Histoire(s) du cinéma, Episode 2A (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-1998)On the concluding page of his study of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), Michael Witt tells us of the publication of a collection of cinema-related tales titled Quelques histoires de cinéma in 1923. Included in the anthology by the little-known authors Charles-Félix Tavano and Marcel Yonnet is a short story concerning the “discovery by a group of construction workers, in the year 3024, of a tightly sealed chest buried deep in the ground, containing five reels of ancient film.” Efforts are made to restore the decayed strips of celluloid, and when they are screened to “an astonished, rapt audience, these fragments spark a thirty-first-century artistic revolution, inspiring a group of young directors, the ‘Primitives’.” (p. 211)

For Witt, “Histoire(s) du cinéma is that chest.” More precisely, Godard’s four-and-a-half hour long, eight episode opus should be considered as “an incendiary device designed to be projected into the future to nourish art-forms as yet undreamed of, and to ignite an artistic renaissance at some distant, unforeseeable moment in time.” (idem.) This attitude towards Godard’s work is a refreshing departure from the dominant tenor of critical responses to Histoire(s), which, initially, at least, tended towards a lopsided view of the project as representing an unambiguously pessimistic, despondent lament towards the evolution of the cinema and its interconnections with the broader course of 20th-century (“History with a big H”, as Godard would term it). In contrast, Witt steadfastly presents a Godard oriented towards the future, a filmmaker who, even into his 70s and 80s, still entertains the possibility of a renewal of cinematic forms to which all his output strives.

One of the most textually dense audiovisual works of all time, Histoire(s) has correspondingly generated an outpouring of exegesis. (1) In view of this, the pioneering nature of Cinema Historian is rather surprising: it is only now, 15 years after the completion of Histoire(s), that a scholarly guide to the work has appeared in the English language. French readers have long had the benefit of Jacques Aumont’s Amnésies and Céline Scemama’s Histoire(s) du cinéma de Jean-Luc Godard: la force faible d’un art (as well as Scemama’s online database of sources for Histoire(s), a useful if not entirely reliable resource), and Jean-Louis Leutrat’s seven-part series of articles “Retour sur Histoire(s)”, printed in the journal Trafic. (2) In the English-speaking sphere, meanwhile, Histoire(s) has given rise to a vast number of critical analyses, exploring it from a myriad of theoretical approaches, but Witt’s undertaking to devote an entire monograph to Godard’s project has no precedent.

Witt notes in the book that his experience with Godard’s œuvre dates back to the 1980s (and in particular a 1989 “Tout Godard” retrospective in Paris), and continued with a PhD thesis on the Sonimage work of the 1970s. Since then, the bulk of his Godard-related scholarly output has focussed on the filmmaker’s “late” period, resulting in co-editing the superb collective works For Ever Godard and Jean-Luc Godard: Documents, as well as conducting an interview with the infamously reclusive director for Sight & Sound on the occasion of the British release of Notre musique (2004). (3) The rewards of this prolonged preoccupation with the filmmaker can be measured in the meticulous quality of Cinema Historian, which marshals an impressive array of resources to give support to the author’s claims about the argument in, influences on and evolution of Histoire(s) du cinéma. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this material is the vast number of interviews given by the filmmaker (whether in print or audiovisual media), which are recurrently cited by Witt as a welcome means of lending a measure of clarity to what is a notoriously enigmatic work. Although the author stresses “the contingent nature of these documents, the strategic posturing they sometimes contain, and the occasional divergence between what [Godard] says and the evidence of the work,” he nonetheless insists that they “provide an invaluable record of the genesis and development of his thinking.” (p. 8) Indeed, it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to consider Godard’s publicly-aired interviews and statements as an integral part of his artistic output over the last three decades, which Witt, elsewhere, has characterised as an “all-encompassing macro-installation” created by a “multimedia poet.” (4)

It is through interviews with Godard, more explicitly than through citations of his cinematic work, that Witt teases out the “theorem” guiding Histoire(s) in the introduction to his monograph. This hypothesis is, by now, well-known, and has generated considerable debate, particularly with respect to Godard’s claim that the cinema’s “death” can be ascribed to its inadequate response to the historical phenomenon of the death camps in World War II. For Witt, however, Godard’s theorem consists of a broader notion of the relationship between cinema and history, one that is premised on “two main ideas”:

