Lost landscapes: representations of war and reconciliation in
Godard’s Notre musique (2004)

by Vojislava Filipcevic Cordes

"But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape."
— Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003)

Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre musique (2004) probes the elasticity of cinematic interactions between the histories and the representations of warfare through semi-documentary searches for reconciliation in the post-war Bosnian cities of Sarajevo and Mostar. The searches are presented as both traversals and attempts to bypass the territories of the image(s), the language(s), and the body.

In this essay, I examine several dimensions of Godard’s project in Notre musique:

These dimensions of Godard’s project in Notre musique are best examined through the lenses of the film’s Balkan milieu in Sarajevo and Mostar. They represent narrative and visual background settings as well as metaphorical milieux for probing cinematic relations with histories of warfare, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and possibilities for reconciliation.

Jean-Luc Godard's Notre musique questions the capacity of camera to act as a witness in a documentary sense.[1][open endnotes in new window] Rather than witnessing, through image juxtapositions cinema becomes a "trespasser" across the elusive boundary between the actual and the imagined, the documentary and fiction, creating at times, through montage,[2] a pathway (or a bridge) between the two, connecting different historical times and alternate histories of warfare and conquest. Notre musique completes Godard’s challenge to war films by means of a cinema of border crossings and reconciliation. The film presents as well a visual query into cinematic crossings between digital and analog images. This enables theoretical questioning of the reflexive potential of cinematic contingency “to force a mediation on the history of its own impossible fate within modernity”[3] precisely in a critical moment when film is both challenged and renewed by digital technologies and by a revival of documentary.

Cinematic contingency, in its resistant and heterogeneous potential, is tied to the medium's "technological promise to capture time"—indeed its multiple and condensed temporalities—and to represent (the illusion of) movement[4]—the fleeting, ephemeral, random, unpredictable, elusive moments recorded permanently as the present in time is registered and stored compulsively, offering to the spectator[5] as well an "immersion in other spaces and times," into the diversities and multiplicities of life.[6] Cinematic contingency, which may resist and elude coding, is itself a part of capitalist modernity in which time is stratified and coded by the needs of capital. Storytelling can reinforce the bourgeois notion of the individual "yoked to a meaning guaranteed by his or her mortality"[7] yet endangered by the lure and the threat of the very anxiety-ridden contingency.

Kracauer's "politically grounded critique of ideology... takes aim at the film's recycling of outdated bourgeois forms."[8] By comparing cinema to modernity he highlights "traumatic and pathological effects as well as [cinema's] transformational, emancipatory possibilities."[9] Doane cites Simmel's perhaps outdated and exaggerated theories that link temporality, space, and the "money economy" by making metropolitan life—the site of intensification of nervous stimuli—"unimaginable without the most punctual integration of all activities and natural relations into a stable and impersonal time schedule."[10] This is nevertheless relevant here as film can serve a "psychological and ideological function of ordering and regulating time to in order to stabilize the subjective [although too commonly stereotypical] identity produced by an overstimulating environment of industrial modernity."[11] Yet film also in turn can shape a subjectivity (including that of the spectator) whose "very sense of identity, stability and control is threatened by the otherness of the material world."[12]

As an example of a "spatialized experience of time,"[13] of "a specific configuration of sensualism as the basis for a material aesthetics," and of "an aesthetics of reconciliation,"[14] Notre musique's ruined post-war cities of Bosnia in the process of recovery and revitalization are observed during fleeting moments as the real and fictional protagonists traverse the illegible landscape of recent trauma and terror. This landscape becomes for Godard a metaphor for contemporary critical art cinema, and the auteur engages, of course, in a critique of the visually seductive and spectacular powers of landscape. Indeed, Godard's "penchant for interspersing clips from the history of cinema within the diegetic world of film, suggests that he sees cinema itself as a kind of landscape."[15] The history (of cinema) for Godard is a requirement to believe in different and multiple stories,[16] but the auteur's concern is also with the problems of memory, the right and the obligation to witness,[17] and the (im)possibility of testimony.

