idea of the present and finally of journalism. That’s undoubtedly why I’m not able to write this text “in the past”. Because, me too, I had to answer present when, at the end of ’73, the magazine was left to whoever wanted to pick it up. For seven year, I felt like one of those mock-heroes who try to land with the whole cargo, without loosing or forgetting anything, even without owning a license to fly.

8. But there were some good sides too: we didn’t believe much in the division of work, we knew that the great directors had written often and we were happy to transform Duras, Godard and Syberberg into Cahiers’ “chief editors” for one issue each. The alliances were tough but the one tougher than all the others was the alliance between the image and the word, our raison d’être, nothing less. The non-legendary Cahiers wanted to be written, and often they were.

9. Finally one has to imagine that the era was harsh. The sixties had grace, the eighties grease, the seventies were nasty and meager. Everywhere we sensed a dry fury and a relentlessness which nobody found therapeutic. In France, the golden age of the Nouvelle Vage was behind us and weighed heavily on us. Elsewhere, it was intractable and atrocious: Fassbinder doesn’t get off, Pasolini is murdered, Oshima excites and astonishes, Cassavetes resits in some corner, Ferreri makes some teeth grind, Syberberg provokes crudely, Godard continues recto tono and Ici et Ailleurs must be the film I have shown the most (from New York to Damas, from Porto to Brussels).

10. It isn’t very hard to put a date, between ’73 and ’75, on the caesura of the decade. Petroleum crisis, beginning of unemployment, end of the ORTF*, return of consensus (not yet “weak”) and, in cinema, of the “Qualité Française”, of its professionals and their palinodic césars*: objectively it wasn’t cheerful, objectively there was “rage”.
Cinema too had to run into a limit, like a boat scraping the bottom of the river and, in our proper jargon, we felt it. Afterwards, under surveillance of the media, cinema has remade itself into a body of legend and has turned to the supplement of soul*. It’s the history of the eighties. In 1970, we were those (we called it materialism then) who claimed that this soul had a body and that we knew it. In this sense, the non-legendary Cahiers resemble their time, which still couldn’t care less about the legend.

Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

translator’s notes
* Liu Shaoqi: Soviet-educated Communist organizer and theorist, author of How to be a Good Communist (1898-1969).
* The Dziga Vertov group was formed in 1968 by politically active filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. The group, named after 1920s-’30s Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, was dissolved soon after the completion of 1972’s Letter to Jane.
* Dazhai: the name of a mountainous North China village of several hundred farmers in Xiyang, Shanxi, in the People’s Republic of China. Dazhai had been an ordinary village until the 1960s, when Mao Zedong published his Supreme Directive, “Learn from Dazhai in agriculture” and set up Dazhai as a national agricultural model for all the farmers across the country.
* Bernard-Henri Lévy: French public intellectual, philosopher and journalist. Often referred to, in France, simply as BHL, he was one of the leaders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement in 1976, hated by Cahiers du Cinéma.
* ORTF: The Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française was the national agency charged, between 1964 and 1974, with providing public radio and television in France.
* césars: the national film award of France, first given out in 1976.
* The expression “supplément d’âme” is taken from Henri Bergson’s ‘Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion’ (1932). Bergson’s thesis was that mankind, enlarged in its scope of action by technology, needs to achieve a corresponding spiritual growth: “In this body, disproportionately enlarged, the soul remains as it was, too small to fill it, too weak to direct it. Hence the gap between them. Hence the daunting social, political, and international problems… Let us add that the swollen body needs a supplement of soul, and the mechanical demands a mystique.” The expression is fairly well known in French intellectual discourse – the theme having been taken up by Derrida (who appropriated the notion of ‘supplement’) and others.

The noise of people, the image of art


About Rosetta and L’Humanité

By Jacques Rancière

Originally published as ‘Le bruit du peuple, l’image de l’art. A propos de Rosetta et de L’Humanité’, Cahiers de Cinema, No. 540 (November 1999)

What is it that Rosetta and L’Humanité have in common, besides the fact that they were both presented at the Cannes festival, where they were as acclaimed by the jury as they were dismissed by a large part of the professionals and critics? What makes them both symbol or symptom, although Bruno Dumont’s wide shots, distanced view and esthetico-spiritualist discourse seems to be completely opposite to the panting camera, the lens glued to the characters and the denunciatory tradition characterizing Rosetta? That Bruno Dumont continues to film the lower class people of the North and the brothers Dardenne the slums and wastelands of Wallonie, that this same North and these same people have also featured in La Vie Rêvée des Anges: for some this seems to be enough reason to proclaim – and generally deplore – a new wave of “realism” and a new compliance of art with the “social”. These judgements themselves can be understood on two levels. In one sense, they offer support to the dominant ideas of a time and an intelligentsia who think that, when it comes to the people, we have definitely given enough or even too much. In another sense, they adjoin a problematic esthetic belief that bestows on art the properties of the featured subjects. The poor, the North: of course this goes back to Zola (specifically Germinal) – this is realistic art, social or “committed” art, and all of this has had its time.

The problem, of course, is knowing if Zola’s art is more realistic and more “social” when he describes the heat of the mines than when he describes the heat of the greenhouse of hotel Saccard at Parc Monceau*. Apparently more than one critic seems to think wholeheartedly that a film is a pure form of art when it develops a Marivaux-like intrigue situated around the Passy subway station* and that it commits itself to the social when its characters live in a suburb and are poorly housed or unemployed. As a matter of fact, this way of thinking still belongs to the era when Monsieur de Pontmartin opposed the villagers’ platitudes of Madama Bovary with an analysis of fine and complex sentiments of this “exquisite world” from the times of Princcess de Clèves who “only beheld the lower class people through the door opening of her stage coaches and the countryside only through the window of her palaces”*. And we could be tempted to remind those critics what Flaubert meant to demonstrate: that modernity, when it comes to art, resides precisely in this: in regards to the absolute of style, there are no more beautiful or ugly subjects, Yvetot is as good as Constantinopel*, a farmer’s daughter is as good as a society woman. We could conclude that, as for cinema, true heir of the 19th century novel, the issue was settled before its birth and that the art of Bruno Dumont or the brothers Dardenne is no more or less social that the one of Eric Rohmer or Raoul Ruiz, just as A la recherche du temps perdu is no more or less than the one of Madame Bovary.


This response would however fall a bit short. What Madam Bovary showed us, was not simply that all subjects were worthy and that only the style of the artist could make the difference. It was the paradoxical identity between the “realist“ insignificance of the subject and the autonomous splendor of “art for art’s sake”. The representative art of former days demanded to choose “noble” subjects and to adapt the adequate genres and forms accordingly. The new antirepresentative art imposed another form of identity between form and content. From then on, the supreme mark of art was to reach the point of identity between the determined and the undetermined, of sense and non-sense, human and inhuman, where the style of the artist identified itself with the subject’s way of being. Flaubert called this point stupidity. “Masterworks are stupid” he said and his contemporaries, reading his novels, felt that something exceeded their understanding in this implacable power which did not work in spite of but because of the nullity of the action and the stupidity of the characters, because of the excess of their brutal and stubborn presence, in defiance of all codification of social species, fictional types and narrative plausibilities.

Today the lesson is at once well assimilated and subject to caution. On one hand, we could say that the Rosetta effect or the Humanité effect are strict applications of the Bovary effect. Rosetta is not a representative of the sous-proletariat whose misery, defined by the close-ups of the camera, moves us and makes us aware of the condition of her peers. The close-ups of faces in Rosetta and l’Humanité don’t bring us closer to the human face and suffering. On the contrary, they exert the function that is superbly described by jean Epstein and covered by Gilles Deleuze: to transform a part of the human body in strange reliëf or monstrous animal. Rosetta’s stubborn obstinacy, her punches or her belly contracted by pain, just like the tired redness of Domino’s enjoying face or the sweat on the policeman’s bloated face are not the revealing properties of a social state to be experienced in all its cruelty. They are properly the subject of art, the brutal presence, the “stupidity” in which the will of art realizes itself as art while canceling itself as will. In this, despite appearances, they pertain more to the esthetic tradition than the elegant variations used by Rohmer to adjust the scenarios and the codes of classical sentimental intrigues to the observation of new social types and behaviors.


