Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences intends to award an honorary Oscar to iconic French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard on November 13. But will the academy be honoring a notoriously vocal, albeit French-speaking, anti-Semite?
Admired for avant-garde films like “Breathless” (1960); “My Life to Live” (1962) and “Contempt” (1963), Godard is one of the last survivors of French cinema’s New Wave movement, after the death in January of director Éric Rohmer and the premature 1984 demise of Godard’s colleague and ex-friend, François Truffaut. The friendship between Godard and Truffaut dissolved by the end of the 1960s because of the former’s anti-Semitism, according to two new biographies: “Godard” by film historian Antoine de Baecque, published in Paris in March, and “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard” (2008) by Richard Brody.
Both biographers recount a series of incidents expressing Godard’s unhealthy obsession with Jews, which noted French historian and journalist Pierre Assouline, on his Le Monde blog, termed “anti-Semitic.” In 1968, Godard, in the presence of Truffaut, called producer Pierre Braunberger, an early supporter of New Wave filmmakers, “sale juif” (“filthy Jew”), after which Truffaut immediately broke from Godard.
Godard’s attitude toward Jews has also come under the microscope because of his contempt for the State of Israel, which he has often called “a cancer on the map of the Middle East” —including in a famous 1991 interview with the newspaper Libération. His 1976 documentary “Ici et Ailleurs” (“Here and Elsewhere”) contrasts the lives of a French and Palestinian family and features alternatingly flickering images of Golda Meir and Adolf Hitler, proposing them as comparable tyrants. As de Baecque underlines, in “Ici et Ailleurs” Godard also defends the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, suggesting that “before every Olympics finale, an image of Palestinian [refugee] camps should be broadcast.”
When I interviewed Godard in 1991 at his home in the Swiss city of Rolle, I asked him to explain the cancer metaphor. Keeping one eye on a muted television showing tennis, Godard languidly described hospital X-rays of malignant tumors in what he clearly saw as an exact analogy to the Middle East. He discussed the subject more recently, in a 2007 documentary, “Morceaux de Conversations,” (“Fragments of Conversations With Jean-Luc Godard”) made by film historian Jean Narboni, an editor of the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Godard tells Narboni that Israelis currently occupy a territory that belongs to “their eternal fiction, from biblical times onward.” When Narboni states that the term “fiction” is offensive, Godard flippantly replies that Israelis live on “reality TV,” whereas Palestinians exist “in a film by Frederick Wiseman,” the starkly tragic, albeit American Jewish, documentarian.
Reality itself becomes a relative term when Godard, as de Baecque observes, justifies every act of Arab resistance, including terrorism, by saying that “Israel is a paradoxical form of Nazism’s historical resurgence.” In a 1970 short documentary filmed for German TV, Godard brandished a tract with the slogan “NazIsrael” emblazoned on it and told the cameraman, “Write us a check from German television, which is financed by Zionists and that idiotic Social Democrat, Willy Brandt, and that will let us buy weapons for the Palestinians to attack Zionists,” as de Baecque further recounted.
Godard’s fictional films also contain disquieting anti-Semitic utterances, sometimes in the guise of pseudo-humor. In 1964’s “A Married Woman” (“Une Femme Mariée”), a character states: “Today, in Germany, I said to someone, ‘How about if tomorrow, we kill all the Jews and the hairdressers?’ He replied, ‘Why the hairdressers?’” In 1967’s “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” (“Deux ou Trois Choses Que je Sais D’elle”), the director brags that ParisMatch magazine “always affixes a star to my films, as it does to Jews.” The allusion to the Nazi law forcing Jews to wear yellow stars in Occupied France is symptomatic of a sensibility, usually found among Europe’s ultra-right-wing politicians, that produces crushingly unfunny jokes about such historical tragedy. Godard’s 2010 film, “Film Socialisme” (“Socialism Film”), which premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival, features a typical pseudo-aphorism of this ilk: “Strange thing Hollywood — Jews invented it.”
While Hollywood historians know that the early studio heads were for the most part Jewish, to conclude that this explains the industry’s “strangeness” is racist, to say the least. Godard is entitled to criticize filmmaking, and he has poured scorn on much of Hollywood’s output — especially on Steven Spielberg — but his comments are clearly not confined to that arena. Even Godard’s friends and collaborators, like the French-Jewish filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, can find themselves insulted. In 1973, Gorin contacted Godard to be paid for his collaborative work on 1972’s “Tout Va Bien” (“Everything’s Fine”), to which Godard responded, “Ah, it’s always the same: Jews call you when they hear a cash register opening.”
In a 2009 article in Le Monde, “Godard and the Jewish Question” by Jean-Luc Douin, Godard is quoted as making an off-camera comment during the filming of a 2006 documentary: “Palestinians’ suicide bombings in order to bring a Palestinian State into existence ultimately resemble what the Jews did by allowing themselves to be led like sheep to be slaughtered in gas chambers, sacrificing themselves to bring into existence the State of Israel.” Godard apparently believes that Jews committed mass suicide during the Holocaust in order for Israel to be created. The same article quotes him along these lines: “Basically, there were six million kamikazes” and “Hollywood was invented by Jewish gangsters.” At least Godard cannot accuse the American film industry of being ungrateful gangsters.
When the Forward submitted some of Godard’s anti-Semitic utterances to the academy, the following written response was issued: “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.”
As “detailed rebuttals,” an Academy spokesperson cited a single 2009 article in the English-language Canadian magazine Cinemascope by Bill Krohn, a Hollywood correspondent for Cahiers du Cinema, to which Godard and many of the early New Wave directors contributed. Krohn accused Brody of ideological simplification, biographical reductivism, guilt by association, misinterpretation, having felt snubbed by Godard and, overall, perpetrating “a hatchet job disguised as a celebration of Godard’s genius.” Krohn’s critique is diffuse and short on specifics, but in one concrete instance he suggests that Godard’s exclamation of “filthy Jew,” taken by Braunberger as a deadly insult, was misunderstood. Krohn unpersuasively interprets it as affectionate banter between old friends and, even more absurdly, as an allusion to Jean Renoir’s classic 1937 film “La Grande Illusion.”
Assouline expressed astonishment that after Brody’s biography appeared, revealing “with precision Godard’s anti-Semitism,” Godard was rumored to be preparing an adaptation of Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” tracing the fate of six Holocaust victims. Perhaps film producers make the distinction between an artist of undeniable talent and an individual of extremely dubious opinions. Responding to reporters from the London Sunday Times, Jean-Luc Gaillard, a longtime neighbor of Godard, noted, “He [Godard] is on a different level from the rest of us, somewhere between genius and completely round the bend.”
In proudly Anglo-dominated Los Angeles, it seems that artists whose odious statements are made in languages other than English can get a free pass and, on occasion, even a hat tip. Because Godard’s statements have been in French, there has been barely any American opposition to the Academy’s nomination. When approached to comment for this story, even staunch opponents of anti-Semitism — such as Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and multiple Academy Award winner; noted University of California, Los Angeles, film historian Howard Suber, and writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd — said that they had no personal knowledge of Godard’s reputed anti-Semitism.
Elsewhere — and especially in France, where Godard has worked for several decades — others may agree with Braunberger, who wrote to Truffaut in 1968: “I will never forgive Godard for his anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism brings joy to no one… I realize that from now on, you can only despise Godard on a human level. ‘Filthy Jew’ is the only insult which I cannot take… If you know what these words evoke within me, what they revive of a past which is still agonizing, you would come over to embrace me. (signed) Your Jewish friend who owes so much of his Jewish happiness to you.”
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.
Tom Tugend, who provided additional reporting, is a contributing editor at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.