with Pascal Bonitzer and Serge Toubiana (Cahiers du Cinema 251-2, July-August 1974)
Lacombe Lucien, The Night Porter, Les Chinois a Paris, Le Trio infernal, etc. These films, whose avowed aim is to rewrite history, are not an isolated phenomenon. They are themselves inscribed into a history, a history in progress; they have - as we are sometimes criticized for saying - a context. This context, in France, is the coming to power of a new bourgeoisie, of a fraction of the bourgeoisie along with its ideology (Giscard, president of all the French; a more-just-andcaring society etc.), its conception of France, and of history. What goes by the name of 'apres-gaullisme' is also an opportunity for the bourgeoisie to rid itself of a certain heroic, nationalist but also anti-Petainist and anti-fascist image, which was still reflected if not by Pompidou, at least by de Gaulle and Gaullism. Chaban's electoral defeat marks the end of this heroic, exaggerated and somewhat grotesque image (cf. Malraux) of recent French history. Something else is beginning to be written and represented: that France wasn't all that anti-fascist, that the French couldn't have cared less about Nazism, that anti-fascism and the Resistance were only ever, precisely, this derisory image of Gaullist 'grandeur' which is now showing its false nose.
What is emerging is a cynical ideology: that of big business, of the multinational and technocratic culture that Giscard represents. The French, it is thought, are ripe for this cynicism (cynicism of the ruling class, disillusionment of the exploited classes): a cynicism illustrated, on the screen, by the phenomenon known as the 'retro style', i.e. the snobbish fetishism of period effects (costumes and settings) with little concern for history.
This false archaeology of history had to be denounced in all its implications and all its effects. A true archaeology had to be - has to be - put in its place: the popular memory of struggles (of all forms of struggle) which has never really been able to speak - which has never had the power to do so - and which must be revived against all the forces which are constantly bent on stifling its on silencing it once and for all.
No one was better placed to situate the guestion and to spell out its implications than Michel Foucault, whose work systematically uncovers what the official text represses, what lies forgotten in the damnable archives of the ruling class. We hope that the interview that follows may open up new avenues of research.
P.B. and S. T.
CAHIERS: Let's take as our starting point the journalistic phenomenon of the 'retro style', One might simply ask: How is it that films like Lacomhe Lucien or The Night Porter are possible today? Why are they so immensely popular? We think there are three levels that ought to be taken into account. First, the political conjuncture. Giscard d'Estaing has been elected. A new type of relation to politics, to history, to the political apparatus is being created, one that indicates very clearly - and in a way that is plain to everyone - the death of Gaullism. We therefore have to see, in so far as Gaullism remains very closely associated with the period of the Resistance, how this manifests itself in the films that are being made. Second, how can bourgeois ideology be mounting an attack in the breaches of orthodox Marxism - call it rigid, economistic, mechanistic , whatever you like - which for a very long time has provided the only grid for interpreting social phenomena? Finally, where do militants fit into all this, since militants are consumers and sometimes producers of films?
What has happened since Marcel Ophuls's film The Sorrow and the Pity is that the floodgates have opened. Something which until then had been completely suppressed, that is to say banned, is being openly voiced. Why?
FOUCAULT: That can be explained, I think, by the fact that the history of the War and what happened before and after the War has never really been inscribed in anything other than wholly official histories. These official histories are basically centred on Gaullism which, on the one hand, Was the only way of writing that history in terms of an honourable nationalism and, on the other hand, was the only way of casting the Great Man, the man of the right and of outdated nineteenth-century nationalisms, in a historical role.
It boils down to the fact that France was exonerated by de Gaulle, and on the other hand the right - and we all know how it behaved at the time of the War - found itself purified and sanctified by de Gaulle. Suddenly the right and France were reconciled in this way of making history: don't forget that nationalism was the climate in which nineteenth-century history (and especially its teaching) were born.
What has never been described is what happened in the very depths of the country from 1936 on, and even from the end of the First World War to the Liberation.
CAHIERS: So, what has perhaps been happening since The Sorrow and the Pity is that the truth is making its return into history. The question is whether it's really the truth.
