Camera HistoricaWhen we think of cinema filming history perhaps our default position is to imagine Ben Hur (Wyler, 1959) and Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960) through to Ride the with the Devil (Lee, 1999) and Lincoln (Spielberg, 2012), or, more adventurously, The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (Rossellini, 1966), Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975) and Don’t Touch the Axe (Rivette, 2006). It is as if one’s notion of the historical contains within it a sartorial dimension: that it is about people in costumes. Occasionally you even get filmmakers playing with such assumptions in radical form, as we find in Straub and Huillet’s History Lessons (1972), where a figure from the sartorial present interviews Ancient Romans in the sartorial past. Antoine de Baecque’s book, though, wants to look at film history from a point of view that incorporates the present also, working form the idea that history is now. As he says:

“the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe emerged in cinema by generating a specific cinematographic form of history to capture its collapse. It may be characterized, in certain Russian and Eastern European films, as a “demodern aesthetic” – an attack on the very raw material of that which claimed to be modernity itself: the Soviet system.” (p.27)

Here the writer looks at “films by Andrei Tarkovsky, Aleksandr Sokurov, Alexei Guerman and Emir Kusturica, [and where] what had been posited as modern (the city, the new man, science, the army, the conquest of space etc.) is denigrated and transformed into the ‘demodern’.” (p.27) The historical in this instance doesn’t take the form of reimagining the past in lavish production design; it is closer to taking a biopsy – a sample of the present, historical condition.

One sees this approach to history, De Baecque claims, in the French New Wave. Here he explores in much socio-historical detail the nature of this filmic movement. As he defines what he calls “Hussar thought”, he comments on various writers, including Antoine Blondin, Roger Nimier and Jacques Laurent, who would seem to have shared similarities with the directors of the Right Bank. These writers were generally monarchists and wrote for La Parisienne, le Temps de Paris, La Table Ronde and others, and some of the filmmakers, working as critics, wrote in the fifties for some of these right-leaning journals. It is a point Geneviève Sellier also, insistently, makes in the polemically inclined Masculine Singular:

“A number of issues – the fact that many of the young directors belonged to the grande bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie: their distrust of political commitment, which they saw as incompatible with creative liberty; their ideological proximity to the personalism of Emmanuel Mounier and with the right-wing literary figures known as the “hussards”… and their fascination with American cinema and their refusal to take part in French ideological debates – all add up to create the breeding ground for and the manifestation of the young critics’ deep involvement in the phase of postwar modernization that aimed to bury the fiercely conflictual society that emerged with the Liberation”. (1)

There is evidence to suggest this isn’t unfair. As De Baecque says: there was “a series of broadly shared reactionary ideological views: “Truffaut with his fascination for the then embargoed literary figures of the collaboration – Rebatet, Brasillach, Drieu la Rochelle; Truffaut, again, with his close hussar connections – Jacques Laurent, André Parinaud, Roger Nimier; Rivette, with his adherence to a mystical conception of cinema as the “imprint of Grace”; Chabrol with his anti-semitic and Nazi-enthralled “evil genius,” [screenwriter] Paul Gégauff; Godard, with his pro-French Algeria iconoclastic tendencies; and Rohmer, with his defence of unadulterated western cinema, in which “white blood flows through the veins” of the characters. (p.111)

However, De Baecque also sees the nouvelle vague directors as much subtler political figures from the perspective of doing history in the present, and finding forms in which to contain the historical. “What characterizes the spirit of the New Wave is not the absence of political context – quite the opposite, it was probably more palpable than in the French films of the two previous decades – but a rejection of the simplifications necessary for an effective politics”. (p.121) He adds, “half a dozen New Wave films thus offer a very direct illustration of these heroes of melancholia – whether political, aesthetic or existential – a portrait gallery of dark and cynical dandies and desperadoes, which aptly characterizes the oxymoronic style of that provocative and childish political posture, right-wing anarchism”. (p.121) Whether it is the writer interviewed in Breathless (Godard, 1960), played by Jean-Pierre Melville, and whose name Parvulesco was “a cryptic underground reference to the young Fascist of Romanian descent”, hussar Paul in Chabrol’s The Cousins (1958) or Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (1963), an adaptation of Nazi-collaborator Pierre Drieu Le Rochelle’s novel, the newer directors (since Malle wasn’t strictly New Wave) were interested not simply in pushing a right-wing agenda but calling it into question through certain figures. Another film featuring a far-right character directed by Alain Cavalier, Fire and Ice (1962), was taken as Left-Wing, with De Baecque quoting Positif critic Robert Benayoun: “the most blatant refutation of the accusations of irresponsibility levelled at the New Wave of Godard, Chabrol and Truffaut”. (p.126) Young filmmakers might have been putting the Hussars on the screen, but they weren’t doing so without analysing some of their presuppositions. By examining characters who were of some influence during this period, were the New Wave directors not at all ignoring society (as Sellier would claim), but actively engaged in the critique of it?

