The place of images in the writing of history



Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Hobswan and Marc Ferro in "Histoire Parallèle”.

For twelve years from 1989, Marc Ferro presented the program every week Parallel History on the Franco-German broadcaster La Sept (after Art), that emerged at that moment of the collapse of the European communist countries and the expansion of communication technologies, marking through this significant cultural bond - the creation of a common television station -, a new stage in the relations between the two traditionally enemy countries.

Initially presented by Marc Ferro and the German historian Klaus Wenger, the broadcast was based on the consecutive presentation of newsreels from the Second World War that had been shown to the French and German populations fifty years before. Initially conceived in four broadcasts, it lasted 12 years, thanks to its repercussion with the public. Throughout this period, the newsreel remained the base document for the discussions initiated by the two historians, and later by Ferro and his guests: different specialists or witnesses from the various countries involved in the war.

The 52-minute weekly programs were filled with 40 minutes of current affairs. The images predominated over the comments. The newsreels, initially shown in full, are now interspersed with comments from the participants, due to their length. The program aired between September 1989 and June 2001, totaling 633 broadcasts. From September 1995, with the end of the war in the current events of 1945, the program adopts a thematic format covering the post-war period to the European Union, including two programs about Brazil.

As in many of the audiovisual works that Ferro has been producing since the pioneering documentary Trente ans d'histoire : La Grande Guerre, 1914-1918 de 1964, Parallel History was founded on archival documents, the newsreels, which served and continued to serve for the historian to write in images, as well as in his written reflections, the history of the XNUMXth century that came to be shared over those years by a wide audience, which could have access to these audiovisual elaborations on television.

The newsreel, “the passing of the world printed on film”, a genre that dates back to the 1910s and will develop until the 1970s, is the serial derivation of the construction that transforms facts into spectacular events and mixes with equal weight, even if ordered hierarchically , politics, the fact divers, fashion and sports, its main themes. Propaganda and, above all, the credibility effect of the images are an intrinsic part of the genre and its elaboration. And it is mainly around this effect that naturalizes the construction of the images that centered many of the comments that it is possible to observe in Histoire Paralléle.

At first, the full screening of the two newsreels provoked dialogue, triggered memory, emotions, surprise. It led to reflection on the construction of consecrated historical narratives: what each country emphasized about common facts, how they were organized, their thematic chain, the cinematographic rhetoric that nourished them: the filmic construction, the voice off, the musical background. The war was seen, reviewed and relived by many, which provoked reactions. With an intensity attested by spectators' letters – positively or negatively –, the broadcast became a public and socialized exercise in an inclusive understanding of the story.

It was about remembering, remembering, and inserting memory not only in history, a conflict that guided the historiography of the 1990s, but putting oneself in the place of the other. Participate in the joint construction of another historiographic perspective, which was being woven week by week by formerly opposing populations. The newsreels seen or reviewed by the public became, in this operation, accessible and shared documents in an extensive and significant dissemination with an average audience of around one million and two hundred thousand spectators, which made Parallel History the highest-rated program on the network.

Furthermore, between 1989 and 1995, the dialogue between what happened during the war and current events was very significant. He began by affirming the program's own historiographical conception, which contradicted the unique national view of the facts. This new vision corresponded, it should be emphasized, to the conception of the channel itself, directed at the time by another historian, Georges Duby.

The images of the Nazi victories, the occupation of the defeated countries until their liberation and the division of the world between the two new powers that imposed themselves – USSR and USA – helped to understand the changes in the European map of the 1990s, the process of shattering of the communist countries and communism, the reunification of Germany. Parallel History it thus became part of the reality that was being constructed in Europe and within the new geopolitical balance that it configured in a globalized world. Would it be possible to repeat the same format today with a large audience from both countries, with such an inclusive look at the other? Undoubtedly, Parallel History it also became an expressive document about the new design of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the then optimistic relations that seemed to shape in the imaginary, aspects of globalization and the technological revolution.

The exhibition of the programs on the 2nd. War on September 30, 1995, the chronological axis of presentation of events week by week, seen from the different focuses of the dispute, ceases to make sense and is replaced by a bias that is still chronological, but now thematic, maintaining, however, the parallelism of views from different countries in focus, as the main device for displaying current affairs.

