What happens in Alphaville, stays in Alphaville.
Fifty years ago, during the coldest January the city had seen in years, Jean-Luc Godard and his crew took to the streets of Paris to film Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution. Godard was in the midst of an artistic flowering of the sort granted to few mortals: In the eight years following his bodacious feature debut À bout de soufflé (1959), he would direct 15 features along with a number of sketches in other films that, as Truffaut wrote, “blew the system up, messed the system up, just like Picasso did with painting.”
Godard’s divorce had been finalized only weeks before. The ink on the decree was not quite dry but once again he was directing Anna Karina, now his ex-wife, though apparently he was a long way from being over her.
The bitter cold and the heat of roiled emotion established a mood of contradiction and paradox for the shoot, and Godard, with his gift for aphorism, captured it in Alphaville.
Godard said that Alphaville is “a film about light. Lemmy is a character who brings light to people who no longer know what it is.” Lemmy does not so much bring the light as discover it in Anna Karina: She is the light. When she learns to weep and to say “I love you,” she escapes the suffocating darkness of Alphaville and reenters the world of the living (yes, Orpheus, absolutely, and more specifically there are multiple references to Cocteau’s 1949 Orphée).
But Alphaville is a movie like no other, a science fiction film noir western romance. Nothing looks like it, nothing feels like it. It is at once rigorously real—shot without sets or special effects and perhaps most radically, without film lighting—and also a violent cartoon, a pop culture mélange of references from other films, literature, comic books, and art movements (particularly surrealism and German Expressionism), as well as the recent history (WWII and the Holocaust) and current events of its era (life in DeGaulle’s France; the rapid development of computer technologies).
Only two years later, Jacques Tati used similar modern Parisian settings for his sunny springtime comedy Playtime (though at least one of Playtime‘s buildings was constructed for the film), which just goes to show how different but equally original artists can paint the same scene and come up with totally different results.
Alphaville is that rare thing: a movie that is pleasurable for the casual viewer but that also rewards subsequent viewings with complexities and layers. Great art is often daunting, but despie Godard’s justly earned reputation as difficult and obscure, Alphaville isn’t. It’s brilliant without being solemn.
You do have to take it on its own terms. As soon as you start trying to understand it in terms of another movie, you’ll stop seeing what’s there and start ticking off all the ways it disappoints, what it isn’t, what it doesn’t do. Alphaville is conceptual (rather than spectacular) science fiction, so most of the movies that present themselves for comparison aren’t appropriate. That’s the difficulty with originality—comparing comes so naturally to us, and when there’s nothing to compare to, we tend to dismiss or reject.
Godard might just as well have said that Alphaville was a movie about darkness, because he was ferocious about not allowing a single piece of movie lighting on the shoot. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard begged him to allow just a very small light off-camera, where nobody could see it, but Godard gave no quarter. He used a special Ilford film stock and insisted Coutard shoot with the aperture completely open, sometimes using only a cigarette lighter to light a shot and when necessary pushing the stock to its limit when it was being processed. The effect is a saturated darkness, a heavy blackness punctuated by the lights of Paris, bright spots that have no power to pierce or brighten.
In Alphaville science, reason, and logic are means of oppression. Professor Leonard Vonbraun—aka Leonard Nosferatu, the “inventor of the death ray” completed at Los Alamos—is Alphaville’s figurehead, but the city’s real leader is Alpha 60, the vast computer that controls everything and everybody in the city. Tough-guy secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) has been sent to Alphaville to find Vonbraun and bring him back or, if necessary, liquidate him. His cover: He is journalist Ivan Johnson, working for Figaro-Pravda.
Lemmy has driven across the Galaxy in his Ford Galaxie (it’s actually a Mustang, but that kills the joke). He meets and falls in love with Natacha Vonbraun, the professor’s daughter, a class-two seductress. The seductresses have numbers tattooed on their backs. Natacha has never heard the word “love.” And she has never wept. In Alphaville, weeping is illogical behavior, punishable by death.
Alpha 60 endlessly calculates ways of eliminating variables, choices, options. Its goal is to eradicate all possibility of failure. In order to do this it must conquer not only the minds and bodies of those within its borders but those in the Outerlands as well. Alpha 60 cannot be sure of its own security until it has mastered every living thing, and logically, it has concluded that the only way to do that is to destroy it all.