Jean-Pierre Melville, Breathless (Godard, 1960)

Jean-Pierre Melville, Breathless (Godard, 1960)

If the French New Wave was doing history in the present, then what about contemporary American cinema – what has that been doing? Aren’t films like There’s Something About Mary (Farrelly, 1998), Very Bad Things (Berg, 1998), and Tim Burton’s films escaping from the historical present rather than confronting it? Commenting on There’s Something About Mary, American Pie (Weitz and Weitz, 1999), Scary Movie (Wayans, 2000) and others, De Baecque believes “all these films have one point in common, perhaps only one: they all violently satirize the American way of life, and they satirize it through bodies (their regression, explosion, multiplication, metamorphosis, decomposition and capitulation)”. (p.324) “These films are undoubtedly regressive, but through an excess of contemporary bodies and norms, not through an explicit return to the primitive.” (p.324) “To assess these films on the basis of a single criterion of mise-en-scene is, thus, surely, to miss the point entirely. For their reference is not cinema, its stories, but “people’s lives” – that is television and tabloids.” (p.326) Of course there are other American films that reflect their moment (De Baecque talks about pre and post 9/11 movies, including Independence Day (Emmerich, 1996), Armageddon (Bay, 1998), World Trade Centre (Stone, 2006) and War of the Worlds (Spielberg, 2005), but is there not something utterly trivial in many a bad taste film that shows American excess without real consequence, just as De Baecque sees the reverse in demodern aesthetics, in the films from the former Soviet Bloc, where real consequence is frequently evident?

If the bad taste films lack mise-en-scene; the Soviet Bloc films often work in deliberately blocked sequences, none more so of course than Russian Ark (Sokurov, 2002), a one-take wonder to which De Baecque devotes ten pages. If the American films are reflecting television and tabloids, clearly the demodern aesthetic moves in the other direction – towards keeping mise-en-scene alive no matter society’s collapse. Are some of the American film’s De Baecque is talking about doing the opposite – foregoing the form in the face of capitalist plenitude? In the demodern directors, “in each of these films, though in very different ways for each of these master directors, style consistently and successfully seeks to effect the same disintegration of the values and symbols of the communist regime.” (p.287-288) In the demodern the aesthetic holds as the society fails to do so; in the American films aesthetics collapse as society becomes ever wealthier.

Films of course reflect their historical period in many different ways, but surely some films are doing history more interestingly than others. The chapters on Peter Watkins and, as we’ll see, Godard and Histoire(s) Du Cinema (1988-98), seem especially pertinent here, because both Godard and Watkins see film as a medium that can capture, as well as merely reflect, history. Watkins has often done so by using history past as if it were history present. In his six hour The Commune (Watkins, 2000), he examines the uprising of 1871 as live event. The cameras are on hand as the situation unfolds and in a radical anachronism history isn’t just re-enacted but reported. In Culloden (Watkins, 1964), as the soldiers leave the battlefield, the cameras ask for their opinion of how it went. This might seem a recipe for comic set-piece (think of Bananas, and the collapse of Latin American politics played out as sporting occasion), but Watkins is nothing if not serious, no matter the ‘sensationalism’.

“Peter Watkins’s style, his sensationalist – in the journalistic sense of the term – manner of capturing history, may be defined by the very presence of the camera, jostled by the movements of bodies and emotions, by the authentic feel of their reconstructed scenes, all of which are based on carefully researched and presented archival material”. (p.183)

Watkins is doing history, determined to find a means of exploring past moments in time that, if played out as conventional historical drama, would lack the requisite urgency Watkins form gives. Better to insist on dragging the events into the present and forcing us to confront their immediacy, seeing that many of the issues of power and struggle are still with us. Indeed, in Punishment Park (Watkins, 1970), a futuristic take on the US, Watkins drew on contemporaneous political events.