FOUCAULT: That has to be linked to the fact that the end of Gaullism has put a stop to this justification of the right by de Gaulle and the episode in question. The old Petainist right, the old collaborationist, Maurrasian and reactionary right which camouflaged itself as best it could behind de Gaulle, now considers itself entitled to produce a new version of its own history. This old right which, since Tardieu, had been disenfranchised historically and politically, is coming to the fore again.
It supported Giscard explicitly. It no longer needs to wear a mask, and so it can write its own history. And among the factors that explain Giscard's current acceptance by half the French (plus two hundred thousand), one mustn't forget films like those we're talking about - whatever the film-makers actually intended. The fact that all that has actually been shown has allowed the right to re-form along certain lines. In the same way that, inversely, it's the blurring of the distinctions between the nationalist right and the collaborationist right that has made these films possible. It's all part of the same thing.
CAHIERS; This piece of history is therefore being rewritten both in the cinema and on television, with debates like those on Dossiers de I'ecran (which chose the theme of the French under the Occupation twice in two months). Film-makers considered to be more or less on the left are also apparently involved in this rewriting of history. That's something we have to investigate.
FOUCAULT: I don't think things are that simple. What I was saying a moment ago was very schematic. Let me continue.
There's a real battle going on. And what's at stake is what might be roughly called popular memory. It's absolutely true that ordinary people, I mean those who don't have the right to writing, the right to make books themselves, to compose their own history, these people nevertheless have a way of registering history, of remembering it, living it and using it. This popular history was, up to a point, more alive and even more clearly formulated in the nineteenth century when you had, for example, a whole tradition of struggles relived orally or in texts, songs, etc.
But the fact is that a whole series of apparatuses has been established ('popular literature', cheap books, but also what is taught in school) to block this development of popular memory, and you could say that the project has been, relatively speaking, very successful. The historical knowledge that the working class has about itself is becoming less all the time. When you think, for example, about what the workers knew about their own history at the end of the nineteenth century, and what the tradition of trade unionism - using the term 'tradition' in its full sense - represented up until the First World War, it amounted to something pretty substantial. That has been gradually disappearing. It's disappearing all the time, although it hasn't actually been lost.
Nowadays, cheap books are no longer enough. There are much more efficient channels in the form of television and cinema. And I think the whole effort has tended towards a recoding of popular memory which exists but has no way of formally expressing itself. People are shown not what they have been but what they must remember they have been.
Since memory is an important factor in struggle (indeed, it's within a kind of conscious dynamic of history that struggles develop), if you hold people's memory, you hold their dynamism. And you also hold their experience, their knowledge of previous struggles. You make sure that they no longer know what the Resistance was actually about ...
It's along some such lines, I think, that these films have to be understood. What they're saying, roughly, is that there has been no popular struggle in the twentieth century. This statement has been formulated twice, in two different ways. The first time immediately after the War , when the message was a simple one: 'The twentieth century, what a century of heroes! Churchill, de Gaulle, all those parachute landings, airborne missions, etc.' Which was a way of saying: 'There was no popular struggle, that was the true struggle: But no one, as yet, has said directly: 'There Was no popular struggle.'
The other, more recent way - sceptical or cynical, as you wish - consists in opting for statement pure and simple: 'Well, just look at what happened. Did you see any struggles? Can you see anyone rebelling, taking up arms?'
CAHIERS: There's a kind of rumour that's been going round since, perhaps, The Sarrow and the Pity. Namely: the people of France, in the main, didn't resist, they even accepted collaboration, they accepted the Germans, they swallowed the lot. The question is what that really means. And it does indeed seem that what is at stake is the popular struggle, or rather people's memory of it.
FOUCAULT: Exactly. That memory has to be seized, governed, controlled, told what to remember. And when you see these films, you learn what to remember: 'Don't believe everything you were once told. There are no
heroes. And if there are no heroes, that's because there's no Struggle.' Hence a kind of ambiguity: on the one hand, 'there are no heroes' positively debunks a whole mythology of the war hero in the Burt Lancaster
mould. It's a way of saying: 'War isn't that at al1!' Hence an initial impression that historical untruths are being stripped away: finally we're going to be told why we don't all have to identify with de Gaulle or the members of the Normandy-Niemen mission, etc. But hidden beneath the phrase 'There were no heroes' is another phrase which is the real message-'There was no struggle': That's how the process works.
