Coming from the French new wave cinema, Alphaville presents a tale of a dark future where love and emotion have lost their meaning.
Jean-Luc Godard’s film noir/science-fiction film Alphaville is probably more appropriate a film in 2019 then it was in 1965. Dealing with themes of oppression, totalitarianism and the meaning of existence, the film challenges the audiences perceptions of reality and opens up new avenues for them to think about.
Described as a new wave science-fiction film noir classic, Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville is heavy on tone and atmosphere. It’s unclear what is going on by the trailer. There are women with numbers tattooed on different parts of their bodies. The main character looks like something out of a Bogart film, clutching a cigarette and wearing a trenchcoat. The society they live in may be post apocalyptic, or just fragmented into a new and different caste system, but there are executions being performed at a swimming pool, and some other violent actions by the police or some authority figures. I have never seen this film before and get the heavy sense of a film noir, which is pretty clear, as well as some tonal elements of the 90s sci-fi film Dark City. It will be interesting to look at this non-American sci-fi film with fresh eyes.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Alphaville follows the adventures of Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), whom we find out later is a secret agent sent to the city of Alphaville. A hard-boiled tough looking guy, Lemmy arrives under the pseudonym of Ivan Johnson, a reporter for the Figaro-Pravda newspaper. He checks into his hotel and escorted to his room by a seductress, third class named Beatrice (Christa Lang). She strips off her clothes and gets in his bathtub, but he is not interested in her and tells her to leave.
A thug shows up in the room and Lemmy beats him up, shooting after him as he races out of the room. Lemmy shuttles Beatrice out of the room and begins looking at two photographs in his notebook. One is of Leonard von Braun (Howard Vernon). The communicator rings and a deep basso voice tells him that Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina) is on her way up to see him. She has orders from the authorities to be at his service while he’s in Alphaville. He promises to meet up with her later for a big party in one of the ministry buildings, but first he has to visit a friend.
The friend is Henry Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), the man pictured in Lemmy’s second photograph. Natacha gives Lemmy a ride to his meeting, where he discovers she does not know what the word “love” means. She continues to remind Lemmy that he must check in at Civil Control as soon as possible. Lemmy finds Dickson at a dingy hotel where he is staying. It appears that Dickson used to work with Lemmy but they lost track of him after he was sent to assassinate Leonard von Braun. Dickson provides some rambling answers before having a heart attack.
Lemmy takes a cab to the Institute of General Semantics to meet Natacha. Here is introduced to Alpha-60, the computer that runs the entirety of Alphaville. The basso voice, which is prominent everywhere he goes, is the voice of this computer. Alpha-60 is giving a lecture on how words lose their meaning, and his eradication of free thought. Natacha takes Lemmy to the Ministry of Dissuasion where they watch a number of men being shot while standing around a swimming pool. Natacha tells him they behaved illogically and are being put to death by the government.
Seeing a man that looks like Professor von Braun, Lemmy approaches him to talk – calling him Mr. Nosferatu – but the professor says that man no longer exists. A group of bodyguards grab Lemmy and beat him up, taking him to Civil Control to be questioned by Alpha-5, a sub-circuit of Alpha-60. The questions range from basic demographic information to strange cryptic philosophical ones. In the end Alpha-5 realizes Lemmy is hiding something but cannot detect what it is.
Lemmy is taken to the control complex for Alpha-60 and asked to participate in an attack on the Outer Countries, where he is supposedly from. When he asks “why,” they tell him that there is no “why,” only “because.” Lemmy returns to his hotel room, where Natacha is waiting for him. They discuss the meaning of the word love, and Lemmy comes to understand that certain words have been outlawed. There is a “Bible” in every room which he recognizes as a dictionary. Words are removed often. Natacha says that some of her favorite words have been removed lately including “Redbreast,” “weeping,” “autumn light,” & “tenderness.” They also cannot find the word “conscience.”