Miriam Hansen's notions of experience (Erfahrung), and of cinema as a public sphere, are critical in understanding the possibilities of a cinema of reconciliation. For Hansen, experience "crucially came to entail the capacity of memory—individual and collective, involuntary as well as cognitive—and the ability to imagine a different future"[18] Kracauer saw film as "an at once a sensory and reflexive discourse uniquely suited to capturing the experience of a disintegrated world [following World War I]."[19] It was "both symptom of the historical process and sensory-reflexive horizon for dealing with its effects."[20] Hansen's interpretation of Kracauer is especially relevant here because of Kracauer's and indeed Godard's [referring to World War II] charges that cinema neither represented a critique of modernity as "the negativity of the historical process" nor did it "live up to the liberating, egalitarian impulses."[21] Gertrude Koch argues in turn:

"The primacy of the visual, what Kracauer terms the redemption of reality through its pictorial representation, comes up against intrinsic limits in those areas that are to be redeemed in the image and are supposed to permit anamnestic solidarity with the dead—for they elude visual presentation in any form."[22]

According to Hansen, Kracauer "conceived of film as material expression—not just representation—of a particular historical experience. It is an objective correlative, as it were, of a particular historical process"[23]—a medium that has the capacity to advance the process of a world that is literally going to pieces, leading the spectator with an autonomous agency to visualize a utopian future of justice and peace.[24] Kracauer "incorporates the threat of annihilation, disintegration, and mortal fear into his film aesthetics as a fundamental historical experience."[25] His Theory of film is haunted by the question of film after Auschwitz,[26] although hesitantly so since, according to Koch, mass-annihilation was quite anathema to Kracuaer.[27] It is much like how Godard's recent oeuvre is haunted by the question of film after ethnic cleansing—which was, however, televised.

Projecting history, resisting narrative:
warfare in Les Carabiniers, Éloge de l'amour,
and For Ever Mozart

As Rosenstone has argued, popular audiences increasingly learn history through televised and cinematic vision—a fact that has made both historians and cineastes uneasy, as much as it has also opened avenues for alternate interpretations of historical events, suppressed narratives, and alternate forms of telling stories.[28] War films in particular, illuminate, reconstruct, manipulate or ignore historical events in their aim to critique violence; they at once expose the specific consequences of violence and also uncover the universal meanings of devastation. Yet "ideologies create substantiating archives of images, representative images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings."[29] Kracauer’s premise in the context of the Western European World War II cinema was that a war film might fulfill its mimetic potential by representing the imagined yet unimaginable tragedy through which audiences can confront, reflect upon, conquer, or come to terms with terror. As Annette Insdorf has observed, however, filmmakers actively “shap[e] history into a heightened form of communication.”[30]

Contemporary engagements with the historical narratives in Western art cinema in particular are increasingly seen as segments, shards, shadows—that is, mere fragments of visions whose mimetic potential is questioned, if not completely suspended.[31] Reflexive critique in war film would thus suspend the reliance on individual protagonists and would also offer a critical stance towards implied and explicit national “imagined communities” commonly upheld by the narratives of heroism. As Sontag notes, "Images of dead civilians and smashed houses may serve to quicken the hatred of the foe."[32] Behnke and de Cavalho have noted that Western mainstream war film often takes for granted a Western perspective seen as “civiliz[ing] the rest of the world” and avoids politically contested positions.[33] Thus the question for the critical reflexive cinema of warfare becomes what cinematic—visual and narrative—tools can be used to critique the notions of military triumph or national pride, to probe the role of the military apparatus and the political leadership, to reexamine the notion of heroism?