But the formula has also lost its innocence. On one hand, it works too well for it not being manipulated to excess. On the other, we question its bare efficiency and we look for supplements. One on hand, we add to the rawness. And this is the point where the Dardenne’s punchy camera meets with Bruno Dumont’s entomological camera. The first adds to Rosetta’s obstinacy while rattling our view, which is condemned to follow the swirl of the mobile camera running behind her, gluing us body-to-body to the alcoholic mother, opening our ears to the gasping of her efforts to survive, the punches she gives at every object within reach and the obsessive fear of motor noises besieging her. The second adds to the anguish of Pharaoh while aiming the lens at a hand starting up, on the car radio, harpsichord music with a paroxystic sound, or at the brutality of Joseph and Domino’s coupling, planting the camera at a distance and a height that inflame the ugliness of the postures and the pure mechanics of the masculine effort, and while putting in our ears, along with Domino’s wild screams of pleasure, the hyper-realistic hammer sounds of Joseph’s punches. This is how the Bovary effect finds itself transferred to a point of excess where it turns over to its opposite, where the “effect of art”, coupled with the demonstration of the world’s absurdity, reintroduces a caricature social typecasting. The Dardenne’s projecting camera and Dumont’s distancing camera make us pass the wall of the image in order to enclose us in a sonorous universe, a rumbling of origins where it is imposed that, like the sweat of the proletarians is a property of their skin, their breathing is noisier and their sex action louder than that of the bourgeoisy.

But this excess is also a duplicity. Both films apply the original formula of esthetic “modernity”. But none of them want to limit themselves to its powers. In Rosetta the identification between the obstinacy of the fictional character and the panic of the image and sound plays with the boundaries between two poetics and two politics: on one hand, the racing camera conforms itself to the pure vital energy of the wild child, to the pure non-sense of a universe of sound and furor, situated beyond all social representativeness. But Rosetta’s obstinacy is not only that of the little wild child fighting for her survival. It is an illustration of a classical topos of proletarian dignity: Rosetta wants to have a “real” job and place in society, even if it means using all kinds of cunning to assure herself this place to the detriment of others. The pure scrolling of chases and punches of the wild child is also a Brechtian fable: Rosetta is a “courageous child”, attesting to the dehumanization a society inflicts on people. And the perpetual camera movement gluing us to her body enhances the classical gesture of the militant or the sociologist and obliges us to share the sensorial experience of the inhabitant of this world, so close that we would rather not see it. Rosetta accumulates the power of the art of what doesn’t wanna say anything and the overwhelming force of the testimony that doesn’t need words.


Dumont’s strategy is more insidious. He places himself resolutely beyond the era of social struggles and militant denunciations. And he affirms that he makes art and only art. But this affirmation passes through a double road. On one hand it makes use of the classical forms of quotation and auto-demonstration. The body of the girl, turned towards the same posture as the mannequin in (Duchamp’s) Etant donné… seen through the door opening of the Museum of Philadelphia, warns us, with its celluloid texture, the make-up red of her blood and the very pictorial ant, that “this is art”. The visit to the museum, the perspective of the road and the church, the look on the long beaches of the North and Domino’s gesture, arranging her clothes in the same way as Rembrandt’s Swimmer, this we remember before the close-up of the heroine’s sex identifies with Courbet’s Origine du Monde. But this simple “aesthetization” is not enough for the auto-affirmation of art. This goes through a way more complex operation on the ”subject” of the film. One has to bring back the proletarian work and pleasure to the sound of an original humanity. One has to undo the action, replace the police fable, reconstituting the crime and tracing the guilty, with its strict opposite: the march in place of the a-typical policeman, whose difficult speech, static voyeurism and derisory inquiries have only one goal: showing us he has nothing to look for. Because the criminal and the victim, the lawman and the witness are one and the same person: this suffering and savoring “humanity”; stubborn – from the child persisting in silence to the mechanical sex athlete – in the perpetuation of its destructive “vouloir-vivre”. This Schopenhauer-like humanity of which Pahraon is representative and witness: criminal disguised as policeman, innocent idiot endorsing the misery and the cruelty of the world, Christ or Muychkine offering the guilty witnesses of this perpetually innocent game the only possible remedy: the gesture of compassion. The “spirituality” of L’ Humanité is not a strange body wrongly veneered onto the rough life of the people of the North and the geometric clearness of the shots. Since art has put the breath of its proper power into the diapason of the world’s misery, it hasn’t stopped oscillating between three modes: the exposure of the wounds and symptoms of misery for those who did not know or didn’t want to see; the assimilation of the monotonous sound of its insignificance to the glorious non-sense of art; the conversion of its features and stigmas into signs of a more essential mystery. It also hasn’t stopped being tempted by the accumulation of effects. Rosetta plays on the first two tableaux, that is to say, politically speaking, on the border – Brechtian – of the observation of bare absurdity and militant denunciation. L’Humanité want to play on all the tableaux; the exposure, for ignorant eyes, of people as they are and the pictorial splendor untouched by grey strikes; the in-sensible racket of Joseph and Domino’s lovemaking and the Spirit blowing in the voids separating Pharaoh’s laborious words or in the solemnity of his gestures of compassion; But the law of the Spirit means that who wants to save his life – or art – will loose it. Wanting to gain too much, Dumont’s disdainful aestheticism ends up being a bit too much in consonance with its time, in which politics is substituted with “the humanitarian”, celebrating as ultimate virtue of the community this “compassion” that the time of Wagner and Dostoievski at least reserved for art or religion.

Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

translator’s notes
* There is a famous description of hotel Saccard in Zola’s Novel La Curée (‘The Kill’).
* Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (1688 – 1763), commonly referred to as Marivaux, was a French novelist and dramatist whose comedies are, after those of Molière, the most frequently performed in today’s French theatre. Passy is a transit station in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.
* The criticism of Armand de Pontmartin (1811-1890) on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, was discussed in Ranciére’s Politics of Literature. “The cluttered space of Madame Bovary is the opposite of the well-cleared space that the aristocratic order granted to novels in the days of La Princesse de Clèves. In those novels ‘the human personality represented by all the superiorities of birth, mind, education and heart left little room, in the economy of the tale, for secondary characters, still less for material objects. This exquisite world only looked at the little people through the doors of its carriages, or at the countryside through the window of its palaces. That left a great space, admiravly filled, for the analysis of feelings finer, more complicated, harder to disentangle in elite souls than in the vulgar’. (Armand de Pontmartin, ‘Le Roman Bourgeois et le Roman Démocrate‘)”.
* Flaubert: “There aren’t good subjects for art in literature, and Yvetot (small village in the west of France) is therefore as good as Constantinople; and therefore you can write anything at all quite as well as any other subject you may think of.”