First, that the cinema, a product of the inventions and discoveries of the nineteenth century, assumed the role of historian of the twentieth, documenting it from beginning to end; and second, that every moment of the past remains potentially available to history. (p. 1)

The key tool deployed by Godard to fulfil this “historical mission” of the cinema, in Witt’s view, is montage, defined as the combination of “disparate phenomena in poetic imagery,” or, in Bresson’s evocative terms, “bring[ing] together things that have as yet never been brought together and did not seem predisposed to be so.” (p. 2) As with Eisenstein, Godard expands the concept of montage to incorporate extra-cinematic activity, and the works of Malraux, Faure and Warburg (as well as, intriguingly, the 13th-century French manuscript The Book of Kings) are all cited as comparable undertakings to Histoire(s). Nonetheless, cinema remains the privileged medium for historically charged montage operations to take place, as it is a site where “the meaning should emanate directly from the combination of images and sounds rather than from an explanatory or interpretative text written about or imposed on them.” (idem.) Cinema is the only medium, Godard claims, “where all one has to do is re-project these images so that one can see what has happened.” (idem.)

Histoire(s) du cinéma, Episode 2A (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-1998)

Histoire(s) du cinéma, Episode 2A (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-1998)

Indeed, the centrality of montage to Godard’s historiographical project constitutes not only the centrepiece to Witt’s analysis of the filmmaker’s work, but is also the key theoretical advance achieved by the book in relation to existing Godard scholarship. Certainly, many figures have highlighted the presence of montage in Godard’s more recent output, but heretofore no published work has detailed the various ways in which it is used and theorised by the filmmaker in such a thoroughgoing fashion as Witt does here. As such, it is fitting that the author has gone to considerable lengths to incorporate into the book more than 250 high-resolution colour images, including frame enlargements of a number of Godard’s films, as well as photographs, reproductions of documents, book covers and details of paintings. Far from being mere illustrative pendants to the written exposition, Witt’s use of images takes inspiration from Godard himself in striving for “a form of iconographic criticism, which seeks, variously, to complement and further [his] discussion of Godard’s work, to extend or reinforce a line of argument developed in the text, and to suggest associations through the creation of visual rhymes between images situated in different parts of the book.” (p. 8) In this sense, then, the writer offers some incipient glimpses of an alternative practice of film scholarship that has, thanks partly to technological advances, gained in prevalence in recent years: namely, one in which the logical relations between juxtaposed images play just as much a role in the production of critical ideas as the textual argument.

After the preliminary remarks on the historical theorem animating Histoire(s), the rest of Cinema Historian is structured around seven chapters, the first three of which offer historical background on the work through a triad of perspectives. In the first chapter, the genesis of Godard’s project is mapped out, from preparatory sketches in the early 1970s, through to the elaboration of his ideas in lecture series in Montreal and Rotterdam in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the labyrinthine attempts at reaching agreements with funding partners (eventually finding success in a partnership between Gaumont and Canal+), before the work is eventually completed in 1998. In tandem with Witt’s preface to a newly released English translation of Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television (the transcripts to Godard’s lectures in Montreal, edited by Timothy Barnard (5)), this section undeniably contains the most valuable primary historical research on Witt’s part, with fascinating new material painstakingly presented. Particularly ground-breaking here is the overview of the lectures given in Rotterdam in 1980-1982; until now, these were a relatively obscure event in Godard’s life, which even his three biographers skipped over cursorily, but Witt convincingly demonstrates that they represented a key turning point in what we could call the ontogenetic evolution of Histoire(s).

Following on from this is a chapter on Godard’s “prior and parallel work”, in which Witt explores the manifold connections between Histoire(s) and the vast number of associated works made by Godard from À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) onwards. Of note here is a prolonged discussion which, as Daniel Morgan has also recently sought to do (6), investigates the idea of projection in Godard’s work. Witt stresses the importance of projection for Godard, frequently evoked by the filmmaker as central to the “specificity of the cinema”; however, unlike his persuasive commentary on Godardian montage, this passage remains at a rather general level – a shortcoming no doubt exacerbated by Godard’s own quite vague and largely metaphorical comments on the phenomenon.