Starting with the premise that cinema creates only the “reality of its own making,”[34] yet also consistently calling for film’s social and political responsibility, Godard has offered a set of responses to this question. He has done so throughout his extensive and unrelenting engagement with history as well as history of film; I only cite selected examples in Les Carabiniers (1963), Le Petit soldat (1963), Ici et ailleurs (1976), Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989, 1997, 1998), For Ever Mozart (1996), and Éloge de l'amour (2001).

As Robert Stam has argued, the doyen of the nouvelle vague has long fought a guerilla warfare of his own, his art “a special gun” and his film a “theoretical rifle” taking aim at bourgeois culture, capitalist society, and especially at the cinematic conventions that replicate and sustain them.[35] But Notre musique approaches Godard’s political project differently. The film breaks with the aesthetic and ideological tradition of Godard’s earlier war film, Les Carabiniers, while also adopting an anti-war stance. The film’s linkages between narratives of the nation and of the self follow the trajectories of Godard’s recent films such as Germany Year 90, For Ever Mozart, and Éloge de l’amour. Notre musique, however, casts Godard’s critique of warfare and his protagonists’ searches of reconciliation through the prisms of multiple border and boundary crossings.

Godard’s engagement with the historical narrative in Notre musique has to be seen as a dialogue between a) the cinematic capacities to expose multiple possibilities of history, as Doane suggested in her interpretation of Kracauer,[36] and b) the challenge of visualizing the simultaneous co-presence of several layers of the historical past and present. The first aspect is subverted by the second, as Jeffrey Skoller has suggested in his application of Deleuze’s vision of cinematic sedimentation of history within political avant-garde film.[37] According to Skoller, avant-garde films

"work to undermine the gaps between past and present by using a range of cinematic strategies to consider elements of the past that are unseen, unspeakable, ephemeral, and defy representation not necessarily verifiable through normal empirical means."[38]

Calling into question linear chronologies, sharpening awareness of other temporalities, emphasizing the significance of fragments, presenting the "occluded, incomplete, intuited," these films suggest the poetics of history[39] and present the past as an experience that transforms the present given that, following Deleuze, "the movement of time is always the potential for transformation and new thought."[40]

"[I]t is the experience of thought through the lapses and disruptions in the flow of time that occur in gaps between nonlinking images that evoke the unseeable, the forgotten, the spectral qualities of history."[41]

Moreover, "[t]he sign of Auschwitz continues to haunt the intellectual worlds of Europe and America"[42]—rendering "established forms of narration" and "representational modes based on solid distinctions" "no longer functional or meaningful:"[43] the Shoah presents a profound challenge for avant-garde art. At the same time, through Hollywood and international film and televisions corporations,

"Shoah-business, with its vast marketing and distribution networks, creates a yearly outpouring of gut-wrenching and eye-popping historical melodramas that threaten to obscure other cinematic approaches to these histories."[44]

Notre musique engages most explicitly with two prior pillars of Godard’s “war” on war in film: the relation between cinema and contemporary historical events, and the author’s position regarding visions of warfare in film. First, as James S. Williams, Colin McCabe, Junji Hori, and Libby Saxton have written, Godard has condemned cinema for failing to document the horrors of the Holocaust, thus falling short on its historical mission.[45/46] Cinema, according to Godard, failed to bear “witness” to a key historical moment. In Godard’s vocabulary, this transgression is recast in moral and religious terms: cinema has “sinned” by not confronting a grave historical truth of the 20th century. Godard’s quest for “pure” cinema thus paradoxically turns into a parable of power—the impotence of cinema (art) can be reversed by the presumed potency of the auteur (presumably himself) whose mission is to confront bourgeois ideological biases and the might of the industrial apparatus of film. This has led to ontologically limiting interpretations of turning the camera into a weapon for the purposes of “visual revelation” of social injustice (war, colonialism, etc.).[47] Daniel Morgan argues,

"The war provided an occasion for the rediscovery of the facts, the importance of being attuned to the world: the fulfillment of the rights and duties cinema inherited from photography... Not only was the cinema unable to show audiences atrocities that were yet to happen; neither could it reveal these events as they were taking place."[48]

