Film of the Week: Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero

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Jean-Luc Godard has always incorporated the history of Western art and politics in his films, beginning with À bout de souffle (1960) where Humphrey Bogart and Charles De Gaulle both were re-purposed as critical tools of their respective hegemonies. Godard’s dual interests would continue to wax and eventually lead to a radical shift in his aesthetics, not once but twice. The first was in his collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin under the Dziga-Vertov group between 1968 and 1972; the second and more impressive of the two came after once he began to experiment with video as well as more directly exploring the relationship between film and various other arts through a historical lens. Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero (1991) is one of these films. Eddie Constantine reprises his role as Lemmy Caution, and the film centers on his journey from East to West Berlin, following the wall’s collapse. Incorporating various film clips, WWII photography, literature, music and sounds, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero can be viewed as Godard’s attempt to understand just what the “west” is with Caution serving as the figure through which Godard moves through time. He, for example, juxtaposes Caution observing two women leaving a hotel with a similar scene from F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924). In another scene, Caution likens a couple at a car dealership to siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, members of the White Rose resistance group who were executed by the Nazis. To try and map out Godard’s references would be a mistake; rather, the importance lies in how Godard reworks references in order to create new meaning. In the case of Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero, Godard’s references are ways to engage with and understand the present not just through a German past, but a German past concerning, once again, art and politics, and thus figures such as Mozart and Lang play key roles. At one point in the film, Caution speaks of meeting with ghosts; the appearance of historical and literary characters here recall Week End (1967), but unlike Week End, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero is not a wryly-playful pastiche. It’s a haunting meditation on the evils of Nazi Germany, but also of late-capitalism’s potential to subsume everything. When a street vendor cries that he’s selling pieces of the Berlin wall and to “come get history,” Godard makes it clear that nothing is truly free.

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