Perhaps the densest section of Witt’s book comes in the third chapter, where he seeks to give a summary of the “models and guides” for Godard’s work – that is, the historical thinkers and artists who have served as conscious influences on Godard during the time he made Histoire(s). One senses a certain Sisyphean nature to the task Witt sets himself in this chapter: no sooner is one figure dealt with than a score of others leap to the mind. While some of the individuals the author discusses have received ample commentary in the critical reception of Histoire(s) (Malraux, Benjamin, Péguy and Langlois are all obvious candidates), he also reveals the influence of a plethora of figures whose importance for Godard has as yet been little remarked upon. Of particular note here are discussions of Cioran, Michelet, Braudel and, perhaps most fascinatingly, Hollis Frampton, whose 1971 essay “For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses” intersects with Histoire(s) in such fertile ways that Godard even saw fit to oversee a re-printing of the text on the occasion of a screening of his work at Cannes in 1997.

From this point, Witt’s treatment shifts to a content-analysis of some of the central ideas coursing through Godard’s later work. His notion of the cinematograph (Godard reverts to the Lumière-era term cinématographe, which Witt here anglicises) constitutes the focal point for the book’s fourth chapter. The cinematograph is presented as a “revolutionary tool”, an “extraordinary new eye- and mind-opening vision machine, one capable of intensifying perception, jolting people out of their routine complacencies, and reinstating a sense of astonishment at a world still so poorly understood.” (p. 113) While weaving Godard’s notion of the testimonial power of the cinematographic instrument with analogous ideas by the likes of Baudelaire, Breton and Jean Epstein, Witt uses this concept as a point of departure for broaching the filmmaker’s views on the cinema’s relationship to the Holocaust. But this serves as a relatively brief prelude to a more extensive discussion of the theme of resurrection in Godard’s historicisation of the cinema, which draws on the thinking of Cahiers du cinéma writers Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Comolli in particular. This motif – the phrase “the image will come at the time of the resurrection”, attributed to St. Paul, recurs throughout Godard’s work from the 1980s onwards – is crucial in the filmmaker’s ability to avoid the unequivocally mournful outlook on the cinema with which he is so often tarred. As Witt puts it: “Running alongside his account of the disintegration of [the cinema’s] documentary eye is a competing story that emphasises renewal.” (p. 130)

Histoire(s) du cinéma, Episode 1B (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-1998)

Histoire(s) du cinéma, Episode 1B (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-1998)

Two further chapters follow, charting the ways in which Godard relates the cinema to the nation, in the first place, and, secondly, the era of the spectacle and televisual media, which the filmmaker witheringly sees as cinema’s evil twin. (7) Of these, the former is the more interesting, if only because it mines an aspect of Godard’s thinking that has received precious little attention. In contemporary academic discourse, the nation has predominantly come to be seen as a largely out-dated theoretical object. But Godard is far from pandering to commonplace fashions (his nods to the likes of Oswald Spengler and Robert Brasillach are evidence enough of this), and the nation-state plays a significant role in his views on the cinema. In Witt’s gloss of Godard’s views, it appears that a truly healthy cinema – one which combines artistic prowess with a relationship to a mass audience – can only be a national cinema. And yet this is a rather rare phenomenon. Film-producing nations such as the UK, Sweden and Japan are excluded from this club, while only France, the USA, the USSR, Italy and Germany make the cut. Even in these countries, however, this only occurs in historically determinate interludes, which are now conclusively consigned to the past (before World War II, for the most part), and no longer operative in the present-day.

Histoire(s) du cinéma, Episode 3B (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-1998) 

Histoire(s) du cinéma, Episode 3B (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-1998)

Instead, the contemporary world is marked by a globalised form of media spectacle. Likened to radiation by Godard in the 1980s, the only viable form of resistance to this state of affairs is the creation of the “image” through the cinematic techniques pioneered by Godard and a select band of peers (Chris Marker, Artavazd Pelechian, Santiago Alvarez, Guy Debord –his list is not much longer than this). Earlier books by Morgan and Pavsek have already noted the specific meaning bestowed on the term image by Godard (8), and Witt follows in their footsteps by defining a “true image” as “the result of the combination, tensions, and dynamic interplay among a number of component elements.” (p. 180) While the summoning of Reverdy, Queneau and the “dialectical image” of Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk to help pinpoint the nature of the Godardian image have already received some attention, Witt’s linking of the idea to the information theory of Claude Shannon (an explicit reference point in 1976’s Comment ça va) is an original and stimulating theoretical move, and one which is in line with Godard’s renewed interest in mathematic theory in recent years.