Something happened to the real


By Jacques Rancière

Originally published as ‘Il est arrivé quelque chose au réel’, Cahiers du cinéma, n° 545 (April 2000)

What makes the vision of Nadia et les hippopotames (Dominique Cabrera) so hard to tolerate? The film whispers us its response: simply the “hippopotames”, those syndicalists who are caught in their archaic stereotypes of justice and social struggles against which, in november 1995, a big part of the progressive intellectual opinion voiced their agreement with Alain Juppé. The response is hardly convincing. We don’t feel such embarrassment while watching the young associate workers in Charbons Ardents (Jean-Michel Carré), although their arguments, characters and story repeat a scenario that has been playing out, almost invariably, since one hundred fifty years. The intolerable is not in the militant outdatedness but in that which pretends to make it look anew: this turn, typical of militant fiction, that wants to redeem politics with the real and humanize the actors of social conflicts, while enumerating the real-life contradictions separating the militant from his partisan identity: men and women, politics and sex, militantism and everyday life, real-life contradictions emblematized in the figure of the lumpen-proletariat, opposing the stubborn strength of day-to-day life with all collective undertaking. Nadia and her baby showing up at a militant meeting is the most recent incarnation of this character of which disenchanted-militant (Georg) Büchner’s Marie was the prototype, and splendorously illustrated by perverse-militant Bertolt Brecht’s Groucha or Mother Courage. The vain gesticulation with which Nadia wants to manifest her existence and attest to the humanity of her companions presents us with something like the brain-dead coma of this glorious figure.


What is at stake here is not the “end of politics”, but rather the end of a certain idea of political film – a certain entanglement of the real and the fictional. The paradox of the militant genre is this: it’s fiction that has to receive the marks of reality rendering it credible. The double ricochet of militant fiction (politics and life) is opposite to the double recourse that gives fiction its consistency. In fiction the real is attested to in two ways; by the recognition of the typical traits that compose the characters who look like those we know; and, on the contrary, by the effect of surprise, the aberration of characters and adventures imposing their reality by the fact that they’re unexpected. This double ricochet is at the heart of what we can call “minor fiction”, the kind that French cinema holds high, in the shade of big stories of intrigue, power and terror. A film like La Vie Moderne (Laurence Ferreira Barbosa) illustrates this formula well: characters stuck in their contemporary ethos; seized in a moment of crisis submitting them to a double confrontation: meeting several typical social figures, and the pure call of the unforeseen delivering them to chance meetings or embarking them in the intrigue of a beautiful mythomaniac. Nadia’s nocturnal escape of militants belongs to the same logic as Claire’s Parisian escapade or Jacques’ delirious search in La Vie Moderne. The same double game of the real of recognition and the real of surprise structure the indubitably militant scenario showing the contradictions of the people and the more likeable scenario of the family fiction, seized at the point of “disjunction” of characters, between socio-cultural identity and fantastic tale. This is the real of fiction: this game of complementarities and displacements between the familiarity of signs of recognition and the invention of moments of madness, thats seem to be paralyzed today. And the television broadcast of a few emblematic films of the nouvelle vague permits us to see this. The success of these films has held up in the way that the subversion of the characters and intrigues of the big genres has been able to identify with the explosion of new ways of thinking and feeling. The liberty taken by Michel Poiccard (in À bout de souffle) in regards to the normal behavior of fictional characters engaged in similar situations identified itself with the real of the behaviors of a new generation. This understanding between two “nouvelles vagues” remains the paradise lost, the fabulous body of which the minor fiction doesn’t stop putting together or taking apart the parts, looking for, like some piece of eistensteinian gold, the exact measure of sociological proximity and fantastic distance that can extract from the real of fiction a never before seen face and tone.


Between the paradise lost of the Nouvelle Vague and the ordinary of the new French quality that emerged from it, between the militant euphoria of the 1960’s and the exhausted fictions of militantism, it’s too convenient to say that the difference is made out of the end of political utopias and historical promises. Those who compare (Jean-Luc) Godard’s A bout de Souffle with Histoire(s) du cinéma or (Chris) Marker’s Joli Mai with Level Five will draw another conclusion. It’s not us who no longer tolerate politics. It’s politics which no longer tolerates the remnants of the real of fiction. Perhaps because some filmmakers have in the meantime invented a new mode of fictioning appropriate for denouncing the socio-fictional compromise that links the minor fiction to modes of presentation of a depoliticized politics. The socio-fictional compromise is the complicity between the pseudo-evidence of the separation between document and fiction, and the perpetual exchange of the forms of belief they give rise to. Against the real of fiction that support this compromise, the political fictions of the real have succeeded in exploiting the paradoxical advantage that is proper to the documentary genre: where the real is taken as an acquired given, there is no need to attest to it fictionally, no need to produce the sentiment. Where it is supposedly given, one can invest in rendering it problematic, one can invent its problem. Reprise (Hervé Le Roux) gives a clear demonstration of this privilege. This woman’s face, in which we can’t make out if the cries of anger express a militant conviction or a visceral reaction, this lost face whom Claire, the militant, and Nadia, the uncultured, share features with, is not there to be composed. It is already there in the film-as-witness. And the only interesting thing to do from then on is finding out how the meeting between the voice and this communal history that has taken place in this space, during this time, is done and undone. Because the face and the voice are already there, the search for the character or the lost object can become the invention of a new object. The real of fiction ties politics and fictional narrative together in the consensual circle of mutual attestations of reality and signification. Political fictions of the real, released from the duty of attestation, can tie hem together on a more radical level: that of forms structured from the search for truth. And they can tie hem together in a mode that is no longer consensual but polemical, in the struggle for the appropriation of forms. This is what emblematizes, in Histoire(s) du cinéma or Level Five the reference to “I shall never forget…” that opens Otto Preminger’s Laura. This impossible sentence, because it is spoken by someone who dies at the end of the story and who thus cannot narrate it, symbolizes this mode of fictional research which creates, from the supposition of a reality simply recalled, a completely new object, resting on its only proper logic. In order to research a century, stalinism, the constrained suicide of the habitants of Okinawa or the extermination of the Jews in Europe, Histoire(s) du cinéma, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre, Level Five or Shoah have to overtake, from some great literary or cinematographic fictions, this form of inquiry that creates its own object.


In these films, and some others, something has happened to the real. It doesn’t recognize itself anymore. This loss of signs of recognition has nothing to do with what we keep on hearing: that the real is dissolving in pure image, in itself swallowed up by virtual screens and digital code, or that the real has definitely become irrepresentable of the century’s horrors. A recent debate on Shoah (Claude Lanzmann) and the “absent archive” has shed some light on the terms of the problem. The “absent archive” designates two things: the traces destroyed by the exterminators, but also the “historical documents” of which the filmmaker has deliberately refused the effect of the real, in order to construct another reality with the here and now of places and words. It’s not that the extermination is irrepresentable and that its horrors forbid fiction taking the place of absent images. It’s that it’s not representable as if, by way of fictional bodies giving a human face and historical credibility to the executioners and the victims. What has to be represented is not the executioners and the victims, but the process of extermination and the elimination of its own traces. And this representation is not an attestation. It’s not a matter of proving that it has taken place, but of showing, by way of a singular research, how it has taken place.


“The story begins in the present..”. The provoking sentence opening Shoah means this: the real of this how is always yet to come, the archive doesn’t stop constituting itself on a terrain that is always blank, like the clearing of Chelmo which represents the extermination by way of the pastoral tranquility resulting from the ultimate camouflage of the massacre, by way of the silence resonating with that of the process itself. Schwer zu erkennen says the survivor Simon Srebnik: hard to recognize, but it was here. This here is manifested in the present by a quality counter to all marks of recognition: by the calmness and the silence resembling those of yesterday (Das war immer so ruhig hier), by the fact that yesterday, when bodies were cremated, like today, in the present of the filming, everyone is doing their work. This similitude, opposed to the as if of the real of fiction, is obviously not indifferent to it being spoken in German. The German, with a bit of yiddish mixed in, of the Polish Jew who has become citizen of Israel, this Jewish German, more wobbly than the language of Unterscharführer Franz Suchomel, indicates by contrast what is most unacceptable in La vita è bella (Roberto Benigni). The inadmissible is not in the fictionalization of what shouldn’t be, in the story of this father who convinces his son that it’s all just a game. It’s that the ricochet is precisely the relation between languages. The fiction of Benigni has a double function. It clears itself from its own risk, identifying the opposition of executioners and victims with the evident opposition between two sound worlds – the world of those who know how to smile and the world of those who can only cry – concentrating the real of the extermination in the materiality of the language, the “guttural” language that seems to be made up all naturally in order to make up the executioners. What makes the “fantasy” of Benigni unbearable is not the suffering of the exterminated Jews. It’s the German of the survivors that a filmmaker has made us listen to.