The new clip focuses on issues such as “Women's Emancipation”, significantly the first program of the new series, or the emergence of Third World countries, expanding the program's reach territories for the European gaze, now occupied with the decolonization movements. The reconstruction of Europe, the emergence of the Cold War, the Scramble for Palestine, McCarthyism in the United States, the apartheid in South Africa or the formation of the European Union are some of the hundreds of issues that make up the new agenda that follows in his vision, always in parallel and synchronic, until "From Hitler's Europe to Tomorrow's Europe" (From l'Europe d'Hitler à l'Europe de demain) in 1st. September 2001, the last theme that tied the series from beginning to end.

Observing these themes and what they contributed, it is clear that they were driven by past events in close connection with the significant current events of their elaboration. This is the case of Latin America, for example: on program 324, shortly after the format change, the renowned Brazilian writer and former communist militant Jorge Amado is invited to address Brazilian democratization since the fall of then dictator Getúlio Vargas in 1945 until the recent election for president of sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1995.

Less than commenting on the images of the Brazilian newsreels shown, including images from the Department of Press and Propaganda, for example, Ferro interrogates the writer about his communist militancy past and his disappointments. They embark on Brazilian culture, the meaning of Cinema Novo and post-military re-democratization (1964-1985).

Amado's panorama, answering Ferro's questions, practically skips the images presented, speaks of the hopes with the then newly elected and arrives at the consecrated and reiterated construction on the successful Brazilian miscegenation, so much to the taste of the country's intellectual elites and of Brazil's charisma abroad and which, fortunately, is no longer able to mask and naturalize the persistent and deep-rooted social and racial inequality in Brazil.

Culminating, images of Carnival in the final signs. Parallel History, as can be seen from this example, when addressing themes anchored in the past and in newsreels, but which seek to have a longer reach, and depending on the interviewee, it was not immune to the crystallized cultural and historical imaginary that the holders of culture and politics build on themselves, and that the hegemonic countries, including the intellectuals, like and help to perpetuate.

Throughout most of these programs – there were 323 until the end of the war and 310 of the thematic axis –, the observation of a significant part of them showed that the images were seen, first of all, as documents about what they brought about the historical issues in question. Most university professors, journalists, politicians, survivors or personalities from different countries focused first of all on the informative content of the images. Few other than Ferro have focused on the images themselves, their construction, objectives and effects on the audience.

Despite the program always bringing together, even in the second phase, where the themes led to a chronological deepening, very significant filmic documents, they were rather informative for their content, but little explored as constructed images, worth the originality of what they exhibited, as can be seen see, among others, the program on “The Partition of Palestine”, which gathered precious documents such as a silent newsreel from 1921, in which Winston Churchill manifested himself in favor of the Balfour Declaration that promised “a Jewish home” to the Jews installed there, cinematographic documents of the UN on the Partition session in 1947 with the different speeches of the Arab leaders against the measure, to reach 1997, in the actuality of the program, approaching the interminable conflict with the comments of Jacques Derogy.

Sometimes, filmmakers who addressed the war in their films and formulated their visions of history in images also intervened in broadcasts, such as the German director Helma Sanders-Brahms, the Frenchman Henri Alekan or the Italian Carlo Lizzani. However, it was mainly in the second period that cinema also became a specific theme with: Your majesté Eisenstein is dying ou Triomphe du neo-réalisme italien with the participation of historian Pierre Sorlin, or Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov in Un cinéaste et l'histoire. Director Théo Angelopoulos spoke about La Grèce versus la guerre civile. Film historian Freddy Buache commented Le cinema s'en va-t-en guerre and journalist Alain Riou who commented Cinema 51, also attended the program.

However, it was certainly with the presence of Jean-Luc Godard and the English historian Eric Hobsbawn commenting “About and about the 1st. of May 1950” (Autour et à propos du 1º. May 1950), in 2000, that the relations between the image and the writing of history were the most tense. What was at stake in the debate was the writing of history and its forms, which led the program to also question who is a historian. That is, is it possible to consider the one who reflects on his time and history through or with images a historian? And from this arises another question also present in the program: is it possible to write history from the XNUMXth century onwards without moving images?

Godard, Ferro, Hobsbawm

It was Jean-Luc Godard who sought out the production of Parallel History: wanted to participate in a program with Hobsbawn, which, however, was not foreseen: it was a misunderstanding on the part of the filmmaker who confused the program with a debate between the English historian and Marc Ferro about the book The Age of Extremes which had finally been released in France at that point. But the desire of the filmmaker who wanted to meet the British historian seemed like a good idea for the production, which found it interesting to include him, a program with two interviewees, which was exceptional.