Two or Three Things We Know About Him
Godard’s fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic and architect of the Nouvelle Vague, close friend, partner in crime, and eventually bitter enemy Truffaut remembered the Godard he knew in 1950: “What struck me most…was the way he absorbed books. If he were at a friend’s house, during one evening he would open easily forty books, and he always read the first and last pages… He liked cinema as well as any of us, but he was capable of going to see fifteen minutes each of five different films in the same afternoon.”
…and in “Two or Three Things I Know About Him,” 1966, Truffaut wrote: “Jean-Luc Godard is not the only director for whom filming is like breathing, but he’s the one who breathes best. He is rapid like Rossellini, sly like Sacha Guitry, musical like Orson Welles, simple like Pagnol, wounded like Nicholas Ray, effective like Hitchcock, profound like Bergman, and insolent like nobody else. Professor Chiarini, the Director of the Venice Film Festival, says: ‘There’s cinema before Godard, and cinema after Godard.’ It’s true, and as the years pass it’s increasingly clear that Breathless has marked the cinema, that it’s a decisive turning point, like Citizen Kane in 1940. Godard blew the system up, he messed the system up, just like Picasso did with painting; and like Picasso, Godard has made everything possible.”
By the time of Alphaville‘s release, Godard’s place in cinema and art was secure. “Indeed,” says Richard Brody, “the reception of Godard’s films became itself the subject of meta-criticism, in which critics critiqued each others’ critiques of Godard and his films.”
Peter Bogdanovich: I think we’d better have your thoughts on Godard.
Orson Welles: Well, since you’re so very firm about it. He’s the definitive influence if not really the first film artist of this last decade, and his gifts as a director are enormous…. But what’s so admirable about him is his marvelous contempt for the machinery of movies and even movies themselves—a kind of anarchistic, nihilistic contempt for the medium—which, when he’s at his best and most vigorous, is very exciting.
Alphaville has three stars, all of them trailing afterimages from their previous movies.
Eddie Constantine, best known now for Alphaville, was an American singer/actor who moved to Europe when he couldn’t find work in the U.S. In 1953 he first played Lemmy Caution in what became a string of popular B crime pictures. Constantine was very popular as Lemmy, though not taken seriously as an actor. Godard had already worked with him a few years before in a segment for The Seven Deadly Sins in which Constantine played Sloth, a man too lazy to disrobe to have sex. Constantine was used to the star treatment, including heavy makeup to cover his heavy facial scarring. But he gave Godard carte blanche to film him from every angle under harsh, unflattering light. He didn’t mind but his fans were shocked, and Alphaville ended his run of Lemmy Caution movies. He didn’t play the character again until 1982.
Akim Tamiroff (Henri Dickson) was a venerable Hollywood character actor who appeared in more than 80 movies. He was born in Russia and studied at the Moscow Art Theatre school before moving to the U.S. During the 1950s he acted in three films for Orson Welles: Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, and The Trial, and those movies in particular that made Tamiroff the right guy to play Lemmy’s secret agent contact in Alphaville, the dying man who has forgotten the meaning of “why.”
Anna Karina had been Godard’s paramour and star since 1960, though even in those years they didn’t work together exclusively. Karina had a long and successful career both as an actress and singer after her association with Godard ended. In Alphaville, Karina gives one of her greatest performances as a woman awakened from a trance by love (more references: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White), while outside the film Karina’s relationship with Godard was dying. But Godard used the real-life drama to intensify the drama in Alphaville, and he photographed Karina with great tenderness and erotic awe. The darkness of the doomed city and Karina’s luminous face form the film’s central visual metaphor.
As Orwell and Huxley and other good chroniclers of dystopia know, language is a key to gaining control of a population. In Alphaville, every hotel room has a “Bible”—a dictionary, revised daily, with the latest outlawed words removed. The last edition included “conscience,” but while Karina is looking it up the room-service waiter (a cameo by Truffaut/Godard stalwart Jean-Pierre Leaud) snatches it from her, giving her the latest one, and—no more conscience. The Alphavillians have forgotten the meaning of “why”: they have been taught instead to say “because.” When Karina nods she means No; she shakes her head solemnly for Yes. As words and ideas are stripped of meaning, Alphaville grows darker—Alpha 60 keeps the citizens literally and figuratively in the dark.
Alpha 60: Everything has been said, provided words to not change their meanings and meanings their words.