Something has happened to the real. It hasn’t moved towards the image. It has doubled itself. On one hand, it has moved towards its singularity without images, moved back to its distance and its opacity. On the other hand, it has moved closer towards the images that are present, staging the process. This re-staging of proximities and distances also dictates the more complex or sophisticated fictions. We can analyze this in the steps executed by the heroes in An American in Paris, in the Histoire(s) du Cinéma dealing with a Spanish republican victim, as well in the fictionalization of the computer reinventing the battle of Okinawa in Level Five. The problem here is not a matter of comparing methods and merits. It’s about finding out how some political fictions of the real have shattered the relations between the real and the fictional, past and present, History and the (hi)stories that at the same time dictated the separation of domains and their exchange of services. What has been challenged is the real of fiction. If the “militant film” genre is most obviously affected, it’s not because politics has ended. It’s because its non-naturality has become more evident, and because of the official attempts to dismiss it, and because of the new fictions that have measured up to its non-evidence. The minor fiction lives off the remnants that the official “end” and the new fictions of politics have left it. This form of vitality could reveal itself as precarious.

Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

The Fraternal Image


Jacques Rancière, interviewed by Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana

Originally published as ‘L’Image Fraternelle‘, Cahiers du Cinéma, nos. 268-269, part of a special issue dedicated to “Images de Marque” (July-August 1976).

Cahiers: If we consider two films, ‘Milestones’ (Robert Kramer & John Douglas) and ‘Numéro Deux’ (Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville), it seems to us that the first has a genealogical dimension that is completely absent in the second. We could say that ‘Milestones’ has a place in a history of “genres” (American cinema) while ‘Numéro Deux’ has a place in a history of “forms” (European cinema). The result is that ‘Milestones’, but perhaps also the American cinema in general, is less cut off from the history of the US than ours, and that, in a way, it is more “materialist”.
Particularly striking in American cinema are the characters: they are never caught in a discourse that has already been told, they are free in their practices, gestures, behaviors. They bear gestures rather than ideas, behaviors rather than political ideals. And this doesn’t prevent them from relating to a global, ideological and mythical representation of America. They are the children of a great ideological discourse: that of free enterprise, a discourse that no-one has to completely take responsibility for (because it goes without saying).

Rancière: I guess we can take that as a starting point to ask ourselves what can be, here and there, a film of or about the revolutionary left. Kramer and Douglas can directly give the word to the left, render sensible the formation of a camp, the transformations of a militant form and ideal, because they have a certain genealogical tradition of American cinema behind them. While our film tradition, which is profoundly amnesic, lives off codes and typologies, regularly playing with easy displacements which permit, every six months or so, to welcome a new tone in our cinema, the American cinema has always been playing around, showing the legend of the formation of codes, the system of gestures, displacements, exchanges that lead to what a community recognizes as its own just as it recognizes its law.

Behind the journey that starts with the exit from a prison and ends with a deliberately symbolic birth, we can recognize a fiction à la River of No Return (Otto Preminger): in its first scene there’s a prisoner chopping down a tree to construct his house with and at the end of a series of ordeals, there’s the city, the law and American morality. Of course this genealogical tradition doesn’t present anything more than the American society’s “discourse on itself” and the materialism that we used to admire, or the material force of a national ideology, its capacity to create characters and organize fictions. Nevertheless there is a also certain way of rooting ideas in bodies at play here, which makes possible certain reversals or the posing of different questions.


Our cinema, by contrast, reproduces a fundamental trait of our political culture: this indifference of genealogy that discards the fictionalization of history to the level of commemoration. I’m struck by the concordance between the terms of the debates animating our political culture and the modes of fiction in our cinema. Basically it functions on the basis of an extreme codification of conditions, characters and social spaces, and at the same time of “the small difference”, the effect of the real applied to the code, which is also a supplement of dream induced to the real: small office workers leaving their desk to start dreaming, factory workers discovering the delicacy of sentimental emotions that used to be reserved for the bourgeois dreamworld, characters escaping their social role, having their wandering followed by a camera that is all of the sudden mobile, their words finally seeming to have found the justness of the everyday.

This supplement of conscience induced to the social topology is a bit like the family picture in which there’s always a happy cousin wearing costumes or making faces so that the image wouldn’t procure a family picture, and it is basically given form as a “partage” (at once a sharing and a division) between a “heavy” commercial cinema showing the hidden suffering of the bourgeoisy (executives, doctors, small business owners etc) and a “light” commercial cinema – a role allotted to the young cinema – taking the worker out of the factory and the struggle – too decoded – to follow his or her love affairs (Lily, aime-moi, Maurice Dugowson) or sexual disorders (Claude Faraldo).

This play between observing code and a decoding that in itself is perfectly coded I also see in debates à la “Marx or dream”, in which we find on one hand the discourse of the apparatus, on the other the freshness of the real, desire, dream, the productive/militant force transformed in the wandering of deranged workers and lost militants. A lot of those who pretend to subvert the discourse of the apparatus today, do they do anything else than once more pitting the very superficial discourse of this supplement of the real which is the supplement of dream? The gauchiste doxa finds itself closely depending on the modes of commercial fiction, caught by fetishism, illusion of spontaneity produced by the new registration machines (camera–soundrecorder).

Knowing by contrast how a militant ideal is formed, how the gestures of a body are converted from submission to resistance, how a culture of revolt can be formed and transmitted – including by way of its legend – those are questions that are absent from our fiction and covered up, in our theoretical space, by the stereotypes of “life”. We are always in the order of mythology, not of the legend, of the effect of the real on the code, not of its genealogy. The long repression carried out by the culture from above has meticulously destroyed and replaced the forms of culture and memory from below, producing this amnesic culture which allows for commemorations (La Commune, “la chanson des Canuts”, the former suffering and exploits of the people..) but not for a theoretical reflection or a fictionalization of power and revolt into their material invention.

If we consider a film such as Costa Gavras’ Section Spéciale, we realise that the theoretical figuration à la (André) Glucksmann (the power and the plebs)* is completely dependant of this traditional mode of fiction in our cinema: on one side the power, the apparatus, the ministers, the people from above, the hushed universe of antechambers, and on the other the good guys or the good proletarian communists of Costa-Gavras, with their joie de vivre and their weight of workers’ humanity.

Concerning the representation of power, there’s even more significant things to detect in (Serge) July’s enthusiasm in Libération for Francesco Rosi’s Cadaveri Eccellenti (review 12 June 1976). July doesn’t seem to think that this figuration of power in the form of occult conspirators, long distance phone calls, concealed microphones, mysterious cars pulling out of high walled villa driveways and running over all too nosy investigators, has something in common with the big international conspiracy such as we find in “Tintin” books; nor is he troubled by how in this figuration plebeian honesty is embodied in the figure of the good police officer who sticks to traditional plebeian methods of intimidation and house search, prefiguring the socialist police of tomorrow.