The meeting was meaningful but tense. The English historian seemed cornered by the questioning filmmaker's observations. However, what marked this program was the clear explanation of two perspectives, something rarely seen in Parallel History. That of the historian for whom the image is not essential to understand, write and disseminate history. On the other, a filmmaker who writes history through images and for whom the understanding of the world necessarily passes through them, which would be like “the crystal of the total event” according to Walter Benjamin. Between the two, as a mediator of the two looks, in this encounter/confrontation, Marc Ferro, who recognizes the citizenship of both for historiography.

scene from the studio Parallel Histories. Program images.

In Hobsbawn's presentation referring to the age of extremes, Ferro observes that “he gives us an account of history and its mechanisms”. Of Jean-Luc Godard addressing Hobsbawn, he points out: “He is complementary and inverse. He does not give us an account of the mechanisms of history, but creates individual situations that allow us to understand how this happens. Situations for people to understand what happens when you don't tell them what happens in the story. It is by not telling the story that he makes us understand the story. You two complement each other, and in common they show us that we are powerless in the face of the course of history. We want to act, but we fail, hence the disillusionment of Hobsbawn, a former Marxist”.

Godard watches suspiciously. Based on the basic proposition made by Ferro, and remembering that “we are inversely complementary”, Godard enacts the difference between them. Pointing to the center of the table, he suggests “making a plan of the covers of our two books.

There is a title and what is conventionally called an image.

Then we open the books. In Hobsbawn's there is only text”. Next to it, a book by the filmmaker, with text and many images. “Two ways of telling the story”, he points out.

How is it possible to reflect on history without images? This astonishment of Godard is at the heart of the program and ideas developed by Ferro in his works. How was it possible, as Godard would later say, to write and publish “tons and tons of texts about history” without taking images into account? How is it possible to make a history book without images is Godard's central point, his interrogation and astonishment. And what story is this? This question was a violent and unprecedented movement in the program, which intimidates Hobsbawn in the face of an incisive Godard because he is displeased.

Godard is dissatisfied with the historian. He is known as the one who interrogates. For him, the writing of history must be the common point between these instances, the text and the image. According to Godard: “The text and the word must also come from the image. If the word does not come from the image, or does not take it as a reference, it is about the image or about something else. It is text over text. Something is missing”. Hobsbawn is baffled. To this initial provocation, Godard adds his point of view as a filmmaker so that in the discussion about the newsreels of the 1st. May 1950, the images and their form gain greater prominence over the speech, the text.

The look on the newsreels

The first newsreel shown, the Russian one, portrays a gigantic military parade in Red Square. The camera is divided between the floor where weapons and regime supporters parade, many of them coming from various parts of the world with their typical costumes and their enthusiasm.

In counter-diving, on a platform high and far from the public, Stalin and other serious leaders wave to the crowd. Asked by Ferro about what he saw in these images, Godard explains that he does not intend to say what he saw, but rather what they tell him, “as if he were in a morgue in front of what is dead” and observes: “the crowd is relatively happy , behaved; the leaders are sad, the crowd waves as if waving their hands goodbye to a train”, in contrast to the sadness of the leaders “who make more or less the same gestures as they used to do in Germany.

There's music everywhere." In his view from the construction of the film, the protesters appear as obedient children assisted by responsible parents. Hobsbawn comments on the reality underlying the images, pointing out the strategies of the Russian Communist Party. The great filmed spectacle reveals to him the contradiction between the staging of armed power and the peace speeches common to Cold War rhetoric. The enthusiasm of the international delegations that followed one after another before the severe gaze of the parent-leaders is commented on by Godard: “we can say that they believe. There was hope.”

Hobsbawn, recalling the off-field, clarifies that at that moment, for the first time after the war, Stalin and communism had been internalized by the Russian people through war and victory. “You are right – he says to Godard – it was a sincere manifestation!” The three specialists, however, escaped the focus on filming enthusiastic foreigners who, in general, were kept at a distance from what was happening in the country. The image of the spectacle is really seductive.