CAHIERS: There's something else that explains why these films are successful. They make use of the resentment felt by those who did indeed struggle against those who did not. For example, in The Sorrow and the Pity people active in the Resistance see the citizens of a town in central France doing nothing, and recognize this response for what it is. It's their resentment that comes across more than anything; they forget that they struggled.
FOUCAULT: What's politically important, to my mind, more than this or that film, is the the fact that there's a series - the network that's made up of all these films and the place they 'occupy' (no pun intended). In other words, what is important is the question: 'Is it possible, at the present time, to make a film that's positive about the struggles of the Resistance?' And of course you realize that it isn't. The impression you have is that people would find it a bit of a joke, or else, quite simply, that no one would go and see it.
I quite like The Sorrow and the Pity. I don't think it was a bad thing to have done. Perhaps I'm wrong, that's not what matters. What matters is that this series of films corresponds exactly to the fact that it is now impossible - as each of the films emphasizes - to make a film about the positive struggles that may have taken place in France around the time of the War and the Resistance.
CAHIERS: Yes. It's the first thing they say if you criticize a film like Malle's. 'What would you have done instead?' is always the reply. And of course we don't have an answer. The left should be beginning to have a point of view on this, but in fact it has yet to be properly worked out.
Then again, this raises the old problem of how to produce a positive hero, a new type of hero.
FOUCAULT. The difficulties don't revolve around the hero so much as around the question of struggle. Can you make a film depicting a struggle without making the characters into heroes in the traditional sense? It's an old problem: how did history come to speak as it does and to recuperate the past, if not via a procedure which was that of the epic, that's to say, by telling its own story in the heroic mode? That's how the history of the French Revolution was written. The cinema proceeded in the same way. The strategy can always be ironically reversed: 'No, look, there are no heroes, we're all worthless, etc.'
CAHIERS: Let's come back to the 'retro style'. The bourgeoisie has been relatively successful from its own point of view in focusing attention on a historical period (the 1940s) which highlights both its strong and its weak points. For on the one hand that's where the bourgeoisie is most easily unmasked (it laid the ground for Nazism and collaboration), and on the other hand that's where today it tries to justify, in the most cynical way possible, its historical attitude. The problem is: how can we produce a positive account of this same historical period? We - that is, the generation that took part in the struggles of 1968 or Lip. Is this the point on which we should go in and fight, with the idea of possibly, in some way or another, taking the ideological lead? For it's true that the bourgeoisie is on the offensive as well as on the defensive on this question of its recenc history. On the defensive strategically, on the offensive tactically since it has found its strong point, the thing that enables it best co manipulate the facts. But ought we simply - defensively - co be re-establishing the historical truth? Ought we not to be finding the point which, ideologically, would take us into the breach? Is this automatically the Resistance? Why not 1789 or 1968?
FOUCAULT: As far as these films are concerned, I wonder whether something else couldn't be done on the same topic. And by 'topic' I don't mean showing struggles or showing that there were none. What I'm thinking is that its historically true that among ordinary French people there was, at the time of the War, a kind of refusal of war. Now where did that come from? From a whole series of episodes that no one talks about, neither the right because it wishes to hide them, nor the left because it does not want to compromise itself with anything that goes against 'national honour'.
During the First World War, after all, some seven or eight million lads were conscripted. For four years they had a terrible life, they saw millions and millions of people dying around them. Back home in 1920, what did they have to look forward co? A right-wing government, total economic exploitation and finally, in 1932, an economic crisis and unemployment. How could these men, who had been packed into the trenches, still be in favour of war during the decades 1920-30 and 1930-40? In the case of the Germans, defeat rekindled their nationalist instincts, so that this distaste for war was overcome by the desire for revenge. But when all is said and done, people don't like fighting bourgeois wars, with the officers involved, for the gains involved. I believe that was an important phenom_ enon in the working class. And when, in 1940, you have men driving their bikes into a ditch and saying, 'I'm going home', you can't just say, 'What a bunch of cowards' and you can't hide it either. It has co be seen as part of the whole sequence. This disobeying of national orders has to be traced back to its roots. And what happened during the Resistance is the opposite of what we are shown: that's to say that the process of repoliticization, remobilization, the taste for struggle was gradually revived in the working class. It slowly began to revive after the rise of Nazism and the Spanish Civil War. What the films show is the reverse process: after the great dream of 1939, which was shattered in 1940, people just give up. This process did indeed take place, but within another much longer process which was moving in the opposite direction and which, beginning with the distaste for war, ended in the middle of the Occupation with the realization that there had to be a struggle. As for the theme 'There are no heroes, everyone's a coward', you have to ask yourself where it comes from and what it grows out of. After all, have there ever been any films about mutiny?