Of course, the image is above all, in Godard’s view, the product of montage, and it is at this point that Witt’s study comes full circle, returning to his opening comments on the role of montage in Godard’s work. From here, a briefer chapter looks at the “metamorphoses” of the Histoire(s) project – that is, its various manifestations as a DVD, audio CD, book and abridged 35mm film print – while the concluding remarks in the book’s envoi suggest that future scholarship in this area could fruitfully scrutinise Godard’s more recent work: notably, his 2006 Pompidou Centre exhibition Voyage(s) en utopie, as well as post-millennial films such as Film socialisme (2010) and Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014 – the film was still incomplete at the time of the book’s publication). These works, Witt maintains, “hint at the turning of a page” and “display abundant evidence of formal vitality, of a continuing belief in the potential of new technologies – if used imaginatively – to produce potent poetic imagery,” (p. 209) and it is perhaps this impetus that pushes the author to insist on the latent optimism of Godard’s “late” period.

At this point in a book review, it is customary to include a few points of criticism, but in truth – a rather condescending stance towards the political premises of the Groupe Dziga Vertov-era work aside – there is little to find fault with in Witt’s methodically argued, rigorously researched and compellingly written text. It almost seems as if he has left no stone unturned in attempting to decipher Histoire(s) du cinéma, even if the futile nature of such an endeavour is freely admitted: there will always, in Godard’s work, be elements that remain impenetrable to his exegetes. If I have one – relative – misgiving about the work, it is perhaps a perverse one: namely, that Witt has been too rigorous, too objective, and too empirically substantiated in his claims. The end result is a peerless overview of Godard’s practice and thinking, but precious little space remains for Witt to exercise his own, undoubtedly more subjective, interpretative facilities. More than virtually any other work of cinema, Histoire(s) is not just a forum for Godard to expose his own theories, it is an aesthetic launch pad for stimulating independent thinking within the viewer, the critic and the scholar.

Michael Witt, Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).


1. The list of bibliographical entries provided by Witt runs into the hundreds, and is surely far from exhaustive.

2. Cf. Jacques Aumont, Amnésies: Fictions du cinéma d’après Jean-Luc Godard (Paris: POL, 1999); Céline Scemama, Histoire(s) du cinéma de Jean-Luc Godard: la force faible d’un art (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006); Céline Scemama, “La ‘partition’ des Histoire(s) du cinéma de Jean-Luc Godard”, available online at: http://cri-image.univ-paris1.fr/celine/celine.html; Jean-Louis Leutrat, “Retour sur Histoire(s)”, parts 1-7, Trafic 70 (2009): 52-62, 71 (2009): 129-139, 72 (2009): 96-116, 73 (2010): 77-94, 74 (2010): 78-90, 75 (2010): 98-106, 76 (2010): 68-82.

3. Cf. Michael Temple, James Williams and Michael Witt (eds.), For Ever Godard (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004); Nicole Brenez, David Faroult, Michael Temple, James Williams and Michael Witt (eds.), Jean-Luc Godard: Documents (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2006); Michael Witt, “‘I, a man of the image’: interview with Jean-Luc Godard”, Sight and Sound 15, no. 6 (2005): 28-30.

4. Michael Witt, “Shapeshifter: Godard as Multimedia Installation Artist”, New Left Review 29 (2004): 86.

5. Cf. Michael Witt, “Archaeology of Histoire(s) du cinéma”, in Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, trans. and ed. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose, 2014), pp. xv-lxix.

6. Cf. Daniel Morgan, Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

7. We only need to remember the famous “Cinema = Cain, Video = Abel” equation in Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Slow Motion, 1979); if anything, the dichotomy between the cinema and “the visual” (to use Daney’s term) has become even more Manichaean in Godard’s thinking since that time.

8. Cf. Morgan, Late Godard, op. cit., and Christopher Pavsek, The Utopia of Film: Cinema and its Futures in Godard, Kluge and Tahimik (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is a doctoral candidate in Film Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University and book reviews editor at Senses of Cinema