To come back to our starting point: Milestones is able to give voice to the American left, to make it tell its own story because it is a film posited within a culture in which it is natural to represent oneself under the guise of a travelogue. Yet it does not raise any issues of ‘representation’, and it is a bit disturbing (deceiving) to see these characters given as real, who ask each other questions in front of the camera and at the same time organized within a fiction of hope. Conversely Godard (in Numéro deux) denies the left the possibility of telling any story. He radically deconstructs all the lies of the figuration of the left, which also means that he bars any possible reflection about militant history by confronting, from the outset, all militant discourse with its own lies, with its collusion with the modes of fiction of power and of capital. Decisive pedagogy but, in a sense, also suspicious: it seems to boil down to “propedeutics”, asking questions: how does a sound or an image work etc., to teach us how to see and then how to fight. But in reality it rather acts as a sort of endgame, a kind of bird of Minerva that rises when the adventure is finished. It’s the discourse of the old militant, extraordinary condensation of all the Comintern adventure stories ((Jan)Valtin in particular*), spoken in a voice which condenses all the voices of the old proletarian communists that we could have heard, but also pure discourse of death: we can only represent a militant ideal, a sequence of sounds bearing militant code and memory, because it’s something “from the past”.

In a way, doesn’t the pedagogy of Godard, by barring all “right to histories”, run the risk of proposing a pacifist response to the violence of the images of the bourgeoisy? But also: isn’t this too perfect discourse itself a bit rigged, a bit violent, in excess (of despair) on its own principles?


What do you mean exactly by the “society’s discourse on itself”? And can we see how this discourse on itself submits the cinematographic practice, and to what ends?

Instead of “discourse on itself” we should rather talk about dominant fiction, which I understand as the privileged mode of representation by which the image of social consensus is proposed to the members of a social formation, and to which they are asked to identify with. It functions as a stock of images and operator of histories for the different modes of figuration (pictorial, novelistic, cinematographic etc). The amnesia I was talking about seems to echo some distinctive features of our dominant fiction. The American dominant fiction à la “birth of a nation” can represent the codes as the result of a history, replaying the contradictions of that history under different figures (Whites/Indians, North/South, law/lawless, etc.). But the particular features of our history have made such a fiction, as representation of our social concord, impossible : it’s impossible to unite the considerations in the fiction “look at where we come from” without bumping into June 1848 or la Commune, images of the class struggle that are difficult to represent in function of the destiny of that struggle and its relative stabilization since the Third Republic and according to a very unequal development, as factor of a conflicting balance.

If the bourgeoisy would have completely annihilated or domesticated the workers’ resistance, perhaps they could have put forward positive images of Versailles, rendering the communards as happy just as the most distinguished producers of westerns have been able to do with the Indians. The type of ideological compromise (school for all) or political compromise (different forms of the Union sacrée* and contractual politics) that the bourgeoisy has wanted to secure with the working class since the end of the last century prevents them from producing such images or even proposing positive historical images of the reconciliation. Thus power hardly makes itself loved as law, in a fiction à la “here is where we come from”: it makes itself acceptable/forgettable in a fiction à la “we are like that”, a tabular representation of social diversity, in which the policeman, for example, is less the representative of the law than a voyeur going through a set of social types and at the same time part of the typology.

In this fiction that our cinema hasn’t invented but doubled via the prestige of its specific effect of the real, the class struggle is neither represented nor suppressed, it is taxonomized. It seems to me that Marx has brilliantly anticipated the formation of this mode of fiction in his relentless attack against Les Mysteres de Paris (Eugène Sue)*. What is proposed here is not only the first big mode of democratic figuration, likely to provide an image of society which is immediately readable for all classes (and in particular for the workers who start to benefit from the Guizot law concerning primary school); it’s also a fictional structure inherited by cinema, taking up the function of dominant figuration. This is what I call the “voyeurist-unanimist” fiction, a fiction that displays the spectacle of social diversity and particularly the one of its slums, margins etc, under the double glance of a voyeur who feels as comfortable in high as in low places, and of a reformer who acknowledges the social plagues and makes up remedies.

In the curious look of a young writer, amateur of “physiologies” and philanthropist who wanted to mend the social wounds, Marx seized the moment when, in becoming love writing, this voyeurist-unanimist glance, stemming from the right, transformed into political doxa of the left: politico-fictional unanmism formed via the “Montagne” group of the 2nd Republic*, the big legend of the exiles of 2nd December and the big national reconciliation in the 1880’s that still has a weight today, as much in Mitterand’s electoral declarations of universal love as in the infinite tenderness with which the anti-electorist Truffaut films an unhappy childhood, in Thiers or elsewhere (L’argent de poche). No matter what Truffaut does, it’s Mitterand who’s the doctor of the plagues he displays.

This mode of fiction has been able to become dominant, as well as dominant as culture of the left, and this goes back to the eradication (June 1848, La Commune) or the lamination (1914-1918) of the workers’ left but also to the relative weakness of the fictions of bourgeois power In France. On one hand, film is, because of the high costs involved, entirely dependent of capital; on the other, power has established the monopoly on television. But they hardly display this monopoly (this is why the images of power on television are mostly insignificant, simple pretext or illustration for voice). The right who holds political power hasn’t been able to define a positive politics of images, to overcome its distrust of the cinematographic effect of the real. It has bit by bit given away the control of the only representable national fiction – the unanimist fiction – to the left.

Taking images, editing images, composing a fresco of the people: these functions have become in a dominant way the functions “of the left”. The wonderment in front of the real, browsing through social diversity, the displaced, the tramps, the girls of pleasure or the humble melancholic workers, working class solidarity or bohemians between world wars, drowsy workers, “loulous” or the outcasts of today, this whole little world that emblematizes our national fraternity, it’s the left who has managed it, setting up its cultural hegemony from the inside, as part of the political hegemony of the bourgeoisy. In the balance/struggle of classes, the force that manages the working class struggle also tends to be the force that manages the national fiction.

If cinema has played an important role in this historical and cultural compromise, at the same time as it has become the dominant figuration of our times, it’s clear that the voyeurism of its principle and the unanimism of its effects are so natural, so inherent to its being, that nobody cares to pay attention to it (at least untll Godard puts his foot in it). The camera is dead on time to get rid of those redundancies of love writing, for one simple reason: the camera is itself love: just look at the tenderness oozing from our cinema.

The cinema is the art that always holds a supplement of the real or the dream. Most of the time that supplement is simply created from image to sound. We needed the talkie before there could be an unanimist cinema as major piece of the new leftist culture, which became in itself only possible after 1930 (because of the progressive national reconversion of the Communist Party). Or from image to image, as in Le Juge et l’assassin (Bertrand Tavernier), in which the luxuriance of the landscape unites the gauchiste fiction (the wandering of the outcast in the new “Icarie” of the Ardeche) with the revisionist hagiography (the decadence of the old ruling classes, contradiction overtaken by inhuman bureaucracy and wild anarchism, proud songs of the people’s women uniting the calm and responsible strike with the legend of La Commune). The force of Godard and his importance at a time when unanimism takes on new prestige (on the remains of May 1968), can be found in his criticism of the effect of the supplement.


But isn’t there a heavy responsibility of the political and syndicalist apparatus, apparatus of memorization and archiving, but also of forgetting and repression (in France, the French Social Party) in this hagiographisation/loss of legend? You just summed up in one sentence something that we have been trying to say in an article in Cahiers about ‘Section Spéciale’: the story of the big apparatus, of stifled ministries and those incarcerated or subjugated. Why is this the mode of representation of power that structures all cinema of the left? In what tradition does this belong?

It seems to me that, once again, Marx has put his finger on something important when he criticized (Victor) Hugo’s L’Histoire d’un Crime: a conspiracy, something that happens to society from above or from outside, this is necessarily how the bonapartist coup d’état appears for the representative of la Montagne, this new left that claimed power in the name of the people after having fired at them in 1848, and will also cover up the workers memory (that of the fighters of June) with the commemoration of the martyrs of the Republic.