CAHlERS: Yes. There was Kubrick's film (Paths of Glory), which was banned in France.
FOUCAULT: I believe that this disobedience in the context of national armed struggles had a positive political meaning. The historical theme of Lacombe Lucien's family could be picked up again if taken back to Ypres and Douaumont ...
CAHIERS: Which poses the problem of popular memory, of its own particular sense of time, which doesn't correspond at all to the timing of events like changes of government or declarations of war ...
FOUCAULT: The aim of school history has always been to show how people got killed and how very heroic they were. Look what they did to Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars ...
CAHIERS: A certain number of films , Malle's and Cavani's included, tend to abandon any attempt to deal with Nazism and fascism historically or in terms of the struggle they provoked. Instead of this, or as well as this, they hold another discourse, usually a sexual one. What do you make of this other discourse?
FOUCAULT: But isn't it quite different in Lacombe Lucien and The Night Porter? Personally, I think that in Lacombe Lucien the erotic, passionate aspect has a function that's fairly easy to pinpoint. It's basically a way of reconciling the anti-hero, of saying that he's not as anti-heroic as all that. If all power relationships are indeed distorted by him, and if he renders them ineffective, by contrast, just when you think that for him all erotic relationships are similarly warped, a true relationship is discovered and he loves the girl. On the one hand there is the machinery of power which leads Lucien more and more, from the puncture onwards, towards a kind of madness. And on the other hand there is the machinery of love which seems to be following the same pattern, which seems to be distorted and which, on the contrary, works in the opposite direction and re-establishes Lucien at the end as the beautiful naked boy living in the fields with a girl.
And so there's a kind of fairly facile antithesis between power and love. Whereas in The Night Porter the problem is - in general as in the present conjuncture - a very important one: it's that of the love of power.
Power has an erotic charge. And this brings us to a historical problem: how is it that Nazism, whose representatives were pitiful, pathetic, puritanical figures, Victorian spinsters with (at best) secret vices, how is it that it can have become, nowadays and everywhere, in France, in Germany, in the United States, in all pornographic literature the world over, the absolute reference of eroticism? A whole sleazy erotic imaginary is now placed under the sign of Nazism. Which basically poses a serious problem: how can power be desirable? No one finds power desirable any more. This kind of affective, erotic attachment, this desire one has for power, the power of a ruler, no longer exists. The monarchy and its rituals were made to evoke this kind of erotic relation to power. The great apparatuses of Stalin, and even of Hider, were also created for that purpose. But this has all disintegrated and it's clear that one cannot love Brezhnev or Pompidou or Nixon. It was perhaps possible, at a pinch, to love de Gaulle or Kennedy or Churchill. But what's happening now? Are we not seeing the beginnings of a re-eroticization of power, developed at one derisory, pathetic extreme by the sex shops with Nazi emblems that you find in the United States, and (in a much more tolerable but equally derisory version) in Giscard d'Estaing's attitude when he says, 'We'll march along the streets in suits shaking people's hands, and the kids will have a half-day holiday.' There's no doubt that Giscard fought part of his electoral campaign not just on his physical presence but also on a certain eroticization of his personal self, his elegance.
CAHIERS: That's how he projected himself in an election poster, the one where his daughter is facing him.
FOUCAUlT: That's right. He is looking at France but she is looking at him. Power becomes seductive once again.
CAHIERS: That's something that struck us during the election campaign, especially in the big television debate between Mitterrand and Giscard; they were on quite different territory. Mitterrand seemed like a politician of the old school, belonging to an old-fashioned left. He was trying to sell ideas, themselves dated and slightly quaint, and he did so with great dignity. Giscard on the other hand was selling the idea of power as if he were marketing a cheese.
FOUCAULT: Even quite recently, you had to apologize for being in power. Power had to be erased and not show itself as such. That was, up to a point, how democratic republics functioned: the problem was to render power sufficiently insidious and invisible so that it became impossible to get a hold on what it did or where it was.