The American newsreel follows, showing the heterogeneity of the 1st. of May in the United States. As will be seen in the French newsreel, the newsreels of the two countries focus on manifestations of different political tendencies. The American does not fail to point out the insignificance and failure of the communist demonstration – not confirmed by the image – which even generates confusion with a violent attack by young opponents. The image is one of chaos: “Manhattan doesn't have a heart on the left” says the narrator. On the contrary, in the next plane, the orderly stop of the Loyalty Day, manifestation, as Eric Hobsbawn points out, very far from the original Labor Day and originating in the United States.

It was now a demonstration of workers, students and, above all, Eastern European immigrants fleeing communism, an occasion to demonstrate their loyalty to American freedom and democracy. The parade features “Cosacos contra o communismo”, or floats with religious images and the narrator informs: “They pray for the return of communists to God”. If in the communist parade the narrator speaks of 4 thousand participants, in the second there were 5 million!

As Hobsbawn rightly observes, “it is not a matter of current affairs, but simply an ideological document, a McCarthyist document on the Cold War: in the United States there are no communists, communism is an anomaly as can be seen from the images”. Godard, however, does not see anything specific in this newsreel since, as so many others similar to the left or right proceed, “the words overlap the images and anything can be said”. Image manipulation by discourse. Ferro recalls the hysteria of that moment when, among others, the situation in Korea was getting worse, China had joined communism. Faced with the strangeness of Loyalty Day taking the place of workers' day, Ferro recalls that in the parade it was the representatives of the various nationalities that made up the Soviet Union and its various satellites who were responsible for the most inflammatory anti-Soviet speeches in the United States. Godard watches the information exchange with interest.

In the French film, the communist manifestation is expressive, but, in the image, the attention is divided with the tribute to the workers – originally created during the Vichy regime – by President Charles De Gaulle. “A new tradition is established”, says the narrator. Respondent comments are quick and content-centric. Ferro is more interested in the East German newsreel that comes next.

This is the best-crafted film from a cinematographic point of view: rhythmic and with a strong emphasis on music, as was also the case during the war with similar Nazis. In the images that start in the morning with a radiant sun in the sky, windows are opened where red flags are placed. On the street you can see the movement of people of all ages who leave their homes in groups and gather. Some carry posters, others carry musical instruments. The images compose a festive, happy encounter, in which the expressive political connotation is intensified by the music.

The cinematic quality is reminiscent of pre-1945 German news. There is rhythm, dramatic build-up, emotion. In the demonstration, workers from East Germany – free, according to the phrase – and from West Germany who “have to resist the heel of North American imperialism” parade. The newsreel is extensive, detained and includes several stages of the parade that passes in front of the authorities, like what was seen in Praça Vermelha, with the difference that, on this platform and in the parade, participants and authorities, in addition to foreign representatives express joy, they clap.

You can even hear the sound of part of a speech, which you haven't seen in any other newsreel. Workers at the DEFA studios with their cameras gain emphasis, as do other professional categories, such as the police, who “parade with the workers”, or actors from the Berliner Ensemble. Songs follow each other accompanying the images, some with a strong militant content in their lyrics; The International is used at the moment when the images show workers from West Berlin joining the parade, thus marking, according to the locution, the failure of the event on the West side.

The culmination of the demonstration focused on slogans such as solidarity, and the same speech of pacifism as in the USSR, doves are released and fill the image with their message, while the narrator speaks in the hope of a united Germany. The beautiful East German anthem closes this carefully crafted film.

Despite its extreme elaboration, elaboration expressed in the organization itself and in the narrative and dramatic chaining of the party and of the film itself, Hobsbawn, in his observation about this newsreel, speaks rather of sadness when seeing the film – sadness for the penury that was then experienced in the country – and notes the enormous effort involved in preparing the party and the film. Effort “to make believe and to make oneself believe that things were going well and would get better. It was not the time for the optimism that you see in the images”.

Contrary to his remark after viewing the American newsreel, this is not an ideological document for him. Instead, Hobsbawn notes with satisfaction how the parade forms reconnect with the traditions of the labor movement, including the use of militant songs and the discourse of hope. The beauty of the images highlights the talent, the effort, the involvement in the production of the film, but the criticism of its ideological construction is very parsimonious.

Godard, on the other hand, draws attention to the sadness that would surround these leaders who came out of years and years of concentration camps: “There are reasons to be terribly sad and this will last for a long time”. He notes, however, that this “was the only time the camera stopped on faces, on individuality, unlike Russian film which is only propagandistic”. In addition, he points out the similarity with the Russian demonstration in its format. However, in view of the images of Germany at that time, more than criticism, there seems to be on the table of Parallel History consternation and compassion.

