What to do ? What not to do?
“To occupy itself with the most perfect of all works of art—the establishment of a true political freedom”. In fulfilling Friedrich Schiller’s revolutionary ideals, certain avant-garde filmmakers abandoned cinema to directly take up the armed struggle, such as Holger Meins, who joined the German Red Army Faction (whose members were almost all filmmakers, or had worked on films one way or another) and Masao Adachi, who accompanied the activities of Palestinian combatants, filming counter-information news, which have now been lost. Other filmmakers and theorists undertook professional revolutionary activities at while making films, such as Edouard de Laurot in the United States and Masao Matsuda in Japan. As Jean-Luc Godard’s phrase in the posters for Film Socialisme reminds us, “freedom has a price”, and Masao Adachi paid a very high price to produce his films that were as liberating as they were free in form. In 1969, Adachi and his comrades created an unprecedented form: the experimental documentary essay AKA Serial Killer, the forerunner for the Straubs’ Too Early/Too Late (1982) which brought up to date the “landscape theory” developed by Adachi and critic Masao Matsuda: “All the landscapes we see in our day to day, and especially the beautiful landscapes reproduced on postcards, are fundamentally tied to a figure of dominant power.” The descriptive minimalism and the simple staging of landscapes show the travels of a young man who left behind the lumpenproletariat to become a criminal, using a gun he stole from an American military base, which become a controversial argument against the political and urban organization of industrial Japan. The once imperial Japan, from that moment allied with the imperialists, turns people mad and criminal; Japan itself is toxic. Seen very little in its time, and forgotten for decades with Adachi underground, AKA Serial Killer gradually imposed itself as one of the most influential essays of contemporary film: Thomas Jenkoe in Souvenirs de la Géhenne and Eric Baudelaire with Also Known As Jihadi were inspired to show, each in their own way, the burning injustices of their own times. Admirers and friends of Adachi, Eric Baudelaire and Philippe Grandrieux both made films about Adachi, proving that hidden, prohibited or destroyed images always make the most precious, fertile films.
In 2010, Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme pondered the sinking of political ideals in Europe, the same ideals that, culminating under the name of Marxism-Leninism, had led Ulrike Meinhof, Masao Adachi and Michèle Firk to take up arms to fight dictatorships and imperialism, risking their lives for the struggle. In 2012, the Costa Concordia, which had served as allegorical forum for Jean-Luc Godard, sank before its passengers’ cameras and the whole world. In 2018, Paul Grivas’s Film Catastrophe, referencing Film Socialisme, shows images of the disaster to revisit the factory of cinema.
In 1933, the Rumanian poet and filmmaker Benjamin Fondane wrote:
One can escape from any prison, even the most heavily-guarded. The four or five escapees of film, Chaplin, Stroheim, the Marx Brothers, witness the excellent humour of being free and the terrible anguish of being recognized and caught again. Others, in the course of a long detention, do not escape more than once or twice, and are immediately locked up again: Murnau, Pabst, King Vidor with La Foule[…]
Jean-Luc Godard and Masao Adachi belong to that handful of filmmakers who not only escape once and for all the cinema of domination and are never caught, but also intrepidly return to storm the prison, blasting the thick walls, freeing those comrades still imprisoned and, in doing so, liberate us simple spectators too.
Nicole Brenez is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Paris III: Sorbonne Nouvelle, Director of the Analysis & Culture Department at the Fémis since 2017, curator of the Cinémathèque Française avant-garde film series since 1996. With filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux she produced the film collection “It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve”, about revolutionary filmmakers forgotten or neglected in the history of cinema.
Her most recent publications include:
Cinéma d’avant-garde Mode d’emploi (Tokyo, Gendaishicho-shinsha Publishers, 2012); We support everything since the dawn of time that has struggled and still struggles: Introduction to Lettrist Cinema (Stockholm, Moderna Museet/Sternberg Press, 2015); Jean-Luc Godard théoricien des images (Roma, La Camera Verde, 2015).