It is often said that a film set is like a military campaign. Another analogy would be that of a professional kitchen (itself based on the military model), which after the eminent French chef Auguste Escoffier, is organised in a strict hierarchy known as the brigade system. A filmmaker is thus not only like a general, but also like a chef. Louis-Charles Bitsch, one of the most important compagnons de route of the New Wave filmmakers, died this past May, on the heels of his old friend, Jacques Rivette. Bitsch’s ability to seamlessly contribute to film sets as writer, cameraman and assistant director, before becoming a filmmaker himself, may have been inherited from his father. Trained as a master pastry chef, Charles-Henri Bitsch oversaw, at the start of his long career, the pastry brigade at Stockholm’s illustrious 5-star Grand Hotel.

Charles Bitsch

Jacques Rivette Shooting on the Roof of the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris; Jean Herman behind him, Charles Bitsch on the right, with André Mrulgalski with his back to the viewer (plus one unknown). Photo: Courtesy: Georges Pierre.

Just prior to their son’s birth in 1931, Charles-Henri and his wife moved back to Mulhouse in the Alsace and several years later to Paris. During the first half of the twentieth century, tuberculosis was still rampant in Europe. When Bitsch’s mother was sent to the Chamonix sanatorium after coming down with the infection, his father took a position running the kitchen in order to be near her. Bitsch, who remained in Paris with relatives, often spent his holidays there. Later, from 1954, his parents ran the Café de la Comédie, at 157, rue Saint Honoré, in front of the Comédie-Française. The bistro’s second floor became a popular hangout for Bitsch and his pals, serving not only as canteen but also as unofficial office where they penned and corrected their reviews for Cahiers du cinéma and Arts, as well as their scripts.

The post-war period in France was fecund for budding cinephiles like Bitsch and his friends. A member of the Objectif 49 Ciné-Club, he first met François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette at the club’s Festival du Film maudit in Biarritz. From 1951-53, he studied to be a director of photography at the École de Vaugirard (today the ENS Louis Lumière) in Paris where Pierre Lhomme and Philippe de Broca were among his classmates. Although he too had ambitions to direct films, he hedged his bets by learning a métier that would assure him a living while biding his time.

The stringent regulations of the Centre national de la cinématographie made it nearly impossible (with the exception of Le Silence de la mer by Jean-Pierre Melville, with whom Bitsch would later work) to make a film without the requisite ID card. Rivette, Truffaut, Bitsch, Pierre Lhomme, and several others devised a cooperative meant to circumvent that obstacle. The idea was to help each other – s’épauler les uns les autres – each one in the group would take his turn. In their biography of Truffaut, Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana call Bitsch, “the faithful follower”.1 Did anyone take that strategy based on camaraderie more seriously than Bitsch? His nickname in those early years was Carolus.

If as a critic, Bitsch took a backseat to his more confident, swashbuckling comrades, only occasionally reviewing major films, his competency in English assured him pride of place as a Cahiers du cinéma interviewer with Anglophone directors.2 He was particularly proud of the two Orson Welles interviews he did with André Bazin.3

Charles Bitsch

Charles Bitsch’s Cahiers du cinéma card

In 1952, while still a student at the Vaugirard School, Bitsch shot Rivette’s 45-minute-long film Le Divertissement, which miraculously has just re-surfaced and will screen at this year’s New York Film Festival. He both co-wrote the screenplay and shot Rivette’s short Le Coup du berger (Fool’s Mate, 1956) and was d.p. on Rivette’s first feature, Paris nous appartient (1960). Money was scarce on Paris nous appartient and Rivette filmed when he could, at the mercy of the schedules of his cast and crew. The shoot would occupy Bitsch for well over a year. Forty years later, it was Rivette’s debut feature that Bitsch chose to fondly recall in his filmed portrait by Gérard Courant. 4

Bitsch was also the cameraman for Eric Rohmer’s short Véronique et son cancre (Veronica and her Dunce, 1958). For Claude Chabrol, Bitsch worked repeatedly as an Assistant Director, including Le Beau Serge (1958), À Double Tour (Web of Passion, 1959) and Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). Philippe de Broca worked with him as assistant director on all three films. But while de Broca’s career subsequently took off (Les Jeux de l’amour[The Love Game, 1960], L’Amant de cinq jours [Five Day Lover, 1961], Cartouche [1962]), Bitsch’s stalled. His turn should have been next. A review of his CV reveals a hiatus between 1960-62. While working on À Double Tour, the tuberculosis that had been latent in his body manifested itself. For Bitsch, the timing could not have been worse. The illness was no longer the death sentence it earlier had been5, it nevertheless would sideline him for over a year. By the time he returned to work, the crest of the New Wave was already slightly past.

