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  • Revisioning Europe: The Films of John Berger and Alain Tanner by Jerry White
  • Emile Fromet de Rosnay (bio)
Jerry White. Revisioning Europe: The Films of John Berger and Alain Tanner. University of Calgary Press. x, 244. $34.95

Jerry White’s book – his first of two on Swiss cinema (another on Miéville and Godard is forthcoming) – recovers the political cinema of British writer John Berger and Swiss film-maker Alain Tanner by showing that their cinematic collaborations were at once ‘forward-looking and historically aware’ and ‘aesthetically innovative while still close to conventions of film narrative.’ Placed in the context of the 1960s and early 1970s radical cinema, White shows that these film-makers need to be reconsidered both in terms of their contributions to film theory and practice and in terms of the radical possibilities such practice might contribute to political change. White insists this practice be considered, not as a Swiss extension of the New Wave and May ’68, but rather as part of an international movement that included Czechoslovakia, Quebec, Poland, and Brazil. The book is thus structured on a line of argument that describes the historical and aesthetic specificity of the films and outlines the political stakes that the latter entail. Very insightfully for those interested in Berger and Tanner as well as in the radical cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, the first chapter on the early Berger and Tanner collaborations outlines the theoretical and practical development in contrast with the New Wave and the movement of the Cahiers du cinéma group toward a more radical politics. Indeed, White shows how the two directors were ‘much at odds with Nouvelle Vague sensibility.’ Those who dismiss Berger and Tanner’s films as derived from the Cahiers group would do well to read this chapter as it prepares us to grasp at once the artistic differences and the political specificity of the film-makers. This lesser-known early cinema, and especially the films produced for television, stand on their own, and this chapter is an indispensable part of the book. The three main chapters discuss the three most famous films, La Salamandre, Le Milieu du monde, and Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000, and White analyses in very rigorous fashion the various ways in which Berger and Tanner develop their art. The formal innovations of Berger and Tanner (and for these two, ‘form’ takes precedence in terms of ideological critique over content itself) involve a ‘montage entre les scènes,’ a ‘macro-level montage.’ This results in a reconciliation of Bazinian long takes and Brechtian montage and of a more traditional, illusionist narrative with self-reflexive critiques of representation that cause us to see politics differently. We thereby confront social conventions and, more specifically, mainstream Swiss values. The conclusion outlines some of the key differences of Berger and Tanner after their collaborations, with John Berger moving toward a socialist narrative realism that seeks to understand the [End Page 634] paradoxes at the margins of society and Tanner developing politicized experimentation. More importantly, it shows how their later work continued to share the fruits of collaboration.

The significance of the title of White’s book is multiple: it is about ‘revising’ the reception of Berger and Tanner; in ‘re-visioning’ their films, viewers get to revise the meaning of Europe, which is a double process of seeing European history through the specific context of Switzerland, and of rethinking of radical cinema apart from the familiar language of the New Wave.

Overall, it is an excellent book as it offers an inquiry into the Berger-Tanner collaborations for students of the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. This study gives a great sense of nuance to the debates about politics and aesthetics of that time. If there are problems with the book, these are not substantial. One wonders whether glaring and frequent translation and spelling errors in the text come from White’s lack of familiarity with French or from automated spellchecking and the editors. There are also missing entries in an otherwise very helpful bibliography. The footnotes are useful, informative, and, in fact, a delight to read. The book includes an...