“Watkins was inspired by the context of violent confrontation between political authorities, police and various leftist student groups at campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War. In May of 1970 four students were killed during a confrontation with the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio. A year earlier, in March 1969, there was the trial of the Chicago Seven – the young political activists who protested against the Vietnam war and were accused of conspiracy and investigating the riots that had erupted at the Democratic National Convention in August 1968.” (p.180)

Doing history, Watkins style, incorporates not only the distant past with the techniques of the present, but the recent past with the fictional conceit of the near future: it plays out as a variation of The Most Dangerous Game (Schoedsack, 1932), with prisoners, rather than given long-sentences, violently competing against each other to reach an American flag.

Punishment Park (Watkins, 1970)

Punishment Park (Watkins, 1970)

By utilising such different approaches to see how cinema looks at history, De Baecque might be in danger of having no argument to make because all cinema is contained in the argument. In other words, if cinema’s approach to the historical incorporates Sokurov, Burton, Kusturica, the New Wave, Watkins and the Farrelly brothers, what doesn’t it include? Yet the point seems less to argue for what is or isn’t an example of film doing the historical, than to see where it happens to be, with the whole book based on a sort of political/aesthetic epiphany. As he says at the beginning of the volume: “It was in watching one after the other Night and Fog (1956), Hiroshima, Mon amour (1959) and Roberto Rossellini’s Europa 51 (1952) that a “cinematographic form of history” was first revealed to me” (p.2). De Baeqcque adds,

“where did this gaze, this head-on intensity, come from? From history. Not specifically from the history of cinema – even though quite a few looks-to-camera had been cast at spectators in the days of silent movies, when burlesque films would wink in connivance with the audiences – but rather from a blind split of twentieth century history, its unrepresentability, which is nonetheless staring right at us.” (p.2)

In all these film De Baecque sees not the sly acknowledgment of the form evident in burlesque, but the hollowed out tragedy of a life at odds with the one looking at it from the comfort of a cinema seat. What happens here is something like a negative complicity, as opposed to the positive version he finds in certain silent movies, with history now staring back at us. As he notes faces in Resnais’s and Rossellini’s films staring at the lens, he says: “The looks-to-camera – in Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald, in Night and Fog, Europa ’51, and Hiroshima, mon amour – tell us that cinema had to change because nobody could remain innocent after these images, neither filmmakers nor spectators, neither actors nor characters.” (p.2)

Hiroshima, Mon amour (Resnais, 1959)

Hiroshima, Mon amour (Resnais, 1959)

In some of the chapters here this sense of history as manifest – in the demodern films, in Watkins’ work, and also in the essay on Godard, but in others harder to discern and with the point less focused, at least in relation to his opening gambit. While it makes sense that in the chapter discussing Burton and ‘very bad films’, he talks of World Trade Centre and United 93 (Greengrass, 2006), the other films seem to take him a different direction. Equally, in the chapter on the use of Versailles in film, there is a lot on production history and reviewing responses to Sacha Guitry’s work, but not always much of a theoretical move forward. Wouldn’t Rossellini’s historical films have been a better choice since he was part of that ephiphanic moment with Europa 51? Sure, the focus is on Versailles, and De Baecque says that Guitry,

“in his inimitable fashion, seized the challenge of filming Versailles and making a story out of this challenge” (80), but why Versailles in the first place as a privileged locale? Though De Baecque says “to this day [Guitry’s] Si Versailles m’etait conte [1954] remains the one and only work that justifies, and justifies fully, charting the path, as a historian of cinematographic forms, that leads from Versailles to the silver screen” (p.80),

we might wonder if this is reason enough for a chapter on it. The chapter does give De Baecque the chance to comment on the pedantic historians who insisted on historical accuracy and missed the point of cinematographic history, but often the details pile up while the argument is forestalled.