In 1962, Bitsch began a fruitful collaboration with Godard, initially replacing Raoul Coutard behind the camera on Vivre sa vie. From Les Carabiniers (1963) onwards, he was first assistant, usually with Jean-Paul Savignac, on some of Godard’s most iconic films from the 1960s: Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), Alphaville (1965), Made in USA (1966), Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967) and La Chinoise (1967). Speaking with Henri Chapier in 1967, Godard explains the invaluable contribution made by his closest collaborator at the time, albeit without naming him:

I don’t have a screenwriter, but I have perhaps someone better, someone that [an Otto] Preminger does not have and whom I need. An assistant with whom I can speak, who is both my friend and my assistant, who doesn’t just help with the film but who helps me because he lives the film while I am creating it. A Preminger does not have that; he has people whom he pays, who work for him.6

In an interview, Bitsch recalls that one of the reasons Godard probably liked working with him is because he never asked why.7 Like a well-trained sous chef, Bitsch interpreted and executed Godard’s commands. In a moving tribute to Bitsch, Alain Bergala notes that it was Bitsch who discovered the Villa Malaparte for Le Mépris: “And we can say that that without his [Bitsch’s] talent for scouting out locations, and without the complete trust Godard placed in him, Le Mépris would not be the legendary film it’s become.”8 Bergala’s assessment is no exaggeration.

In the mid-1960s Bitsch made two shorts, with contributions to the omnibus films La Chance et l’Amour (1964) and Les Baisers (1964). In 1966 he was one of several young filmmakers (along with René Alio, Jean Eustache, Marcel Hanoun, André Téchiné, et al.) interviewed by Claude Nahon (Claude-Jean Philippe) in the Cinéastes de notre temps documentary, Et pourtant ils tournent.

Charles Bitsch

Poster for Le Dernier Homme (Charles Bitsch, 1967)

Finally, in 1967, a modest loan in from Anouchka Films (Godard’s production company), with additional funds from Philippe de Broca, enabled Bitsch to make his own first feature, Le Dernier Homme. A science-fiction film, it is the last first feature by a New Wave filmmaker. It won the top prize at the Festival of Trieste, but went nowhere at the box-office. That lack of commercial success meant that Bitsch needed to re-think his options. In the early 1970s, he began a successful and long collaboration with French television where he made several feature-length films, including Le Marteau-Piqueur (1981), starring Stéphane Audran, a wonderful sendup of the nuclear family.

Charles Bitsch

Poster for Le Marteau-Piqueur (Charles Bitsch, 1981)

The best introduction to Bitsch’s work as filmmaker to date remains the marvelous essay, “La Maison ou le Chaos” by Luc Moullet,9 with whom he shared both a penchant and talent for comedy.

Bitsch regularly taught at l’IDHEC and later La Fémis. Jean-Noël Ferragut, who was one of his students there in 1967-68 and later worked with him as an assistant, remembers him as “open and warm with his crew members” 10 Another one of his assistants, Jean-Jacques Birgé, recalls working as his assistant on a project for the French Communist Party in honor of the International Women’s Year in 1975 11

Shortly after arriving in Paris on a fellowship year in the autumn of 1998, I met Charles. He was the most generous of interlocutors as I finished my dissertation on Godard. Adieu, Carolus.

Charles Bitsch

Charles Bitsch and Sally Shafto (2007). Photo: Vincenzo Guarnera.

Endnotes

  1. Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Truffaut, trans. Catherine Temerson (New York: Knopf, 1999), p. 49.
  2. Jean-Philippe Tessé, “Charles Bitsch, le discret”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 724 (July-August 2016), pp. 65-66.
  3. http://sensesofcinema.com/2008/the-new-wave-remembered-focus-on-charles-bitsch/orson-welles-bazin-bitsch/
  4. Gérard Courant, “Cinématon no. 2032: Charles Bitsch,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WadauYE6tX4
  5. In 1934, Jean Vigo died of it at the tender age of 29. André Bazin died of leukemia, not TB, but was plagued by TB for much of his adult life. And Jacques Rivette spent much of 1954-55 convalescing from a tubercular infection.
  6. Henry Chapier, interviewer, “Jean-Luc Godard à bâtons rompus”, Combat, August 17, 1967, p. 9.
  7. http://sensesofcinema.com/2008/the-new-wave-remembered-focus-on-charles-bitsch/charles-bitsch-interview/
  8. Alain Bergala, “Les années Godard de Charles Bitsch,” Cahiers du cinéma, no. 724 (July-August 2016), p. 66.
  9. http://sensesofcinema.com/2008/the-new-wave-remembered-focus-on-charles-bitsch/charles-bitsch-moullet/
  10. http://www.afcinema.com/Charles-Bitsch-l-homme-a-qui-l-on-doit-ses-premieres.html?lang=fr
  11. https://blogs.mediapart.fr/jean-jacques-birge/blog/070716/hommage-charles-bitsch