Germany Year 90 Nine Zero
Aspectre is haunting Jean-Luc Godard, the spectre of Europe. As a brash young critic and filmmaker, Godard championed American B movies and, later, the revolutionary causes of Vietnam and Maoism; old age, however, has brought his thoughts back to the old world. Germany Year 90 Nine Zero and JLG by JLG, two hour-long films made for French TV, address such proximate concerns as the unification of Germany and the eventual death of the 64-year-old director, but both are unapologetically rooted in the 19th century.
These dense, ruminative essays offer more intellectual free association than most Godard non-devotees will be able to abide, yet it’s instructive to see them together. The director’s work has always been interconnected, and the connections are getting tighter: In mode, these films resemble each other and such other recent Godard projects as Nouvelle Vague, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, and Hélas Pour Moi; music, sounds, and dialogue from the latter recur in JLG, which also features the film’s poster. (Punning on the fact that the names Godard and Depardieu contain the English and French words, respectively, for “God,” the poster is a Godardian work of art in itself.)
Chronologically, the first of these films is 1991’s Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, which explicitly invokes not only Roberto Rossellini’s 1947 Germany Year Zero but also Godard’s own Alphaville, which (without sets or special effects) imagined 1965 Paris as a sterile, regimented city of the future. For that film, Godard appropriated Lemmy Caution, a character from a string of popular French hard-boiled-detective flicks, and the actor who played him, Eddie Constantine; in Germany, Godard reintroduces Caution (and Constantine, in his final screen role) as “the last spy” in an East Germany that’s no longer East. “Which way is the West?” Caution keeps asking, and no one can adequately answer.
The bitter joke is that Stalinism is dead but alienation and exploitation live on. In his collagistic style, Godard contrasts historic and contemporary horrors: the idolization of Hitler with the worship of capital; the concentration camps of Nazi Germany with today’s hawkers of pieces of the Berlin Wall and “souvenirs” of those camps; the German culture of Beethoven, Goethe, and Brecht with the “trash” available on the bustling shopping streets of (West) Berlin.
Though he long ago lost his enthusiasm for Marxism as practiced in the East, Godard is skeptical of a world where there’s no alternative to the capitalistic West. Without alternatives, there can be no dialectic; no wonder the director shows people comparing Hegel in German and French, as if the message somehow got lost in the translation. In the same spirit of investigation—and in emulation of the method of Histoire(s) du Cinéma—Godard examines clips from Visconti’s The Damned, Fassbinder’s Lilli Marleen, and other films depicting the Nazi era.
In barely 60 minutes, Germany shifts from ideological burlesque—with a car running over a downed Karl-Marx Strasse sign—to ghostly elegy and back again. Caution travels through near-deserted rural and industrial landscapes, and it’s a citation from a pre-Nazi film that both expresses this haunted mood and marks its end. “Once I was across the frontier, the phantoms came to greet me,” says Caution, quoting an intertitle from Murnau’s Nosferatu.
The phantoms are not those of Nosferatu’s castle, but of bustling Berlin, where a young couple in an auto showroom reminds Caution of Hans and Sophie Scholl, student activists beheaded for their anti-Nazi activities. Here the phrase “Test the West,” displayed on a placard, is a come-on for a brand of cigarette, and a maid in the neo-Alphaville hotel where Caution takes refuge tells him that “work makes you free”—the infamous legend the Nazis emblazoned over concentration-camp gates, now earnestly reclaimed for post-ideological Europe. Caution’s final comment on the status quo as presented by the hotel, a simple curse, ends Germany on a savagely funny note.
Both Germany and 1994’s JLG by JLG were shot in winter, and the latter is subtitled “December self-portrait.” This time, Godard takes his camera no farther from his small-town Swiss home than the shore of nearby Lake Geneva and his production office, yet the film is far from provincial. The director begins by contemplating his own mortality, but expands his funereal oration to include all cinema and indeed all art.
JLG opens with mournful Romantic music and the director breathily intoning into a microphone as he contemplates his own notebook and a picture of himself as a boy, “already in mourning for myself.” Waves crash on the lake shore as piano chords resound and amplified nature sounds chatter. Godard, his face barely visible in darkness, extols great European artists, all safely departed: Diderot, Dostoevsky, Mozart, Vermeer, Vigo. Even 60 minutes of this would be forbidding.
Despite the seeming randomness of his juxtapositions, however, the director is always more in control than he initially seems. He knows this opening sequence is lugubrious, and the latter part of the film provides a witty, lively contrast to it. Godard leaves the house and its other inhabitants, his books and “reproductions of films” (by which he means videos), for a walk in the sunlight. His face is no longer in shadow, and soon enough the somber philosopher is telling corny jokes, lampooning his ’60spronouncements, and playing tennis. His films—and all films—may be dying, but “that idiot JLG” is still vital.
There is always a point to the film’s buffoonery. In one skit, Godard hires a blind film editor to cut Hélas, a joke that ends with the editor saying, quite reasonably, that she sees images “in my head, like you.” When Godard shows an anti-Vietnam-war snippet of his Pierrot le Fou, he remembers that he had then called for “many Vietnams” and notes that there are now “many United States” instead. (This crack, of course, underscores the blandly triumphant Westness Lemmy Caution discovers in the new Berlin.)
Godard’s formulations are often more piquant than persuasive, and that’s particularly true of the crabby anti-Americanism on display in both of these films. In Germany, he suggests that the U.S. had become so Teutonic that it was in essence fighting itself in World Wars I and II; in JLG, he cracks that “Europe has memories, America has T-shirts.” Such reflexive gags lack the originality of his more complex conceits, even absurdly fanciful ones like JLG‘s explanation of stereo and the Palestinians (which has to be heard not to be believed). Godard was more provocative when extolling Nicholas Ray (whose Johnny Guitar is quoted in JLG) than he is indulging the anti-Americanism so common in Francophone Europe. At such moments, he just seems an ordinary Gallic snob.
As he contemplates classical European art, Godard may indeed have become a Gallic snob, but he’s certainly not an ordinary one. Indeed, in the films he’s made since his 1980 return to celluloid, he’s developed a vocabulary entirely his own—austere yet playful, prickly yet lushly beautiful, self-conscious yet heartfelt. Though their lack of conventional narrative challenges attention spans molded by Hollywood, Germany and JLG are in fact overloaded: Their elegant natural-light cinematography, their rich soundtracks, and their multilayered allusiveness provide enough material for a hundred movies. These works are suffused with autumnal sadness, yet it’s almost balanced by their berserk ambition; at the same time he’s pondering the end of all cinema, Godard is trying to (re)make all films at once.