In other words, the responsibility of the left goes far beyond the birth or the degeneration of the Communist Party. It’s about something else than a gap or even the inescapable pressure of the apparatus on the spontaneity of the popular archive. The big tradition of the left, that we inertly relate to 93 and Jacobinism, has in reality taken form with the Montagnards of the 2nd republic who have killed the fighters of June twice: first with arms, then by taking their place as victims. One of the first times when the outlaws of 2 December were able to affirm their legitimacy while commemorating the burial of a worker who died in exile, there was a provocateur present, the worker-poet Joseph Déjacque, to remind them that they had shot at the same person in June they ware burying now. Provocateurs like him died in misery or madness, and the big tradition of the left has been able to settle the game of their commemorations.

So the paleness of the images that the left can produce has a double cause. On one hand, the right gladly leaves them in charge of the commemorations (8th May, for example), leaving them the images of national revolutionary history, but also affecting them with a déjà-vu effect (soldiers of the 2nd year in the processions of the Front Populaire), yellowed photographs, images that are in advance considered as stereotypical, that the left can only produce at the price of redeeming them with commentary. On the other hand, the history of the left (except for the brief moments when there were attempts to set up a political workers left, breaking with the “Montagnard” tradition) has a very precise tradition: it has to legitimize the demand for power of the left with a history of its popular exploits and sufferings of which the left is heir or healer. In order to mask that the left has taken part in the violent repression of the streets or the soft repression of forms of popular culture or memory, it can only represent the contradiction as the opposition of life and the conspirator’s death drive. In this fiction/commemoration, the body and the voice from below will never represent anything else than the plebeian lust for life, the suffering in times of bad government, the demand for good government.

In opposition to the legend of the revolt (element of an autonomous culture, song brought back to its voice, dream or memory reinvested in practice), the hagiography of the people is inscribed in gestures, voices and gazes of people, the demand for power of its representatives. At the end of Tavernier’s film we can see a remarkable condensation of these hagiographic signs: the banner of a factory on strike, suggesting the responsible workers movement, the pride of the woman of the people, facing the power’s uniforms, taking side with her brothers, a voice singing La Commune and the lilas, black images with leftist rhetoric comparing the numbers of victims made by the maniac and those made by capital. There’s not one of those signs that doesn’t flatter the spectator of the left or gauchiste, who takes pleasure in recognizing its good side.

Hence the questions I’m posing in regards to the use of the notion of popular memory. The Cahiers have introduced them in the criticism of the “cinema rétro”*, as a memory of the resistance against the couple retro/submission. It has also functioned a bit as a return to the proper experience of the revolt against militant stereotypes. But if we don’t think about the contradictions of this notion, aren’t we at risk of loosing sight of the revisionist forest behind the retro tree (easily recuperated as sign of decadence of old ruling forces and the madness of bad government)? And aren’t we at risk of falling back on unanimist bliss, providing only a supplement of soul to the commemorations of the electoral left? Reading the letters that (Serge) Maoti received about Pain Noir*, I was struck by the way in which this “memory of the people” that didn’t have any apologetic intentions was spontaneously acknowledged by people such as the delegate of CGT (the national trade union), who didn’t consider it as their memory but as the abstract history of their class. Similarly, I haven’t seen Bertolucci’s film (Novecento), but I felt a bit terrorized by the love declarations to the big Communist Party accompanying his ecstatic account of popular memory.


Popular memory is something that unites the gauchiste demand for a substitute for code with the demand of the left for a supplement of code. Regaining memory: we have to know what we want to say by that. On one hand, the memory of struggle vanishes or spreads in the time of the struggle and that’s an affair for the current politics. But when culture from below has been the object, not of a simple cover-up, but of a double process of destruction and re-inscription, it’s useless to pretend to regain popular memory, because then we risk only illustrating the last re-inscription. We only have the scraps of the history from below or its legend, with which we have to produce something new. It’s not a problem of restitution but of production, because it’s not about uniting but about dividing. If the past interests us in the ‘Révoltes Logiques,’ it’s in its division.

On one hand it seems necessary to provide the elements of a real knowledge about all these questions which are subject of the arrogant chatter of the non-culture of our political doxa. For example: what is workers power, how does the oppressive faculty arise; how can workers fall for a political code (communist or other), how does submission work, etc? But it’s not only a matter of giving the material to politicians and theoreticians. It’s about making a division of their discourse. We don’t want to restore the voices from below but make their division heard, stage their theories in its present provocation. Because the problem today is producing the elements of a new culture in which the image has to have a decisive role.

For Sartre’s programs – of which we don’t have any expertise – we should probably have had this practice: play out the reciprocal provocation of past and present. But the discourse/illustration form probably wouldn’t have allowed to go very far. There should have been a possibility to get out of this double trap of testimony and commentary and that’s a question that forces us to re-pose the problem of fiction.

How to divide what spontaneously unites: memory, cinema? How to represent that division? These questions are urgent in the light of the vertiginous acceleration of the constitution of an official culture “of the left”, of all that is affiliated according to the logic of the supplement. The recent Italian cinema warns us for the sudden convergence of all fictions towards the PCI’s (Internationalist Communist Party) demand for power: images of the decadence and anarchy of power (Salo, Passolini), the vanity of the petit-bourgeois leftism (Allonsanfan, brothers Taviani), the regained memory of the people (Novecento, Bertolucci), the vindication of the vigorous popular police (Cadaveri eccellenti). Rosi’s film is fascinating because it’s not so much a fiction of historical compromise than it is a compromise of the state of fiction. The marxist political doxa that used to define Rosi’s films (the investigation that raises facts about social domination) is reduced to the slenderness of a completely literal and apolitical fiction of power. But the conspiracy/investigation fiction has in turn gotten rid of its spontaneous politics: immediate political positivation of the good investigator, the corrupt apparatus calling out to the healthy state with a popular police, manipulated masses calling out to well managed masses. The production of fiction immediately becomes political doxa. We take in the story of a crime as pure fiction of the demand for power.

This communal program of fiction, this official culture of the left… in many ways we see it invading our cultural space, with the prospect of 1978. Mitterand already established in Le Monde the official writers of the future reign. And we can already sense what scattering there will be on the gauchiste side, given the enthusiasm with which Libération receives every manifestation of the new cultural unanimism of the left, its affection for the new heroes of social-fascism, such as the worker Potapov (La Prime, Serguei Mikaélian) or inspector Rogas (Cadaveri eccellenti).


But how is it that the power (in Europe) submits so easily this medium which is cinema? Historically, we know that it was first the army that used it. We remember the newsreels before the war in which cinema was a way of proving the national influence abroad (in the colonies). In contrast to the other arts, cinema is very easily requisitioned by power. Today, for example, we have seen television asking all French spectators to send in their family films, amateur productions, in order to edit and broadcast them – to code them, while these images have actually been taken outside of any code. This is all happening as if the power, on top of having the monopoly of the historical archives, also wants that of amateur images.

I don’t thing cinema is requisitioned by power, “in contrast to the other arts”. It is in another way. Godard has not become an official institute of the Republic like Boulez or Vasarely. There where art has lost all function of social figuration, power can officialize it as an element of cultural development, without requiring any compromise of the artists. The requisitioning of cinema obviously has a different meaning since it is the figurative art par excellence, of which everyone is more or less consumer of producer. Cinema is the shortest road between the archive of power and the forms of recognition of every individual. It’s normal that power wants to glean something in the voyeurist delirium that characterizes our contemporary culture (the frenzy of the direct take, of documentary, ethnology etc.). Currently there is no corner left in our social space where there is no look, camera or sound recorder, looking for a surplus on the effect of the real. Power wants its part. But it’s also because it lacks it terribly. Our power takes little images and hardly stakes on images. Even on the inside of the state monopoly of images (television) the division comes into play: it’s generally the left that fictionalizes, particularly in regards to history.

