PRINT September 2004


J. Hoberman on Godard’s Notre Musique and war films

LIKE MUCH IN contemporary Hollywood movies, the current model combat film was developed by Steven Spielberg. Saving Private Ryan (1998) provided a total immersion in state-of-the-art virtual carnage—the opening D-day landing is the most impressive demonstration of cinematic virtuosity of Spielberg’s career—while conspicuously failing to provide any historical context. Representing World War II but thinking Vietnam, Saving Private Ryan proposed the army’s band of brothers (rather than, say, the Nation or some abstract ideal or even the nature of the enemy) as war’s ultimate source of moral justification.

Although released two summers too late to help the last-hurrah presidential campaign of World War II hero Bob Dole, Saving Private Ryan did create the template for the Mogadishu bloodbath of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) and the gruesome Battle of Ia Drang in Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers (2002), both movies that, fortuitously opening during the war against the Taliban, were publicly endorsed by the Bush administration. Indeed, Black Hawk Down’s “leave no man behind” sell line succinctly encapsulates the tautological argument that wars are essentially fought to rescue those soldiers who have been sent to war. (That this rationale has yet to be advanced for the American commitment to Iraq hardly means that it will not be. During the 2000 campaign candidate Bush declared Saving Private Ryan his favorite movie.)

Of course, Saving Private Ryan isn’t without its own historical context. With impressive sleight of hand, Spielberg managed to evoke the inspirational rhetoric of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 D-day pageant while channeling the battle-hardened brutalism of Samuel Fuller, patron saint of New Wave and neo–New Wave filmmakers from Godard to Tarantino. Fuller, a onetime infantryman who was wounded twice in World War II, often maintained that it was impossible to show combat on the screen—unless, perhaps, one were to “fire real shots over the audience’s head [and] have actual casualties in the theater.”

Fuller once said that the response he wanted from his war movies was that “only an idiot would go to war”; asked if Saving Private Ryan was an antiwar film, Spielberg offered a Zen paradox: “It’s an antiwar film only in that if you want to go to war after seeing this picture, then it’s not an antiwar film.” Fuller loathed “phony heroics”; Saving Private Ryan reconfigured World War II as a mission to save a single soldier. Hardly inspirational, Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980) recounts the war as a series of grotesque (or grotesquely corny) adventures in which Lee Marvin’s stoic god of war leads a platoon of callow recruits through the carnage. (In one Fullerian gag, Marvin is briefly captured and smooched by a Nazi doctor who exclaims, “I adore supermen!” Hate merges with love as the enemy is personalized.) Saving Private Ryan ends on a note of divine redemption; Fuller’s stand-in in his quasi-autobiographical labor of love concludes that surviving is war’s only glory.

Last May The Big Red One resurfaced—some forty minutes longer than its release version—to shake its gory locks at the generally war-obsessed 57th Cannes Film Festival. Held in the aftermath of what was then the bloodiest month since the US-led coalition invaded Iraq, haunted by the revelations of prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib, dominated by the first screenings of Michael Moore’s rapturously received Fahrenheit 9/11, Cannes premiered not only the “restored” Big Red One but also meditations on the Bosnian war by Emir Kusturica and Jean-Luc Godard, as well as the West’s canonical war text in the form of Wolfgang Petersen’s Homeric epic, Troy. (“They’ll be talking about this war for a thousand years,” publicity-minded Achilles—or rather, Brad Pitt—predicts.)

Unlike Petersen’s CGI brawn-fest, The Big Red One is all the more horrific for being obvious make-believe. Similarly, for all the impressively choreographed visceral hysteria of its first hour, Kusturica’s antinationalist but deeply sentimental Life Is a Miracle—a lusty Muslim-Serb romance meant to illustrate the bromide that love conquers all—seemed more abstract than Godard’s perversely serene evocation of the same conflagration, Notre Musique (Our Music). Olympian in its detachment, Godard’s film is nonetheless heartfelt in its desire to simply acknowledge, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas might have put it, the preeminence of the Other.

Can our irascible Godard be reconciled? The question underlies the seventy-four-year-old director’s meditation on landscape after battle. Notre Musique is another (and scarcely the least) of Godard’s elegies—for twentieth-century Europe, the cinema, and himself. Set mainly in Bosnia, the movie takes as its ruling metaphors the ruined Sarajevo library and Mostar’s stari most, the sixteenth-century stone bridge that outlived the Ottomans and the Communists and withstood two world wars before being pulverized by Croatian artillery in 1993. Godard observes the French engineer Gilles Pequeux rebuilding the Mostar bridge: The process, which involves painstakingly labeling and reassembling every stone salvaged from the river, suggests old-fashioned editing.

Notre Musique is all about making connections, and the movie’s structure seems uncharacteristically obvious, divided as it is into Dante’s three “kingdoms,” with the central, hour-long Purgatory serving as the bridge between the opening ten-minute Hell and concluding ten-minute Heaven.