Nowadays (and in this de Gaulle played a very important role), power is no longer hidden, it is proud to be there and actually says: 'Love me , because I am power.'
CAHIERS: Perhaps we should speak about the fact that Marxist discourse, as it has been functioning for some time, is somehow unable satisfactorily to account for fascism. Historically speaking, Marxism has accounted for the Nazi phenomenon in an economistic, determinist way, completely ignor_ ing what was specific to the ideology of Nazism. You can't help wondering how someone like Malle, well enough in touch with developments on the left, can play on this weakness, fall into this gap.
FOUCAULT: Marxism defined nazism and fascism as 'the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary fraction of the bourgeoisie'. This is a definition completely lacking in content, and one which lacks a whole series of articulations. What is missing in particular is the fact that Nazism and fascism were made possible only by the existence within the general population of a relatively large fraction willing to take on and be responsible for a certain number of state functions: repression, control, law and order. That, I think, is an important aspect of Nazism. The fact that it penetrated the general population so deeply and that some power was effectively delegated to certain people on the margins. That's where the word 'dictatorship' is both generally true and relatively false. When you think of the power an individual could possess under a Nazi regime from the moment he joined the SS or became a Party member! He could actually kill his neighbour, appropriate his wife and his house! That's where Lacombe Lucien is interesting, because it shows that side well. The fact is that, contrary to what one usually understands by dictatorship, that's to say the power of one individual, in a regime like that the most detestable, but in a sense the most intoxicating, part of power was given to a large number of people. It was the SS man who had the power to kill and to rape ...
CAHIERS: That's where orthodox Marxism breaks down. Because this implies that there has to be a discourse on desire.
FOUCAULT: On desire and on power ...
CAHIERS: That's also where films like Lacombe Lucien and The Night Porter are relatively 'strong'. They can handle a discourse on desire and power in a way that seems coherent.
FOUCAULT: In The Night Porter it's interesting to see how, in Nazism, the power of one man was taken up by many people and put to work. That sort of mock tribunal they set up is fascinating. Because from one angle it begins to look like a psychotherapy group, but in fact its power structure is that of a secret society. It's basically an SS cell that has re-formed, that gives itself legal powers different from and in opposition to the power at the centre. We have to remember how power was dispersed, how it was invested within the population itself, we have to remember this impressive displacement of power that Nazism brought about in a society like German society. It is untrue to say that Nazism was the power of the big industrialists continued in another form. It wasn't the power of the top brass reinforced. It was that too, but only on a certain level.
CAHIERS: Indeed, that's an interesting aspect of the film. But what seemed very questionable to us was that it seemed to be saying: 'If you're a typical SS man, that's how you behave. But if on top of that you have a certain "notion of expenditure", that's the formula for a great erotic adventure.' So the film never abandons the idea of seduction.
FOUCAULT: Yes, it's like Lacombe Lucien in that respect. For Nazism never gave anyone a pound of butter, it never gave anything but power. You have to ask yourself, if this regime was nothing other than a bloody dictatorship, how on 3 May 1945 there were still Germans fighting on to the last drop of blood, if these people were not attached to power in some way. Of course, you have to take into account all the pressures, denunciations ...
CAHIERS: But if there were denunciations and pressures, there must have been people to do the denouncing. How did people get caught up in it all? How were they ever conned by this redistribution of power in their favour?
FOUCAULT: In Lacomhe Lucien, as in The Night Porter, this excessive power that is given to them is converted back into love. It's very clear at the end of The Night Porter, with the recreation around Max, in his room, of a kind of concentration camp in miniature, where he is dying of hunger. There love has converted power, super-power, into total powerlessness. Roughly the same reconciliation occurs, in a sense, in Lacomhe Lucien, where love takes the excess of power by which it has been trapped and converts it inca a rural nakedness miles away from the Gestapo's shady hotel, miles away also from the farm where the pigs are being killed.
CAHIERS: Are we then perhaps beginning to explain the problem you were posing earlier: how is it that Nazism, which was a puritanical, repressive system, is now universally eroticized? Some kind of displacement takes place: a problem which is central and which people don't wish to confront, the problem of power, is bypassed or rather completely displaced towards the sexual. So that this eroticization is really a displacement, a form of repression ...
