Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that it will bestow an honorary Oscar on iconic Swiss-French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard on Nov. 13.
The announcement has raised a new question and revived an old one.
First, will Godard show up to accept the award?
Second, is he an anti-Semite?
Both questions can be answered with a categorical “maybe yes or maybe no.”
Godard, who will mark his 80th birthday in December, is one of the originators, and among the last survivors, of the French New Wave cinema, which he helped kick-start in 1960 with “Breathless,” still his best-known work.
He and his cohorts, among them Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, rebelled against the traditional French movie, and later against all things Hollywood.
The New Wave elevated the role of the director as the sole auteur of a movie and viewed film as a fluid audiovisual language, freed of the constraints of formal story lines, plot, narration and sequence.
As Godard put it, “I believe a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
To a small coterie of cinephiles and most professional film critics, especially in Europe, Godard is considered the ultimate cinematic genius. To others, his films often seem insufferably opaque and incomprehensible.
In the 50 years since his film debut, Godard has proven his vigor and inventiveness in 70 features and is credited with strongly influencing such American directors as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh.
Godard’s long career has been marked by constant artistic disputes and charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, as noted in three biographies: “Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70” (2003) by American professor Colin MacCabe; “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard” (2008) by Richard Brody, an editor and writer for the New Yorker; and “Godard” by film historian Antoine de Baecque.
The last was published in March in French and is not easily available. Material used in this article was drawn from reviews and analyses of the book.
The early seeds of Godard’s alleged anti-Semitism and acknowledged anti-Zionism may have been planted in the home of his affluent Swiss-French Protestant family.
In a 1978 lecture in Montreal, he spoke of his family’s own political history as World War II “collaborators” who rooted for a German victory, and of his grandfather as “ferociously not even anti-Zionist, but he was anti-Jew; whereas I am anti-Zionist, he was anti-Semitic.”
Godard validated his anti-Israel credentials in 1970 by filming “Until Victory,” depicting the “Palestinian struggle for independence,” partially bankrolled by the Arab League.
The project was eventually aborted, but Godard used some of the footage in his 1976 documentary, “Ici et ailleurs” (“Here and Elsewhere”), contrasting the lives of two families — one French and one Palestinian.
In it, Godard inserted alternating blinking images of Golda Meir and Adolf Hitler, and suggested, in reference to the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, that “before every Olympic finale, an image of a Palestinian [refugee] camp should be broadcast.”
Biographer Brody, like the other authors, is an ardent admirer of Godard the artist, but he notes that in the filmmaker’s later work, “Godard’s obsession with living history ... has brought with it a troubling set of idées fixes, notably regarding Jews and the United States.”
Godard has been able to combine both targets in his attacks on Hollywood, and, of course, the Jews who run it.
He has always been obsessed by the Holocaust, and after the 1993 release of “Schindler’s List,” the film and its director, Steven Spielberg, became Godard’s favorite whipping boys.
As in many of his attacks on Hollywood, it is at times difficult to discern whether Godard’s hostility is based on artistic differences or anti-Semitism, or a bit of each.
The leitmotif running through Godard’s own work is the superiority of “images” as against “texts” or narratives, or, as he puts it, “the great conflict between the seen and the said.”
He faults, for instance, Claude Lanzmann’s monumental nine-hour film, “Shoah,” for its use of personal narratives by survivors and others, and proposes that the Holocaust can only be truly represented by showing the home life of one of the concentration camp guards.
Who is to blame for the Jewish preference of text over image? It is Moses, Godard’s “greatest enemy,” who “saw the bush in flames and who came down from the mountain and didn’t say, ‘This is what I saw,’ but, ‘Here are the tablets of the law.’ ”
For the untutored layman, unfamiliar with the methods and passions of movie making, this and other Godard pronouncements can take on an Alice-in-Wonderland quality.
A key may be found in a recent London Sunday Times story, in which a reporter interviewed one of Godard’s oldest friends, a retired geology professor.
“He [Godard] is on a different level from the rest of us, somewhere between genius and completely round the bend,” the professor explained.
Artistic differences aside, there are disturbing instances of Godard’s anti-Semitism, particularly directed against some of his closest collaborators. According to the three biographers, at one point Godard called producer Pierre Braunberger, an early supporter of the New Wave filmmakers, a “sale Juif ” (filthy Jew).
In another case, when longtime collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin requested some back pay, Godard noted, “Ah, it’s always the same, Jews call you when they hear a cash register opening.”
When this reporter submitted some of Godard’s anti-Semitic utterances to the Motion Picture Academy and requested comments, the request prompted the following written response:
“The Academy is aware that Jean-Luc Godard has made statements in the past that some have construed as anti-Semitic. We are also aware of detailed rebuttals to that charge. Anti-Semitism is of course deplorable, but the Academy has not found the accusations against M. Godard persuasive.
