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  • Godard's Wars
  • Philip Watts

One of the lasting myths about the films of the French New Wave is that they turned their backs on history. The young directors who emerged in the early 1960s, the story goes, were more interested in intimate tales of a new generation, in the history of cinema, and in what Robert Benayoun at Positif had called "a flight into formalism" than they were in making films about historical events or France's colonial wars. The accusation of formalism (and of course the valorization of formal innovation) continues to this day, in particular against Godard's early films which are often seen as having traded memory for stylistic experimentation, the past for formal innovation and, in his earliest films, historicity for a vague and ahistorical right-wing anarchism. That Godard has turned explicitly to the question of history in more recent works such as Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998) and Éloge de l'amour (2001) is cited only as proof of the absence of historical thinking in his early works.1

As seductive as this hypothesis has been for scholars and journalists, it doesn't quite coincide with the complex relation between aesthetics, politics, and history in Godard's early works. To be sure, Godard rarely used documentary footage in his earlier films (Les Carabiniers is the one exception), and unlike Truffaut and Louis Malle, for instance, he never made a period drama. By the early 1970s Godard was probably as far removed from the mode rétro as a filmmaker could be. Still, while Godard's subject in his films from the early 1960s remains the sights and sounds of postwar society in its headlong rush to modernize, the horrors of the Second World War, the complicity of the Vichy government, and the disaster of the Holocaust do indeed resurface at incongruent moments. Godard constantly draws on sounds, images, and stories from the past that, however brief, are meant to play a part in his interrogation of the present. If critics have failed to notice these moments, it is because they are often fragmentary, indirect, and digressive. And indeed, it may have been Godard's very abhorrence of the mode rétro that allowed his films to engage in thinking about history as something other than a commodity, and the images and stories of the past as something other than a simulacrum. Until 1967, there is no discourse about the war in Godard's films, no overarching theory of the relation between cinema and history, but there are moments in which the past surges forth, moments of shock and disruption whose goal is to force a rethinking of the sights and sounds of the [End Page 137] present. Several recent works have begun to point us in this direction. Nicholas D. Paige's article on Le Mépris offers possibilities for understanding Godard's early work as a reflection on its own position in history, in film history, and in particular on its conditions of production.2 And Antoine de Baecque, in Histoire-caméra, traces the ways Godard had begun to put together in his films history and the history of art well before embarking on the project of Histoire(s) du cinéma.3

My goal in this article is to examine the sporadic yet significant reflections on the Second World War and on the representation of the Holocaust in particular, in Godard's films. These films are historical not in the sense that they present costume dramas, but in their attempts to make a link—often through a form of montage—between the past and the present in which his characters and the spectator are situated. This link is often tenuous, fraught and inarticulate, more a matter of perception than of full-blown theorization, but it is active nonetheless. What is more, Godard's films encourage us to think about the relation between cinema and history not simply as the cinematic representation of a historical event, but as the way aesthetic practices participate in the perception of changing social conditions and in the development of modes of interpretation. If Godard's early films evoke Vichy and the Second World War...


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