The first mention of Bobert Bressilach in Richard Brody’s near-exhaustive Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard occurs on page six, as Brody describes the pro-Vichy and anti-Semitic leanings of Jean-Luc Godard’s family: “The days of [Vichy propaganda minister and Milice member Phillipe] Henriot’s assassination (in 1944) and of the execution of Robert Brasillach, the right-wing critic and novelist and anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi propagandist (in 1945) were days of mourning in the Godard house.”
This mildly queasiness-inducing passage turns out to be a prelude; after Brody’s absorbing, astute, oft-harrowing accounts of Godard’s oft-harrowing marriage to/collaboration with Anna Karina, Godard’s sometimes bizarre radicalization, semi-retirement, his video work, partnership with Anne Marie Mieville (which accounts feature material even more off-putting, perhaps, than what I’m gonna get into here, but that’s for another post or, more likely, another writer), Brasillach returns, in a somewhat odd manifestation:
In the mid-1990s, a young Parisian writer, Philippe Loyrette, made a film in which a friend videotaped him chanting, in psalmodic incantation, the poetic “testament” written by the fanatically anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi French writer Robert Brasillach in 1945 while awaiting execution, for collaboration, in a prison cell near Paris. Loyrette sent a copy of the tape to Godard.
The tape impressed Godard enough that Godard himself made a short film based on it, with Godard reading a self-composed text in a manner similar to Loyrette. And in 2000, Godard invited Loyrette to act in Eloge de l’amour, playing the assistant to struggling artist Edgar (Bruno Putzulu); in the scene depicted in the above screen cap, Loyrette is giving a “correct” reading of Brasillach’s text—part of which goes “Neither tenderness nor courage are things a court can rescind”—after Edgar upbraids the seated actress who had given it a go.
The noble business about things courts cannot rescind is at the very least pretty unexceptionable. Less than a year earlier (August 1944), considering the prospect of hiding out in liberated Paris to avoid capture and trial for aiding the Germans, Brasillach cracked wise in his diary: “Jews have lived in cupboards for nearly four years. Why not imitate them?”
After reading Brody’s book and being unnerved by a lot of the same stuff I was having a hard time with, my friend Tom Carson pointed me to Alice Kaplan’s The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach. The more one learns about Brasillach, the more peculiarly intricate the web of correspondences between Godard and Brasillach seems. (But that's not all.)
For instance, as it happens, among the many hats Brasillach donned in his brief career as a litterateur was that of film critic—he was the coauthor, with friend and fellow rightist Maurice Bardeche, of a volume entitled Histoire du Cinema, of all things. It’s one of the few Brasillach works for which Kaplan has unreserved praise; she calls film criticism “the one genre where Brasillach’s strength as a critic and his talent for thick description come together.” (An English translation of the book is still in circulation.) That Godard’s epic work Histoire(s) du Cinema has very nearly the same title as the Brasillach/Bardeche book could be taken as a circumstantial coincidence—were the circumstances different. But Godard’s Histoire(s) begin emerging at the time that, as Brody notes, Godard’s work “entailed the reclamation of writers and artists who led the way to Auschwitz, such as Brasillach.”
Possibly less relevant, but nonetheless kind of resonant, is the fact that, as a literary critic, one of Brasillach’s favorite targets of ridicule was Francois Mauriac…the grandfather of Godard’s second wife, the actress Anna Wiazemsky. Wiazemsky and Godard’s union fell apart after she failed to sufficiently radicalize herself in the late ‘60s, and Brody’s book recounts Godard rather cruelly rebuffing Wiazemsky years after the fact when she remarks on being moved by one of his latter-day films. It’s worth noting that Mauriac actually led the campaign to spare Brasillach from the death penalty after his conviction and sentencing.
Brody does not exaggerate by calling Bresillach a figure who led the way to Auschwitz. Kaplan’s book bristles with examples of Brasillach’s anti-Semitic rhetoric—there’s a particularly pathetic passage where the old, disgusting, Jews-as-monkeys analogy gets a workout. The policy prescriptions he sneakily proposed in his newspaper writings are equally repellent, as was his newspaper’s gossip column—naming names and giving locations of individuals who could be helping out the resistance. Think “Gawker Stalker” for the Nazis' use and convenience.
Brasillach’s worminess gets worse, in a way, after his capture; from prison, he writes a poem equating himself with the fighters of the Resistance. And in the “Testament” quoted in Eloge, he compares himself to Cervantes. Jean Cocteau nailed the unfailingly narcissistic Bresillach by calling him “absurd and harmful.” Kaplan concludes that Brasillach was guilty of the crimes he was accused of, but that he shouldn’t have been executed. Her objection’s based not just on humanitarian grounds, but on the fact that Bresillach’s death made him a martyr—“the James Dean of French fascism.”
This is the man Eloge’s Edgar speaks of with a quiet reverence, saying “A man was executed at the Liberation 50 years ago. The night before, he wrote this…” (In fact Brasillach wrote the text around January 19, 1945; his execution was on February 5.)
Later in the film, Edgar and Berthe (Cecile Camp), a woman who, based on a meeting several years before, he believes has the key to unlock his artistic project, sit at a bridge in Paris, noting this plaque:
In English, the inscription reads, "Here, Rene Revel, Peace Officer in the 15th District, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, was killed by the Germans, August 19 1944."
Berthe, who later, in the film’s video-shot flashback, will try to do battle with the forces of Steven Spielberg (a Jew! imagine!), says of the plaque: “They shouldn’t phrase it like that. Neither ‘Officer,’ neither ‘peace,’ neither ‘Germans’.”
That Eloge de l’amour, roundly heralded as a contemporary Godard masterpiece, fetishizes Robert Brasillach while turning up its nose at the Liberation is certainly…um, provocative?
UPDATE: In the comments section, which now extends beyond a single page (so be sure to look for that "next" button) Craig Keller and Miguel Marias have been doing some commendable spadework in Godard's defense. Keller portrays some of Brody's arguments as spurious and comes close to accusing Brody of acting in bad faith. Marias traces the line from Phillipe Loyrette's short piece containing his recitation to Brasillach's text to the Godard short Adieu aux TNS (which was inspired stylistically by Loyrettes recitational style but does not contain any of Brasillach's words) to Godard's invitation to Loyrette to recreate his Brasillach recitation in Eloge de L'amour and concludes "perhaps Loyrette's way of reading Brasillach's text (which I don't know, and could well be a sort of moving farewell of someone about to die) impressed Godard, but there is not the slightest evidence hinting that Godard was even remotely interested in Brasillach's words (much less that he solidarized with them)." This ignores the way that Bruno Putzulu's Edgar leads into Loyrette's recitation in Eloge: “A man was executed at the Liberation 50 years ago. The night before, he wrote this…”
Yeah sure, that reflects pretty much an absolute disinterest in the words that follow.
I allow that it's entirely possible that in evoking Brasillach that Godard was merely doing some distasteful baiting of those who would get the reference. But to insist that in this case he either didn't know or didn't care what he was doing with respect to a source text strikes me as a little disingenuous.