FOUCAULT: The problem is indeed a very difficult one and it has not perhaps been sufficiently studied, even by Reich. How is it that power is desirable and is actually desired? The procedures through which this eroticization is transmitted, reinforced, and so on, are clear enough. But for it to happen in the first place, the attachment co power, the acceptance of power by those over whom it is exercised, must already be erotic.
CAHIERS: What makes it all the more difficult is that the representation of power is rarely erotic. De Gaulle and Hitler weren't exactly attractive.
FOUCAULT: That's right, and I wonder whether in Marxist analyses one doesn't sacrifice a little too much to the abstract character of the idea of freedom. In a regime like the Nazi regime, it's quite clear that there's no freedom. But not having freedom doesn't mean that you don't have power.
CAHIERS: It's on the level of the cinema and television, television being entirely controlled by power, that historical discourse has the greatest impact. Which implies a political responsibility. It seems to us that people are increasingly aware of it. For some years now, in the cinema, there has been more and more talk of history, politics, struggle ...
FOUCAULT: There's a battle going on for history, around the history that's now in the making, and it is very interesting. People want to codify, to stifle What I have called 'popular memory', and also to propose, to impose a grid for interpreting the present. Until 1968 popular struggles had to do with folk tradition. For some they had no connection at all with anything going on in the present. After 1968 all popular struggles, whether in South America or in Africa, find an echo, a resonance. No longer can this separation, this sore of geographical cordon sanitaire, be established. Popular struggles have become not something that is happening now, but something that might always happen, in our system. And so they have to be set at a distance once again. How? Not by interpreting them directly - you would only lay yourself open to all the contradictions - but by proposing a historical interpretation of popular struggles from our own past, to show that in fact they never took place! Before 1968, it was: 'It won't happen, because it only happens elsewhere'; now it's: 'It won't happen, because it has never happened! Even something like the Resistance, the stuff of so many dreams, just look at it ... Nothing there. An empty shell, completely hollow!' Which is another way of saying: 'In Chile, don't worry, the peasants don't give a damn. In France too: a few troublemakers and their antics won't affect anything fundamental.'
CAHIERS: For us, the important thing when one reacts to that, against that, is to realize that it's not enough to re-establish the truth, to say, about the Maquis for example, 'No, I was there, it didn't happen like that at all!' We believe that to conduct the ideological struggle effectively on the kind of terrain that these films lead into you have to have a wider, more comprehensive system of references - of positive references. For many people, for example, that consists in reappropriating the 'history of France'. It was against this background that we spent some time on Moi, Pierre Riviere . .. because we realized that in the end, and paradoxically, it helped us to explain Lacombe Lucien, that the comparison brought out a number of things. For example, one significant difference is that Pierre Riviere is a man who writes, who commits a murder and who has a quite extraordinary memory. Malle's hero, on the other hand, is presented as a halfwit, as someone who goes through everything, history, the War, collaboration, without building on his experiences. And it's there that the theme of memory, of popular memory, can help us to make the distinction between someone, Pierre Riviere, who uses a language that is not his and is forced to kill to obtain the right to do so, and the character created by Malle and Modiano 8 who proves, precisely by not building on anything that happens to him, that there is nothing worth remembering. It's a pity you haven't seen The Courage of the People. It's a Bolivian film, which was made for the speClfic purpose of providing an exhibit for a dossier. This film, which can be seen everywhere except in Bolivia, because of the regime, is played by those who actually took part in the real-life drama it recreates (a miners' strike and its bloody repression) - they undertake to represent themselves so that no one will forget.
It's interesting to see that, on a minimum level, every film is a potential archive and that, in the context of a struggle, one can take this idea one step further: people put together a film intending it to be an exhibit. And you can analyse that in two radically different ways: either the film is about power or it represents the victims of that power, the exploited classes who, without the help of the cinematographic apparatus, with very little knowledge of how films are made and distributed, take on their own representation, give evidence for history. Rather as Pierre Riviere gave evidence, that's to say, began to write, knowing that sooner or later he would appear before a court and that everyone had to understand what he had to say.
What's important in The Courage of the People is that the demand actually came from the people. It was through a survey that the director first learned of the demand, and it was those who had lived through the event who asked for it to be memorized.