The upholders of political power hardly want to show their images of the masses and their struggles, for example. They rather work on the insignificance of the image. The images of the power’s discourse on television, in different genres, all seem to obey one law, which is much more about the annulation than the production of meaning. There are first of all images of power that only reflect its double (the visits of state leaders); there are the broadcasts of Michel Droit in which everything is in the voice commenting the images which are mostly insignificant. This voice creates a reactionary political effect, less by its thinking than by its non-thinking. (Foucault has rebelled against the spontaneous thesis of the left: power is stupid. Regardless I think that the stupidifying effect produced by our television does not come from intelligence but from the stupidity of its contractors.); there are the broadcasts à la “Dossiers de l’écran” in which the often worthless images, characterised by déjà-vu and moreover affected by its role as pretext, introduce a spectacle of discordant voices, which represent the conflictual balance of our society and of which we have in advance heard all what they have to say. So we add a déjà-dit to a déjà-vu. Either the image is only used to align with the voice of power, or it ensures, by its insignificance, the power of the commenting voice, or it returns the discordant voices to the vanity of their déjà-dit and the spectacle of their complicity.

Spontaneously our power only acknowledges the image as support and pretext of the voice. It cancels it out or it is cancelled out by other voices. It prefers to command images (those of the fiction of the left or those of private individuals). In a way, this demand is a sign of weakness, or rather it would be if it wasn’t answered. This is not really the case. It is part of a broader problem. We have a power that occupies more than it produces (on television or elsewhere). It is always looking for supplements, images, imagination, that the left and the gauchistes jointly provide. And this poses the problem: when we are not a party, when we don’t want to supplement giscardism nor the left, how can we keep and use their experiences, their images, their imagination?


It is true that the French cinema is completely a-genealogical. But at the same time, when cinema is directly in the service of politics, whether it’s the militant cinema here or the official cinema in socialist countries, it always has a function of commemoration, as if it has to re-stage, re-affirm something already gained, already judged (this was true of the Soviet cinema as it is of the Chinese cinema today). What brings us to a double question. Is this an inevitable part of making political cinema (militant or propagandist, official or not)? And, on the other hand, isn’t there something there that is connected to the specificity of cinema as a medium?
Besides, you have seen ‘Darboy’, what do you think of it? Do you think militant cinema can play a positive role in the constitution of a memory, in a re-genealogisation (!) of cinema?

I don’t think that cinema holds this aspect of reaffirmation of what is already judged, anymore than other worlds of figuration. The lure of the “real” is in way more constitutive of its diffuse political function than its characteristic repetition. If we leave aside all these films of “the left” that are only political due to the spontaneity of their fiction (the political/commercial cinema of which Italian cinema provided the best example), we could say that there are two big types of political cinema: the one that militates in the service of political power, illustrating its slogans, establishing its legend, and more generally assuring its hegemony. This is the case for Soviet cinema that can of course also inspire the cinematographic practice of militant groups who don’t hold any power but who already consider themselves apparatus of the State to come.

And then there is the militant cinema such as Un Simple Exemple (Collectif Cinélutte) that tries to do politics by its own effect, through its participation in a dynamics of accumulation, representation, exchange of experiences. Its title explains the problem it poses: what does “exemple” mean? In one sense, it is the illustration of a theory. Thus the film is framed with black images displaying two pieces of a citation of the Communist Manifest about the revolt of productive forces against the relations between production and the inexorable catastrophe of capitalism. To use Godard’s words, the elsewhere of an enigmatic citation that needs us to give it a bit of body and the here of one of the innumerable struggles of the industrial restructuring that needs proving that its not one of those classic jolts that precede the definitive liquidation of companies, that it is a small life in the big wheel of revolution. Is this citation not an easy way of producing the + sign : theory of Marx + workers struggles = revolution to come?


That is to say that for them, it was a rather a simple matter. It wasn’t really thought over on the level of the production relation between one and the other. What was important for them was marking that it took place in a period of crisis, that it was a moment of crisis. And the only way we could figure out is this sentence with images that are actually images of 68. It wasn’t more ambitious than that: we hadn’t thought of it as a project: and perhaps, indeed, in return it poses questions.

Yes, but then we are sent back to the other meaning of the word “exemple” and the political fiction it supports: that of “it is possible”. The question of the film is on the level of its spontaneous politics, which is ours, that of the leftism after May 68 that lives off exemplary struggles, privileged moments when workers have invented again, taken up power. These moments, these inventions, these “exemples”… we reproduce them, we amplify them, showing them to those who supposedly will do the same. We put struggles in images in order to provoke other struggles, but aren’t we evacuating the problem of the qualitative jump, aren’t we concealing the burying in the “exemple”? And the necessity of the “exemple” obliges us to erase the important aspects of the constitution of a power of struggle. The main character of the film doesn’t come from the workers world, but from Vincennes, from the student uprising, from May 68. At that moment it’s not only about the constitution of a power of exemplary struggle, but the course of the gauchiste tribe, the constitution of a certain camp. And this aspect is evaded. What becomes significant is the plumpness and the joviality of the character which gives him the weight of a worker, rooted firmly in class.

The film reveals another shady element of our political doxa: the relation with the political-syndical apparatus. On one side, the exemplarity of the unanimity to represent, requires that we erase certain contradictions, especially certain tensions with the union inside the factory. On the other side, it functions on the basis of the spontaneous gauchiste opposition between the electorist illusion of the left and the real struggles lead by the workers, without asking itself (but there too it’s not the film but the whole of our doxa which is responsible) if there’s no complementarity of this “real” and this “illusion”. Hence this slightly bizarre sequence in the film in which the colors of the posters are laughed at. We have the impression that’s it’s there as a sort of counterweight because the filmmakers are embarrassed that they have to thank the union. But there’s also the real problem that stays intact: what is this “real” struggle? Is it a syndicalist struggle with a small supplement of soul? Is it something else? Is the circulation of images going to lead to the constitution of a camp or its illusion?

The other problem for me concerns the camera. In an ordinary struggle, the camera is normally not there, ready to film every gesture, every meeting. Its too natural presence, like the natural workers’ weight of the main character, evades a bit the elsewhere present in this struggle. It’s not a look filming the exemplarity of a workers struggle. The images are taken from a certain place that is also the one where the main actor of this struggle comes from. I agree that the militant camera shouldn’t loose itself in the problems of meta-language or feel guilty about its status, its right to be there etc. Nevertheless, the exemplarity obliges to mask the problems that are part of the constitution of this camp that the militant cinemas has to help form.


It seems to us that what legitimizes the militant cinema is the fact that the films are distributed in the factories on strike, in the places where there is no cinema, where there is a monopoly of the representation of struggle (like the union in 1968 showing La Vache et le Prisonnier (Henri Verneuil) at Renault). But in relation to a larger audience, the audience of cinema, television, the audience of gauchistes as well, we don’t know what sort of demand there is for workers representation. We have the feeling that there’s a division of work: the militant cinema shows the struggles, television the defusing, someone like Godard thinks about “how a struggle images itself” and the commercial cinema (Lily, aime moi etc) stages a playful image, proletarian demobilization. As if everyone manages in their own way the workers body.

For me, the big problem concerns the ghettos operating on the level of distribution. For example, for the supposedly revolutionary worker in the factory or on strike, there are militant films that show the workers struggles; for the supposedly petit-bourgeois worker who goes to the cinema on Saturday evening, there are films showing dimwit, fun-loving workers, with the head of Rufus for example, workers who don’t really care about the workers struggle. So the bourgeois cultural hegemony works in big part through a segregation of genres which is at the same time a segregation of audiences: heavy commercial films for the masses, light commercial films for the intellectual petit-bourgeoisy, militant films for the militants. There’s a double danger there: we inscribe ourselves in the bourgeois segregation, we live in its ghetto, but we also act as if we believe one aims at another audience than its own: just like the gauchiste press, the militant films don’t have the tendency to justify the shortcuts of their pedagogy through the affirmation that they are not aimed at intellectuals, while they still are their principal consumers.