The Kingdom of Hell is a tour-de-force montage that evokes the totality of war by violently yoking together clips from a variety of movies (Alexander Nevsky, Fort Apache, and Kiss Me Deadly among them), as well as all manner of newsreels. The assemblage is accompanied by somber piano music and, much of it video-enhanced (or distressed), might be a colorized version of Bruce Conner’s A Movie. Like Saving Private Ryan, Notre Musique opens with a demonstration of cinematic might; unlike Spielberg, however, Godard mixes real atrocity footage with blatantly staged examples of derring-do.

Hell is a tough act to follow. Toward the end of Notre Musique’s opening movement, images from the Bosnian war appear in the mix, creating a segue to contemporary Sarajevo, the Kingdom of Purgatory. “Reporters always visit the hells, and tourists the paradises! One seldom goes to purgatory,” Godard told a French journalist at Cannes. But Sarajevo is a former hell that attracts a particular kind of tourist. Indeed, JLG appears as his rumpled self, arriving at the local airport en route to giving a talk at a French-sponsored conference, “European Literary Encounters,” at which the stateless Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish also appears.

A collection of interviews with Darwish was published under the title Palestine as Metaphor (1997), and Godard uses Sarajevo in similar fashion. There is a general absence of Bosnians (at least as speaking subjects), and the specter of the Iraq war is always in the background, glimpsed on TV or in newspaper headlines. But mainly, Sarajevo serves as a backdrop for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, or between Jews and themselves. A young French-Israeli writer (Sarah Adler), carrying a copy of Levinas’s Entre Nous and covering the conference for the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, interviews Darwish. “There is greater inspiration and human richness in defeat than victory,” he explains. Yet the Palestinians have become an international cause precisely because their enemy is Israel: “You have brought us defeat and renown. . . . The world is interested in you, not us.” Engaged in his own interrogations, Godard has discovered that his translator (Rony Kramer) is the son of a Jewish Egyptian communist and has come to Sarajevo in part to meet with his niece Olga (Nade Dieu), a Russian Jew living in Israel.

Asked by Le Monde about the prominence of the three Jewish characters, Godard blandly added that he considered himself to be the fourth: “Je suis un Juif du cinéma.” The heart of Notre Musique is his lecture and its failure: The maestro begins by showing an enlarged photograph of urban devastation and asking his audience to identify it. Surprisingly, the image is of neither Berlin nor Warsaw nor Stalingrad nor Hiroshima nor even Sarajevo, but Richmond, Virginia, 1865—a production made in America, for America.

Godard’s sense of otherness requires something more dialectical. For his next exhibit, he holds up a pair of frame enlargements from Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday. One is a close-up of Cary Grant, the other is a comparable reverse-angle shot of Rosalind Russell. They are the same, the maestro explains, in that Hawks “doesn’t understand the difference between a man and a woman.” Hilariously uncertain that he has made his point regarding the (mis)recognition of the Other, the filmmaker orchestrates a pan across his expressionless audience—and then launches into a disquisition on dialectical montage. Truth has two faces, he says, juxtaposing images of two concentration-camp inmates—one marked “Juif” and the other labeled “Muselmann.

After this provocative, universalizing play on Auschwitz slang for a hopeless prisoner, Godard sets up a shot/countershot of Jews and Palestinians, explaining that after the 1948 creation of Israel, the Jewish story became the stuff of fiction and the Palestinian story the material of documentary. That is certainly the case with Notre Musique, but, as if to ratify the facile brilliance of Godard’s comment, the crowd noise suddenly overwhelms his talk, obscuring his modest statement that cinema is “our music.”

As he leaves Sarajevo, Godard is given Olga’s DV film. It’s labeled Notre Musique; did she get her title from Godard’s lecture, or did he appropriate it from her? (And are the shots of Sarajevo scattered throughout the movie meant to be bits and pieces of Olga’s film?) Back in Switzerland, puttering in his garden, Godard receives a phone call from Olga’s uncle: She returned to Jerusalem and, in protest of the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, took a movie theater hostage, giving the audience five minutes to leave the premises before she blew herself up. Everyone left; she was killed by Israeli security even though, as it turns out, she had no bomb.

Such is Godard’s fantasy. The grave and lovely Jewess confronts the audience with her transcendent desire for peace. Not for nothing was this potential martyr shown pondering the intertitles from Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. Notre Musique’s haunting final movement takes Olga to Heaven—which strongly resembles the same Swiss landscape where Godard shot his last, and less successful, meditation on the Balkan wars, For Ever Mozart (1996). Having burned her bridges, Olga walks through the woods, initially alone, then passing an African-American soldier fishing in a sylvan brook. The US military is guarding paradise—as promised in the Marine Corps anthem (which Godard helpfully provides).

Just as Notre Musique’s Hell reproaches Saving Private Ryan’s opening, so this Heaven, set to an elegiac piano score, reproaches the grandeur of the Spielberg film’s concluding Valhalla. Olga sits down with a boy at the edge of a lake and shares his apple. This is about as hopeful as Godard gets, and he signs off with a celebratory close-up. It is, per Levinas, “the face of the Other”—in heaven if not on earth.

J. Hoberman is senior film critic at the Village Voice.