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Jean-Luc Godard, Or, There’s A Limit to ‘Nil Nisi Bonum’



The Latin saying De mortuis nil nisi bonum means “speak only good of the dead.”

I beg to differ. I can think of lots of dead people – Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, Ayatollah Khomeini – of whom I can’t think of a single good thing to say. And in the case of the just deceased – through assisted suicide – French film director, Jean-Luc Godard, I beg to differ very much. He will be receiving all sorts of tributes as a film director; there is no need to add another voice to the chorus. What we should remember even more is the unpleasant side of Godard, that became more pronounced as he aged. I am speaking of his extreme antisemitism, which contributed to, and in turn was strengthened by, his virulent hatred of Israel.

He may be said to have inherited his antisemitism. He was born into a rich French-Swiss family; his father was a doctor and his mother’s father the man who founded the investment bank, Banque Paribas. His father, he said, had “ferociously” disliked Jews. “He was anti-Jew; whereas I am anti-Zionist, he was antisemitic,” the director once said. But those who have looked into his “anti-Zionism” have concluded that it is so unhinged, so grotesque in its mistreatment of Israel, as to meet the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

Some cinéastes think that the real genius domus of the New Wave was François Truffaut, whose script was used by Godard for his first, and possibly best film, Breathless (A bout de souffle), with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Truffaut did not get enough credit for his essential role as scriptwriter, but he went on to become a director himself, beginning with The 400 Blows and including such other masterpieces as Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player, Day For Night, and The Last Metro, which happens to have an antisemitic collaborationist called Daxiat, based on the real-life pro-Nazi journalist Alain Laubreaux, as its villain. Truffaut later ended his friendship with Godard over the latter’s antisemitism – Truffaut had a Jewish father.

Dialogue that many deem antisemitic made their way into Godard’s films, almost offhandedly. In his 1964 movie A Married Woman, there this bit of casual nastiness: “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 his 2010 film Socialism Film, a character says, “Strange thing, Hollywood — Jews invented it.” The notion being expressed was that Jews had invented and controlled Hollywood – something Godard believed — a variant on the antisemitic trope that “Jews control the world media.” Later Godard would complain that the truth about Israel (bad) and the Palestinians (good) could not be told because of the Jewish control of Hollywood.

Godard was early on a Marxist – a salon Bolshevik, given his wealth – and then an admirer of Chairman Mao, even, or perhaps especially, during the Cultural Revolution. Then, in the late 1960s, after the Six-Day War, Godard discovered the Palestinians, and the Cause of Palestine. He was off to the races. 

His film Until Victory (1970), which was never completed, told the story of the Palestinians as a morality tale, with Israel as the villain and Palestinians as the inoffensive victims. The Jewish state is depicted as a nasty little Sparta, while the Palestinians are noble and tormented, still fighting (“struggling”) on against all odds against those who have stolen their land.

He helped support a boycott of a “Night of Israeli Cinema“ in Paris and unsurprisingly, was an ardent supporter of BDS. He was not just against Israel’s soi-disant “occupation” of the West Bank, or opposed to Israel holding onto East Jerusalem. Rather, he was against the very existence of the state of Israel. Alone among the peoples of the earth, in Godard’s view, the Jews were not entitled to a state. But the Palestinian Arabs…ah, that was a different story. Of course they deserved to replace the Jewish state with their own, 23rd Arab state, while driving the Jews out, presumably to scatter to the four winds, to take refuge wherever they could. Godard never did say where he thought Israeli Jews should go after “Palestine” replaced Israel. About that part he didn’t care. 

Many critics, Jewish and non-Jewish, say Godard’s work and some of his statements have crossed the line from being critical of Israel and its policies and into antisemitism. In one of his films (Here and There), the director alternates images of Adolf Hitler with Israeli leader Golda Meir – an appalling attempt to draw a parallel between one of the greatest mass murderer in human history and Golda Meir, who famously said that “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” Jean-Luc Godard criticized films about the Holocaust, such as Schindler’s List and Shoah. Presumably he didn’t like such movies about the Holocaust because they garnered sympathy for the Jews and helped gain support for the state of Israel. And that would never do.

The word “Jew” came easily to his lips. He once denounced a soon-to-be-former friend as “a dirty Jew,” and, after being asked for back pay by a Jewish colleague, said “It is always the same, Jews call you when they hear a cash register opening.” In a 1985 interview, Godard spoke of the “image of the central European Jew” (as a chiseler who doesn’t pay his bills) as being part of Hollywood’s problem with being caught up in debt. In other words, the antisemitic stereotype of the Jew who welshes on payments happens to be true, according to Godard – just look at the Jews who run Hollywood.

One of France’s foremost actors has confessed that he is unable to mourn Jean-Luc Godard, citing the cinéaste’s crude comments about Jews and the State of Israel as the reason.

I can’t admire Jean-Luc Godard, I can’t admire someone who hates Jews so much,” said actor Gérard Darmon in an interview with French broadcaster BFMTV on Thursday. [Sept.15]

The son of Algerian Jews, Darmon has appeared in numerous films since the 1970s, working with leading directors such as Jean-Jacques Beineix, Neil Jordan and Élie Chouraqui. He asserted that Godard “was not very benevolent towards my community, for the Jews in general and for Israel in particular.”

Long associated with the far left, Godard traded in his enthisiasm for Chairman Mao to become a supporter of the Palestinian cause, meaning the destruction of the Jewish state and its replacement, “from the river to the sea,” by an Arab “Palestine.” He was given to condemning Israel in antisemitic terms, frequently invoking the Holocaust as a stick with which to critique the Jewish state. He once told his biographer, Alain Fleischer, that the suicide bombings undertaken by Palestinian terrorists “resemble what the Jews did, by letting themselves be driven like sheep and exterminated in the gas chambers,” in order to bring about the existence of a Palestinian state.”

Instead of sympathy, Godard was contemptuous of the Jews, as he unfeelingly put it, for “letting themselves be driven like sheep” into the gas chambers.

A further Godard film focused on the Palestinians, in which the late Palestinian poet/propagandist Mahmoud Darwish is given pride of place as a commentator, is 2004’s Notre Musique (“Our Music”), was described by the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman as “obscene and antisemitic.”

Darmon said he found himself unable to watch Godard’s films, just as “I will never read Céline (One of France’s leading modern poets and novelist who was notoriously, genocidally, antisemitic) or marvel at Hitler’s paintings.”

He added: “Rest in his soul, but he’s not someone I appreciate or love. That’s all I have to say about him.”

On news of his death, some offered praise. French President Macron gushed about Goddard, describing him as a “national treasure” who had a “look of genius.”

The anti-Israel pro-Palestinian Middle East Monitor, as expected, headlined a story “Tributes Pour In For Jean-Luc Godard,” but proceeded to offer exactly three “tributes” – one from the British actor Stephen Fry, another from the chief executive of the British Film Institute (“a huge loss to cinema”,) and another from Cameron Bailey of the Toronto International Film Festival (“a true genius in cinema”).

Curiously, no tributes have been “pouring in” from fellow French directors, not even from those who formed part of the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) that Godard was said, a tad too generously, to have invented.

No doubt there are tears being shed in Ramallah, and Jenin, and Nablus, for the foremost foreign champion of the Palestinians. But why should anyone of sense be saddened by the death of the cineaste, Palestinophile, and antisemite Jean-Luc Godard?