“The Academy’s Honorary Awards are presented in recognition of an individual’s extraordinary contributions to the art of the motion picture. The organization intends to bestow an honorary Oscar on M. Godard at its second annual Governors Awards on November 13th.”
After a follow-up request as to the source of the “detailed rebuttals,” an Academy spokeswoman cited a 2009 article in the Canadian magazine Cinema Scope by Bill Krohn, Hollywood correspondent for the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, to which Godard and many of the early New Wave directors contributed as film critics.
Krohn took on Brody’s biography and accused its author of ideological simplification, biographical reductivism, guilt by association, misinterpretations, hurt self-esteem following a snub by Godard and, all in all, of perpetrating “a hatchet job disguised as a celebration of Godard’s genius.”
Krohn’s critique is quite diffuse and short on specifics, but in one concrete instance he illustrates that the same words can be interpreted in different ways.
Although Godard’s exclamation of “filthy Jew” was taken by Braunberger as a deadly insult, Krohn interprets it as affectionate banter between old friends and an allusion to the film “La grande illusion.”
Perhaps a better defense of Godard may be found in some of the filmmaker’s own projects and views, however erratic they may appear.
Given his family background and pro-Palestinian activism, it would not be surprising if Godard were also a Holocaust denier.
But, on the contrary, he is fixated on the murder of6 million, including some 77,000 Jews living in France, and one of his main charges against Hollywood is that Jewish studio heads could have prevented the Shoah by producing a number of anti-Nazi films in the 1930s.
He has labeled repeated accusations that some of his films equate the Palestinian Nakba (defeat in the 1948-49 war) with the Holocaust as “completely idiotic.”
In some of Godard’s enigmatic films, the same movie may contain both negative and positive themes. For instance, in his 2001 picture “Éloge de l’amour” (In Praise of Love), Godard attacks Spielberg in particular, and America in general, for its perceived lack of history and culture.
He also inserts the last testament of a notorious French fascist and anti-Semite, but on the other hand, the movie also deals with the quest to restore Nazi-looted art to the rightful Jewish and other owners.
Earlier this year, it was reported that Godard was preparing an adaptation of Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” with Israeli filmmaker Oren Moverman.
In an attempt to get additional input on Godard’s character and reputation, this reporter contacted several entertainment industry personalities in Hollywood and abroad.
One was Arthur Cohn, the Swiss film producer and winner of six Oscars, including one for the classic “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” and an ardent Zionist and Jewish activist.
Others were Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and multiple Academy Award winner; noted UCLA film historian Howard Suber; and writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd.
In one form or another, each said that he had no personal knowledge of Godard’s reputed anti-Semitism.
Spielberg is shooting a film in Europe and was not available for comment. However, Marvin Levy, Spielberg’s personal spokesman, responded to a query on how Spielberg had dealt with Godard’s personal attacks on him and his films, particularly “Schindler’s List.”
“I don’t recall anything from Steven at that time or through the years,” Levy responded. “He may have known about Godard’s thoughts on ‘Schindler’s List,’ but I never heard him talk about it. All the acclaim overwhelmed any negatives from anybody. It would have been uncharacteristic of him to get into a confrontation with another filmmaker who didn’t like his film.”
Attempts to reach Godard through the head of his Swiss production company were unsuccessful. This failure will not surprise anyone who has followed the comedic drama of trying to pin down whether Godard will actually attend the Academy’s Governors Awards dinner in November at the Hollywood & Highland Center.
At the same event, producer-director Francis Ford Coppola will receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, and, in addition to Godard, actor Eli Wallach and historian-preservationist Kevin Brownlow have been chosen for honorary Oscars.
Despite a flurry of faxes, e-mails and couriered letters, Godard did not respond to the invitation for weeks, until some enterprising British reporters tracked him at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle.
Godard escaped the reporters, but Anne-Marie Mieville, his wife and work partner, said Godard was apparently disappointed that the honor would not be conferred at the main Oscars ceremony next February.
In any case, she said, Godard “is getting too old for this kind of thing. Would you go all that way just for a bit of metal?”
The French newspaper Liberation commented that it might be just as well if Godard stayed home, as his speeches “have become mysterious adventures in the country of language.”
Nevertheless, the Academy remains officially upbeat, though hedging its bets by stating carefully that it “intends to bestow an honorary Oscar on M. Godard.”
Though he may not like to travel, Godard continues to make new films with considerable vigor. His latest, “Socialism,” screened at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 29 and will be shown again on Oct. 8.
Benjamin Ivry, a frequent contributor to the Forward, contributed to this article.