FOUCAULT: The people create their own archives.
CAHIERS: The difference between Pierre Riviere and Lacombe Lucien is that Pierre Riviere does everything to enable us to discuss his history after his death. Whereas, even if Lacombe is a real character or one who might have existed, he is only ever the object of another's discourse. for purposes that are not his own.
There are two things that are successful in the cinema now. On the one hand, historical documents, which have an important role to play. In Toute une vie, for example, they are very important. Or in films by Marcel Ophuls or Harris and Sedouy, when you see Duclos waving his arms about in 1936 and in 1939, these scenes from real life are moving. And on the other hand, fictional characters who, at a given moment in history, compress social relations, historical relations, into the smallest possible space. That's why Lacombe Lucien works so well. Lacombe is a Frenchman under the Occupation, someone very ordinary who stands in a concrete relationship to Nazism, to the countryside, to local government, etc. We have to be aware of this way of personifying history, of bringing it to life in a character, or a group of characters who, at a given moment, stand in a privileged relationship to power.
There are lots of characters in the history of the workers' movement whom we don't know about: lots of heroes in the history of the working class who have been totally repressed. And I believe that something important is at stake here. Marxism doesn't need to make any more films about Lenin, there are more than enough already.
FOUCAULT: What you are saying is important. It's a characteristic of many Marxists today. They don't know very much about history. They spend their time saying that history is being overlooked, but are only capable themselves of commenting on texts: 'What did Marx say? Did Marx really say that?' But that is Marxism if not another way of analysing history itself? In my opinion, the left, France, is not very interested in history. It used to be. In the nineteenth century you could say that Michelet represented the left at a given moment. There was also Jaures, and then a kind of tradition of left-wing, social democratic historians (Mathiez etc.). Today that has virtually dried up. Whereas it could be an impressi"e movement of writers and film-makers. There was of course Aragon and Les Cloches de Bale, which is a very great historical novel. But it doesn't amount to much, if you think of what that could represent in a society whose intellectuals are, after all, more or less steeped in Marxism.
CAHIERS: Film-making brings in something new again in this respect: 'live' history ... What relation do American people have to history, now that they see the Vietnam War every evening on television as they eat their supper?
FOUCAULT: As soon as you begin to see images of war every evening, war becomes utterly accepted. In other words, extremely boring - you would certainly prefer to watch something else. But once it becomes boring, it's accepted. You don't even watch it. So what do you have to do for this news, as it appears on film, to be reactivated as news that is historically important?
CAHIERS: Have you seen Les Camisards?
FOUCAULT: Yes, I liked it a lot. Historically it's beyond reproach. It's a beautiful film, it's intelligent, it explains so much.
CAHIERS: I think that's the direction film-makers should be taking. To come back to the films we were talking about at the beginning, another problem that must be mentioned is the confused response of the far left to certain aspects of Lacombe Lucien and The Night Porter, the sexual aspect especially. How might the right take advantage of this confusion?
FOUCAULT: On this subject of what you call the far left, I don't really know what to think. I'm not even sure whether it still exists. All the same, a huge balance sheet has to be drawn up for the activities of the far left since 1968: the conclusions are negative on the one side and positive on the other. It's true that the far left has been responsible for a whole lot of important ideas in a number of areas: sexuality, women, homosexuality, psychiatry, housing, medicine. It has also been responsible for the diffusion of modes of action-which continues to be important. The far left has been important in the kinds of action it has taken as well as in the themes it has pursued. But there is also a negative balance in terms of certain Stalinist, terrorist, organizational practices. And there is equally a misapprehension of certain currents running wide and deep which have just resulted in thirteen million votes for Mitterrand, and which have always been neglected on the pretext that that was just politicking, party politics. Any number of aspects have been neglected, notably the fact that the desire to defeat the right has for some years, some months, been a very important political factor among the masses. The far left didn't have this desire because its definition of the masses was wrong and because it didn't really understand what it means to want to win. To avoid the risk of having vicrory snatched away it prefers not to run the risk of winning. Defeat, at least, can't be recuperated. Personally, I'm not so sure.
Translated by Annwyl Williams
Cahiers du Cinema /Volume Four: 1973-1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle/Anti-retro/Edited by David Wilson