Lemmy continues his mission, returning to Civil Control and killing Professor von Braun. Alpha-60, realizing that Lemmy has infected the city with his emotion, enacts a failsafe protocol and kills many of the citizens of Alphaville. Those that aren’t killed are driven mad. Lemmy finds Natacha, who he’s fallen in love with, and drives her out of town, saving her life. She knows he’s waiting for her to say something, but she doesn’t know the words. She elicits his help, but he says he can’t save her. Suddenly the words come to her, and she says “I love you,” as they drive away from Alphaville.
“The meaning of words and of expressions, is no longer grasped. An isolated word, or a detail of a design can be understood. But the meaning of the whole escapes.” – Alpha-60
History in the Making
Alphaville is unequivocally the most challenging film to appear on Sci-Fi Saturdays so far. Where previous films have hinted at the human condition, or toyed around with one or two thematic ideas, Jean-Luc Godard’s film is so packed full of meaning that it would take several blog posts to fully understand this movie. It’s also a foreign film, and for someone who doesn’t speak fluent French, it’s also a challenge to keep up with the film’s breakneck pace.
In similar fashion to La Jetée, Alphaville is a film from the French new wave period. It rejects modern film conventions and stretches the boundaries of narrative expression, editing, and visual style. At times, when the editing is standard sort of shot/reverse shot, the dialog between characters flows off into a stream of consciousness type mode. Other times, when the plot is being discussed in voice-over, random shots of the city, or signage takes place. This is definitely a film that demands the viewer’s attention when watching it.
Alphaville also breaks some boundaries by melding film and genre styles into a new structure. Film noir is a style that has been around since the 1920s, having stemmed from German Expressionism, but ultimately found its footing in America in the 30s and 40s with films such as The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Many French new wave films, and especially those of Godard featured heavy reliance on the thematics of film noir. These usually include being shot in black and white (but not limited to it), high contrast lighting with deep shadows, tough male characters, femme fatales, and a plot usually resolving around crime or mystery. Godard took these aesthetics and combined them with elements of science-fiction such as futurism, dystopia and the loss of self, to create a brilliant new style of film that feels and looks like nothing else before it.
Dealing with the theme of control, Alphaville creates a world in which the protagonist is ever present. Alpha-60’s voice is everywhere, just as it is everywhere; from the voice on the communicator, to the voice telling people if certain cubicles are occupied. The computers omnipresence paints a frightening future in which humans are salves to the machine. The logic and reason that Alpha-60 exudes comes into stark contrast with human emotion, creating a bleak and dystopian future.
Lemmy’s mission to stop Alpha-60 and kill Professor von Braun must come from some other group; a resistance in the Outer Countries. Von Braun was exiled when he was still known as Professor Nosferatu, to a village in the desert. A village that he created Alphaville from. His perfect idea of society. Godard equates von Braun and Alpha-60 throughout the film. Besides Lemmy’s photo of the professor, there are framed photos of him around the town; in the hotel, the ministry buildings, on the streets. His visage is as omnipresent as Alpha-60’s voice.
While Alphaville may be one of the first sci-fi films to deal with totalitarian themes, it was by no means anything new for the genre as a while. Writers had been writing about oppressive states, and dictatorial dystopia for many years by the time Godard got to the party. The film feels like a mix of styles from George Orwell, Willam S Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick, even though Dick’s career would occur after the release of this film. Alpha-60 alone feels like an influence for HAL, the deranged computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the titular machine in Colossus: The Forbin Project.
Drawing strongly from themes in George Orwell’s 1984, Alphaville creates an oppressive state where love has been outlawed, and free-speech has been stifled. This totalitarian regime run by a sentient computer might not seem that cutting edge to modern audiences, but in the mid-60s this was a very strong statement. Tonally, this film was ahead of its time, creating a work that potentially influenced future creators. Example of films with similar themes or tones include include George Lucas’ totalitarian society THX-1138, and the film noir style Ridley Scott used in Blade Runner. Quite a few musical artists were also influenced by the film including Bryan Ferry, The Cranberries, and (obviously) a German synthpop band called Alphaville.