Lemmy meets his contact, secret agent Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), who has been too long in Alphaville, now (barely) living at the Red Star Hotel. The clerk asks him, “Why don’t you hurry up and commit suicide? We need the room for our cousin from the south.”
Lemmy: Why did he ask if you’d commit suicide?
Dickson: There’s quite a few who do. One can’t adapt to this place. It’s the method the Chinese invented about thirty years ago in Pekingville. Dissuasion is their strong point.
Lemmy: What about those who won’t adapt or commit suicide?
Dickson: —Those…they’re executed. Yes, the authorities… But one can hide, you know. There aren’t many left.
Lemmy: Dick Tracy, is he dead? … And Guy Leclair [Flash Gordon]?
Dickson, wincing with pain, shakes his head No [an Alphaville Yes].
Lemmy: Why didn’t we hear from them, or from you, Henri? … And what’s Alpha 60?
Dickson: A giant computer, like they used to have in big business
Lemmy: Nueva York… IBM…
Dickson: Olivetti… General Electric… Tokyorama… Alpha 60 is 150 light years more powerful.
Lemmy: I see. People have become slaves of probabilities.
Dickson: Their ideal here in Alphaville is a technocracy, like that of termites and ants.
Lemmy: I don’t understand.
Dickson: Probably 150 light years ago, 150, 200… there were artists in the ant society, yes. Artists, novelists, musicians, painters. Today, no more. Nothing like that here.
Lemmy: Has Professor Vonbraun organized it all?
Dickson: He obeys logical orders, that’s all.
Lemmy: Then why didn’t you kill him?
Dickson: “Why” … what does that word mean? I forget…Why… what does it mean… what does it mean?
Lemmy: You know his daughter, Natasha? Who is she really? … It was him they sent to Los Alamos. His name wasn’t that then.
Dickson [dying]: Lemmy… conscience… Alpha 60… make … self destruct… tenderness… Save those who weep.
As Dickson dies he gives Lemmy a volume of poems by Paul Eluard, The Capital of Pain, arming Lemmy with the only weapon that can defeat Alpha 60.
After witnessing the gala execution of “those who weep” or otherwise behave in ways Alpha 60 deems illogical, Lemmy is interrogated by the computer.
Alpha 60: What transforms the night into day?
When Alpha 60 tells Lemmy that Alphaville must go to war with the Outerlands, Lemmy realizes that Dickson’s dying instructions must be carried out toot sweet. If the world is to survive, Alpha 60 must die.
Godard used everyday objects, a small alarm clock for a wireless phone, a jukebox as a surveillance device. Lemmy drives across space in his Ford. The villainous supercomputer Alpha 60 is a $3 Phillips fan, shot from underneath. Like Truffaut and other New Wave directors Godard was reacting against the opulent artificiality of Hollywood (À bout de soufflé is dedicated to Republic Studios, which produced mostly B pictures with an occasional Welles or Ford thrown in), and the futurism of his Alphaville (“More like Zeroville,” Lemmy says) is not that of the 1964 New York World’s Fair or The Jetsons. Godard’s dystopian future is more Orwell, more Things to Come (1936). It reminds me of Philip K. Dick’s future, brilliant not for its gleaming surfaces but for looking mostly like the present except that it’s a little grimmer, a little grimier, and profoundly unstable and corrupt in ways not apparent at first glance.
A few words about the Paul Misraki’s gorgeous, moody orchestra score, with its recurrent motif, urgent pulses by horns and lush responses from strings, off-center, unstable and murky, somehow sliding around and failing to find a harmonic center… It provides a counterpoint to the stark visuals, a voice for the characters’ and the audience’s feelings. The soundtrack is an emotional commentary on the action. Film music frequently functions to supply emotions a film has failed to express. In conventional movies, the music tells the audience how to feel, like an APPLAUSE sign or a laugh track. This is something else…
Misraki composed for a lot of films in a long career that began with Jean Renoir’s first sound film. He scored Renoir’s Hollywood movies as well, then returned to France after the war, continuing to score movies including Welles’s Mr. Arkadin (1955). Misraki had another life as a religious scholar and UFOlogist; he published a lot about his theories, sometimes under another name. This somehow makes him seem an even more appropriate composer for Alphaville, though there’s not a hint of the extraterrestrial in his unforgettable score for the movie.