Furthermore, responding to Godard, Claude Lanzmann (Shoah, 1985) "argued that, by using photographic images of Holocaust victims, Godard effectively belies that scale of genocide perpetuated by the Nazis. Since no image can possibly represent the entirety of what happened, images should not be presented at all; what is shown can only concern these people at this moment."[49] According to Susan Sontag,

"As Hannah Arendt pointed out soon after the end of the Second World War, all the photographs and newsreels of the concentration camps are misleading because they show the camps at the moment the Allied troops marched in. What makes the images unbearable—the piles of corpses, the skeletal survivors—was not at all typical for the camps, which, when they were functioning, exterminated their inmates systematically (by gas, not starvation and illness), then immediately cremated them. And photographs echo photographs: it was inevitable that the photographs of emaciated Bosnian prisoners at Omarska, the Serb death camp created in northern Bosnia in 1992, would recall the photographs taken in the Nazi death camps in 1945."[50]

Godard's notion of the cinematic “sin” also misconstrues cinema’s historical dimension that his recent films have tackled more delicately and fruitfully than did his rhetoric or his earlier films. Following Jeffrey Skoller's analysis of avant-garde cinema, it could be argued that Godard's films belong to an opus more concerned with the present than the past where a relation between the present and the past represents a form of knowledge — yet a knowledge that cannot perhaps "repair our ignorance about the history and causes of the suffering it picks out and frames"[51]—which necessitates active spectatorship.

Another point concerns the contemporary crisis of representation of war in film. Godard’s criticism of war films as spectacles of destruction has in fact anticipated this crisis in war film. Our visual culture is saturated with hegemonic representations of combat, particularly in high budget Hollywood productions that glorify violence through the spectacle of military triumph or belligerent masculinity, directly or indirectly, even if they may contain anti-war messages.[52] As Sontag has written about photographs, "In a world in which photography is brilliantly at the service of consumerist manipulations, no effect of a photograph of a doleful scene can be taken for granted."[53] Thus Godard has deplored Steven Spielberg, in particular in Spielberg’s violation of the Bazinian vision of the cinematic “reality” through the creation of “fake” concentration camps in Schindler’s List. The extremity of this position aside and its possible counterpoints,[54] under the influence of contemporary Hollywood productions popular audiences have grown accustomed to receiving an anti-war message through an ambivalent or unlikely hero, but only after financial and industrial might have staged a grand spectacle, without illusions, of exploding flesh and mortar (yet this is of course a stereotype as well). Godard’s views in this context are more significant with regard to commercial pressures on art cinema, and the evocation of Bazin would be contradictory to his own opus. While Godard’s stances can be challenged—the high moral call placed on film art to expose and even prevent genocide and his complete rejection of recent Hollywood, above all, the nouvelle vague auteur’s inability to “negotiat[e] the greater realities of now-late-twentieth century carnage with his poetic, aphoristic style”[55]—the films’ value lies more in the questions they pose.[56]

Godard’s films redefine Kracauer’s quest by redeeming film from the corruptions of spectacle in Debord’s terms[57] by adopting a different visual and narrative language. This set of techniques has included narrative breaks and disorientations, asynchronicity, jumpcuts, elliptical connections, spontaneity, Brechtian detachment (especially in his 1960s films), allegorical vignettes, and, above all, montage that stresses reflexivity over submission to the spectacle-qualities of images. As David Sterritt has pointed out, Godard’s visual style, which has evolved greatly over the past decades, represents a form of creative experimentation, a “work in progress” and “an attempt at cinema” that constantly reexamines and challenges the notions of the documentary and the fictional.[58/59] But as his once-challenging cinematic form has also been in part adopted by contemporary film and media, this aspect of Godard’s older (and more daring) rhetoric precludes a possible redefinition of contemporary cinema.