Alphaville’s main theme is about control over the individual. With Alpha-60 controlling the words the population has to choose from, and using propaganda and indoctrination of the individual, it can essentially control the populace. It is a state that is approaching the logic and predictability of a computer. A state where love and emotion have completely disappeared. Godard expresses his distaste for this lifestyle with the introduction of Lemmy Caution. Lemmy, who’s a hard-boiled, emotional, man’s man. He drinks, he’s illogical, he shoots first and asks questions later. He’s the exact element that Alpha-60 is trying to keep out of the society. Arriving unexpectedly, Lemmy is the one monkey wrench in all the carefully crafted plans of Professor von Braun.
Emotional responses are a natural part of human interactions. The removal of words such as “love” or “conscience” in a society also removes these concepts from that society. Without love, there can be no connection between people. Without a conscience, there is no concept of morality or ethics. One of the men that was killed by the firing squad was said to have wept at the death of his wife. This is the illogical behavior that Alpha-60 condemns. The repetition that these words have been removed is part of the core thematic issue in the film. How can an idea be expressed if no word exists for that idea? Natacha mentions some of her favorite words have been removed recently. Obviously, she still remembers these words, but no new generation will learn them. These particular words express other emotional aspects of humanity, including beauty, that Alpha-60 wants purged.
There are some additional philosophical statements that get posited in Alphaville by Alpha-60. These statements, among others, are Alpha-60’s way to indoctrinate and brainwash the citizens to its cause. Statements like, “No one has lived in the past and no one will live in the future. The present is the form of all life,” eliminate the wants of the individual, while other statements such as, “Once we know the number one we believe that we know the number two because one plus one equals two. We forget that first we must know the meaning of plus,” shows the individual that their logic is flawed. Only Alpha-60 has the correct answers.
This brings in the most important piece of propaganda that Alpha-60 dictates. It is something that many characters repeat to Lemmy throughout the film, including Natacha. “No one ever says ‘why’; one says ‘because.’” The society has a phrase to prevent individuals from asking questions. A perfect tool to control the masses. Of course, Lemmy asks “why” all the time. His constant questioning and Alpha-60’s inability to turn his thought patterns is the one fatal flaw in the plan. The emotional infection that places within Natacha leads to the eventual downfall of this society.
The Science in The Fiction
Godard uses several visual motifs to help underscore the battle between logic and love. Interspersed between footage are a number of scientific equations including E=hf and E=mc2. These are shown scrawled on cabinets, or in neon tubing and represent Alpha-60’s control in the city. The repetition of these equations is there to remind the audience the full and total power this computer wields.
Some of the other repetitive montage cuts interspersed throughout the film include items that are opposites: neon signs for “North” and “South,” strobing lights (light and dark), and in the final fight and chase some of the footage is shown in negative (positive and negative). These shots appear to indicate the conflict imposed by Lemmy in Alphaville. His illogic vs Alpha-60’s logic. His love and emotion, vs the cold reasoning of the computer.
Godard also contrasts Lemmy’s style of dressing as opposition to the machine. He wears a trenchcoat and hat, which seem very out of place in Alphaville. The contrast is even greater when he is brought to Alpha-60’s mainframe. The lab technicians are all dressed in white lab coats. The environment is very futuristic and sterile. Yet Lemmy is still dressed in his ‘common clothes,’ slouching over the countertop, asking the question of “why.”
The Final Frontier
This film is very difficult to discuss without describing the full text of the film. There’s so much nuance in editing, and exposition in dialog that it’s almost impossible to do justice. One such minor element is Lemmy’s initial description of Natacha. He says that “her smile and her small, pointed teeth reminded me of the old vampire films the sort they used to show at cinerama museums.” Later he refers to her father as Professor Nosferatu, a vampire character from a 1922 German film by F.W. Murnau. This linkage is an example of Godard trying to relate some of the horrors of the father with the daughter and an example of the depth that this film goes to.
Alphaville is a film like no other. It contains complex cinematic and philosophical ideas, mashes up several genres and film styles, and drastically pushes the envelope of sci-fi cinema for the mid-60s.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.