Godard’s imagination teems with references, and Alphaville is stuffed with them, from cinema, literature, recent history. Please feel free to add to the list:
Heckle and Jeckle, the Tarrytoon cartoon crows, here Doctors Eckle and Jeckle
Sleeping Beauty, Snow White
Céline: (Lemmy’s throwaway line, “I’m just beginning my journey to the end of the night”.)
Nosferatu (Murnau’s film, but also German Expressionist cinema both aesthetically and as artistic canary in the coal mine of totalitarian threat)
The Searchers, another movie about a man who reclaims a woman who has been held captive since childhood
To Have and Have Not: Like Lauren Bacall, Natacha first appears at Lemmy’s hotel room door asking for a light
Raymond Chandler: Lemmy reading La grand sommeil (The Big Sleep)
Orphée, Cocteau’s version of Orpheus
Leonard Vonbraun: named for Werner von Braun, rocket scientist first for the Nazis and then for the U.S. space program, who used to be Leonard Nosferatu
Lemmy Caution is himself a walking reference: when he starred in Alphaville, Eddie Constantine had been playing Lemmy since 1953 in popular B-movie adaptations of the pulp novels of Peter Cheyney.
There are multiple references to Nazi Germany: the numbers tattooed on the seductresses’ backs; the elevator button “SS” (a pun, the first letters of the French words for sub basement).
Alpha 60 extensively quotes / paraphrases Borges’s essay “A New Refutation of Time.” which concludes: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.”
Alpha 60 as it is dying: “For our misfortune, the world is a reality. And I, for my misfortune, I am myself…Alpha 60.”
I wonder if it’s even possible to introduce younger people to this movie? When I first saw Citizen Kane a mere 30 years after it was made, the world it portrayed was not unimaginably remote. Now Kane is a senior citizen of 75, and Alphaville solidly middle-aged at 50. You can play the Ramones for a kid and explain why it’s different from the music it came out of, but is that really possible to communicate without all the surrounding cultural context? You can tell a kid how the Beatles were different from anything that had come before, and they might look at you politely. But the statement, standing in the air like Elmer Fudd when he’s walked off the cliff but doesn’t know it, doesn’t mean anything all by itself. Is it possible to bring new people into this conversation, or is the burden of context impossible to meet?
Alphaville is 50. Its young Turk director is 85, only 15 years younger than Welles would be (“And Charles Foster Kane—is he dead?”). One of Welles’s great themes is the diminishment of humanity by mechanization, one of many commonalities of the two great cinematic bomb throwers. Alphaville’s rigor, romanticism, and exaltation of poetry and feeling, its bounty of cinematic and literary references and allusions spilling out willy-nilly, have not grown stale. It hasn’t just held up, it looks better and better—smarter, wilder, and more intemperately romantic than ever. Beyond the era of its release and Godard’s reign as the darling of the avant-garde, Alphaville abides.
Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, DVD, available at Amazon
Alphaville, soundtrack by Paul Misraki, available at Amazon
The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, by Wheeler Winston Dixon, available at Amazon
Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, by Richard Brody, available at Amazon
Alphaville, review by James Travers, retrieved at filmsdefrance.com, http://www.filmsdefrance.com/FDF_Alphaville_1965_rev.html
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard,” Sight and Sound,Summer 1972, retrieved at jonathanrosenbaum.net, http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1972/07/theory-and-practice-the-criticism-of-jean-luc-godard/
Michael Benedikt, essay on Paul Eluard and surrealism in Alphaville; an earlier version was included in Jean-Luc Godard: A Critical Anthology (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968), http://michaelbenedikt.tripod.com/godard.html
Connor Martin Smith, blog post on Truffaut vs. Godard, http://connormartinsmith.blogspot.com/2010/06/truffaut-vs-godard.html
Colin MacCabe, video introduction to Alphaville, retrieved on YouTube, http://youtu.be/Dprq-z1_QYE
blog post “tarzan vs. ibm,” by Bernard Vehmeyer, retrived at brnrd.net, http://www.brnrd.net/blog/archive/2008/01/21/tarzan-vs-ibm
This Is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich
I’m proud to be a participant in this year’s Film Preservation Blogathon, sponsored by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff to read, so head on over… Also, please donate whatever you can for this year’s worthy project (handy link below): We’re supporting the National Film Preservation Foundation’s restoration of Cupid in Quarantine (1918), a one-reel comedy about a young couple who hope to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak. Thank you kindly for your support!