This isn’t at all to dismiss the book; more to say that the writer is on to something in the Intro, but doesn’t always keep hold of it. It is an area that coincides with Gilles Deleuze (whom he name-checks early on), with Godard and Histoire(s) du cinema, and also Serge Daney, whose beautiful comment is especially pertinent: “And then, I see clearly why I had adopted cinema: so it could adopt me in return. So it could teach me to relentlessly touch with my eyes how far from myself the other begins. This history of course begins and ends with the camps because they are the limit that was waiting for me at the beginning of my life as a spectator.” (p.46) It is a comment that echoes the mention of Deleuze at the beginning of the book where De Baecque says,

“this look attests, from beyond the grave, to the fact that the survivors have seen extermination, after images of the camps…Following Gilles Deleuze, I would venture that the true break in the history of cinema is embedded in the history of the century and that it illustrates the interpretation of form and chronology”. (p.2)

There were of course many terrible events in the twentieth century, the Gulag, Pol Pot’s retraining programmes, Rwanda, the Balkans and numerous others, but the Holocaust is an understandable metonym for human atrocity, and the images of emaciated figures looking at the camera from the camps, the shoes stacked up in cupboards, the fingernail scratches on the ceilings of the gas chambers, the experiments on patients without using anaesthetics, all combine to give us a singular sense of horror. Does a proper cinematographic form of history have to acknowledge this outrage at the heart of the century, the century of cinema?

From this point of view, Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema is a monumental work, and, in his chapter on Godard, De Baecque quotes the director saying: “In the twentieth century cinema has been the art that has allowed souls – as they were called in Russian novels – to intimately experience their (hi)stories within History. Such a fusion, such a perfect fit, such a desire for fiction and history together will never be seen again. Only cinema was able to hold together this “I” and this “us””. (p.240) From this standpoint, both a clip of footage of the Nuremberg trials and a Hitchcock shot express what we are. Both are cinema.” To understand something of Godard’s statement, and to understand something of Camera Historica, maybe it is worth saying by way of conclusion one or two things about cinema as an art form that breaks with grammatical necessity and allows for this cinematographic form of the historical. In Death 24 x a Second, Laura Mulvey talks of cinema’s capacity to be both the present and the past at the same time, drawing on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and the idea of the photographic image capable of invoking the ungrammatical “this was now”. (2) When we look at Cary Grant in Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946), he is a healthy looking man in his early forties, and he is dead. Cinema locates him in time but he is also no longer in time at all, and this is one of the dimensions to cinema that we don’t have with other arts like theatre (which is in the present), and painting and literature which are abstracted through signs. Often in film we have an extra-diegetic feeling, knowing that it is not only the character who acts, but also the actor acting the character. The character is timeless but the actor is not. Equally, taking into account Godard’s comment, cinema that is fiction is also documentary. While Grant is playing T.R. Devlin, the film is also a document of Grant in his early forties. Just as Grant is documented, however, aren’t other things also? Does a cinematographic form of history not acknowledge that cinema functions in the tense of “this was now”, and tries to capture this anomaly? Even films apparently escaping from its presence find they cannot completely ignore it – including the recent American films De Baecque mentions that would seem to have barely a dimension of the documentative.

What makes Godard’s work so fascinating for De Baecque is that he acknowledges the notion of film as document, but also film as montage effect. Histoire(s) du cinema is the opposite of long-take filmmaking, a la Sokurov, and instead relies on numerous clips edited together to suggest “a confrontation with images returned from the dead…on the battlefield of cinema…” (p.240) Yet at the same time it is cinema in pursuit of capturing history in the making, evident in Godard’s use of numerous clips from documentary and fiction filmmaking: “it is the epic of all films and all peoples, constituted from fragments and details of each. What we are dealing with here is a cinematographic form of autobiography of all, in which a man, looking for his own reason in his (hi)story, ends up shedding light on the reasons of history.” (p.241) Here Godard doesn’t unavoidably film history (as Hitchcock would have done with Grant), but takes archival history and shapes it into an examination of what cinema is: history that exemplifies beautifully this was now, and serves as the ultimate example of De Baecque’s thesis. Maybe had the book held a little more closely to some of the insights evident in Godard’s film, this interesting and useful book would have possessed the shape to be a major work, but it is still more than a negligible one as it asks some important questions for and of cinema.

Antoine de Baecque, Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012)

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  1. Genevieve Sellier, Masculine Singular (London: Duke University Press, 2008) p.47.
  2. Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second (London: Reaktion Books, 2006) p.57.

About The Author

Tony McKibbin is an independent writer and teacher who writes for The List in Edinburgh, and various film and literary journals worldwide. His website can be found at