In conclusion, addressing the two interlocutors as historians, Ferro takes up the specificity of each of their views and asks them to speak about the present and their perceptions of globalization and the future. Addressing Godard, Ferro points out his prophetic capacity: “he senses the social and cultural devices that will be produced: in the Demon of the Eleven O'Clock (1965) Godard criticizes the consumer society, with the chinese (1967) he warns us about ideological manipulations, showing a story that did not happen, but will happen. Prophet".

Godard, however, explains that it was the characteristics of the New wave that threw him into the present, into the street, into what was happening, because filming the present was forbidden to French cinema at the time and, thus, it did so, even out of a spirit of contradiction. Making movies thrust him into the heart of history. “Cinema allowed me to reflect on reality with images and not with texts. With images I made for a living. And today I wonder what happened 50 years ago that I was not told. I read books, and there aren't that many, and they don't really use pictures and there's tons and tons of text and I don't really know what to do with it."

Hobsbawn refuses to respond to Ferro by making predictions for the future, even though he points to the terrible growing social inequality and damage to the environment, leaving the filmmaker in charge of predictions. “The artist glimpses the future. The true complementarity between historians and artists is there. They can be prophets in a way that I don't understand." It is as a work of art, something that ultimately seems to escape him, that Hobsbawn understands the writing of history through cinema. He remained unaware of the role of the image in the writing of history.

Godard, for his part, expresses his disquiet with the ignorance about what happened, and that tons of text did not enlighten him. The filmmaker returns to perplexity, which is a new, obvious provocation to historians. It means the reaffirmation of the belief from the beginning of his career that cinema “is the truth at 24 frames per second”, pointing to a dimension of history that the image contains and that the text does not cover. What the text repels in the “truth of the image”. Among others, ambiguity.

Less than showing the complementarity of the approaches between the historian and the artist, as Ferro stated, the program was a real clash around the affirmation of the importance of the image in the construction and understanding of history. It made visible the tension inherent to an established and consecrated vision in confrontation with another that, although apparently recognized and instituted, still does not have broad legitimacy and questions the established modes incessantly.

In his last intervention Hobsbawn states that the role of the historian “is not to make prophecies, but to glimpse trends, but how is this expressed? That's another thing. He [pointing to Godard] will do it better than me.” “We're right” replies a satisfied Ferro, who thanks his guests for “this dialogue that personally touched me a lot”.

Ferro ends the program with a broken voice. It would not be an exaggeration to consider that, in this fleeting emotion after a tense debate between a historian and a filmmaker, the public understanding would finally and forcefully contain, and above all before their peers, the legitimacy and extent of their contribution to the understanding of history to be from the XNUMXth century onwards and to contemporary historiography, for the legitimacy it gave to the moving image in history studies.

The provocative presence of a filmmaker/historian that is Jean-Luc Godard subverted the usual dynamics of the program: the images do not function only as visual documents allowing discoveries anchored in the historical knowledge brought by the specialists. Its epistemological role and its anthropological status are also in question.

Faced with a historian like Eric Hobsbawm who, despite his significant contribution to contemporary historical studies, did not take any image as a document in his extensive work, Godard put the historiography of the last 50 years into question through and above all through the image. It was historiography that was dealt with in this program. Hence the tension – almost competition between the interventions of the two guest specialists –, something unprecedented in the program, and that Ferro did nothing to attenuate since that was exactly what he wanted to see addressed there. However, the debate went even further, allowing the question of the mediality of history and historiography to emerge from the discussions. Which explains Marc Ferro's emotion and contentment.

*Sheila Schvarzman is a professor at the Graduate Program in Communication at Universidade Anhembi Morumbi. Author, among other books, of Humberto Mauro and the Images of Brazil (Edunesp).

Originally published in the magazine ArtCulture [ on 10/2018]. It is the Portuguese version of the article L'image en question : Jean-Luc Godard et Eric Hobsbawm sur le plateau d'Histoire parallèle originally published on Revue Théoréme on “Les films de Marc Ferro”, organized by GOUTTE, Martin ; LAYERLE, Sebastien; PUGET, Clement; STEINLE, Matthias. Paris, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2020.

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