Don’t the gauchiste words and images use as an alibi the fact that the masses don’t hear certain embellishments to confirm the simplism of the intellectuals? The import thing is to take diagonal routes, to produce for each ghetto films that shatter their genre, that provoke and displace the perception of its own audience. (Jacques) Fansten says interesting things about that in his interview with Cahiers (n° 266/267, may 1976). But obviously the destiny of his venture makes you wonder.


You have seen Ici et Ailleurs. What do you think about the way in which the question is posed how to serve a cause (or how to be useful for a cause – which is perhaps very different). And also, how to use a political cause in order to bring about (or liven up) a reflection on cinema?

I don’t know about being useful for a cause. It already has the merit of being harmful to quite a few “good” causes. It is without any doubt the only contemporary film of our political situation, arriving just in time to question the culture of the communal program. I’m thinking of the scene with this too pretty Lebanese woman who is asked by the filmmaker to redirect her head so that she would better play the role of the militant Palestinian who is happy to give a son to the revolution. There is an exact counterpart, I think, in the final scene of Le Juge et L’Assassin, in which an actrice who is also too pretty holds her head up too high to sing a too lilas-perfumed version of La Commune. Godard takes up a function that is decisive today: provoking and dividing. But I think that it’s rather useful to people than to causes. But then to who? For Ici et Ailleurs it’s undoubtedly to us more than to the Palestinians. Which usefulness?

It could be simply the kind of service that helps us not to die stupid. It could be more: the principle of a new vigilance. But then there’s still this aspect that I think is problematic, what I called his pacifism. Godard tells us that it’s shameful to take images, shameful to combine them with sounds that make them lie, shameful to tell stories, shameful to repeat the everyday violation of the representation of power. It’s true, but not the whole truth. One also has to produce images and stories, one has to divide but there also has to be a way of uniting. We cannot stay in a position of culpabilisation, a bit similar – even if it goes back to a infinitly more intelligent practice – to that of post-gauchiste political discourses, culpabilising every political action because it necessarily puts forward a power that necessarily oppresses etc.

If we don’t want to stay disarmed, we have to put forward powers, produce images and fictions that will always be a bit suspicious. We have to divide (the here and elsewhere) but also produce (condense in a certain way the here and elsewhere). This is the time for dialectics. How to divide, who unites and on the basis of what? For example, I Wouldn’t criticize La Cecilia (Jean-Louis Comolli) for taking liberties in relation to the questioning of Godard, but I would perhaps criticize it for unifying too easily on the basis of an idea (the sweet dreams anarchy: images carried by the anarchist song) and then dividing too easily on the basis of the same idea. (closing of the dream outside of the real class struggle): we have to, in one way or another, show that this real struggle also has its closings and collapses (Union sacrée, for example*).

We have to accept Godard’s provocation and yet find ways to go beyond it. Because behind the appearance of a return to the positive (see what the Palestinian fighters whose voices we buried under our noisy ‘Internationale’ actually said, learn how to see, how to listen etc.) there is an aristocratism that is a bit suicidal.

Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

translator’s notes
* “André Glucksmann, former spokesperson for les ‘enragés’ of May 1968 and the Maoists of ‘La Gauche Prolétarienne’ published under the title La Cuisinièr et le mangeur (The Cook and the cannibal) the first manifesto of the so-called ‘new philosophers’ who went on to build their fame on denouncing ‘concentration-camp Marxism’ and identifying with its victims. From this side, the revolutionary people was liquidated en bloc, turned into pure embodiment of the Marxist dream of mastery, pure justification for the mass crime of the gulag. On the one hand, the denunciation of ‘master-thinker’s simply revivified the old reactionary discourse for which dreams of purity and social justice necessarily lead to the crimes of totalitarianism. But, on the other hand, the purity denounced immediately resurfaced in a new guise when Glucksmann and his colleagues opposed to ‘concentration-camp Marxism’ a plebs endowed with a constitutive virtue of resistance to the assaults of that leviathan power whose final avatar was the Soviet state. The new embodiments of the popular body that the supposed ‘new philosophers’ opposed to Marxism actually reconstituted the same dubious alliance between positive and negative on which Marxism itself lived. And once again the celebration of the suffering and struggling people served to benefit its self-proclaimed representatives. The ‘proletarian’ intellectuals speaking in the name of the builders of a new world were replaced by the new ‘dissident’ intellectuals speaking in the name of the victims of that ‘new world’.” (Rancière in Staging the People: The Proletarian and His Double)
* Jan Valtin was the literary pseudonym of Richard Julius Herman Krebs. Krebs, a Soviet and German spy, was author of the best-selling Out of the Night (1940)
* L’Union sacrée (French for Sacred Union) was a political truce in France in which the left-wing agreed, during World War I, not to oppose the government or to call any strike.
* Karl Marx criticized Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris in The Holy Family (1845). Marx found Sue unintentionally making a mockery of mystery, turning character into caricature. Marx’s basic point was that although the social conditions of Paris under Louis Philippe had indeed improved, the underlying belief systems were still medieval. Whatever sympathy Sue created for the poor, he failed to come to terms with the true nature of the city which had changed little.
* The Montagnards controlled the French government during the climax of the Revolution in 1793–94
* Cinéma Retro was discussed in an interview with Michel Foucault in 1974. Pascal Bonitzer & Serge Toubiana wrote: “Lacombe Lucien, The Night Porter, Les Chinois a Paris, Le Trio infernal, etc. These films, whose avowed aim is to rewrite history, are not an isolated phenomenon. They are themselves inscribed into a history, a history in progress; they have – as we are sometimes criticized for saying – a context. This context, in France, is the coming to power of a new bourgeoisie, of a fraction of the bourgeoisie along with its ideology (Giscard, president of all the French; a more-just-andcaring society etc.), its conception of France, and of history. What goes by the name of ‘apres-gaullisme’ is also an opportunity for the bourgeoisie to rid itself of a certain heroic, nationalist but also anti-Petainist and anti-fascist image, which was still reflected if not by Pompidou, at least by de Gaulle and Gaullism. Chaban’s electoral defeat marks the end of this heroic, exaggerated and somewhat grotesque image (cf. Malraux) of recent French history. Something else is beginning to be written and represented: that France wasn’t all that anti-fascist, that the French couldn’t have cared less about Nazism, that anti-fascism and the Resistance were only ever, precisely, this derisory image of Gaullist ‘grandeur’ which is now showing its false nose. What is emerging is a cynical ideology: that of big business, of the multinational and technocratic culture that Giscard represents. The French, it is thought, are ripe for this cynicism (cynicism of the ruling class, disillusionment of the exploited classes): a cynicism illustrated, on the screen, by the phenomenon known as the ‘retro style’, i.e. the snobbish fetishism of period effects (costumes and settings) with little concern for history. This false archaeology of history had to be denounced in all its implications and all its effects. A true archaeology had to be – has to be – put in its place: the popular memory of struggles (of all forms of struggle) which has never really been able to speak – which has never had the power to do so – and which must be revived against all the forces which are constantly bent on stifling it – on silencing it once and for all.”
* Pain Noir: TV Mini-Series from 1974-1975, based on Georges-Emmanuel Clancier’s series of novels in which he told the story of his family, and his maternal grandmother, taking place in the period 1880 – 1936.
* Rancière wrote for Révoltes Logiques from 1975 to 1981. See Staging the People Volumes 1 & 2.