5 Lessons for Indies From Godard's 'Alphaville'
Godard's masterpiece is a lesson in imagination over budget. Here are five takeaways you can apply to your own work.
Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 film is many things: a science fiction film about a city under the grip of a totalitarian super-computer, the story of a hard-boiled detective, a low-budget experimental piece, and a philosophical meditation on modernity.
The origin of Alphaville lies in Godard's desire to work with French-American actor Eddie Constantine, famous for his portrayal of hard-boiled detective Lemmy Caution in a series of 1950s B-movies. Constantine was similarly enthusiastic about Godard, and during a meeting with a producer, Godard mentioned his idea of putting the Caution character into a science-fiction story like the one featured in Brian Aldiss's novel Non-Stop, about life in a vast spaceship the size of a city. It quickly became apparent that the special effects required would be prohibitively expensive. In looking to create a manageable project, Godard took inspiration from a short that he had contributed to the anthology film RoGoPaG two years earlier, The New World:
In the 20-minute film, an atomic blast has detonated over Paris, leaving the city untouched but changing the behavior of everyone except the protagonist. When the media denies that the blast has had any effect, he begins to write down his observations. Making this film paved Godard's way for Alphaville, and here's five takeaways from the classic that you can still take inspiration from today:
1. You Don't Have to be "Original" to be Original
Though it is full of philosophical and metaphorical concepts that had preoccupied him since the beginning of his career, Alphaville is a genre film (in fact, it is three: sci-fi, film noir, and western). It is also a straightforward narrative. The plot revolves around Constantine's character, Lemmy Caution, who drives his Ford Galaxy into the mysterious city of Alphaville from "The Outlands", tasked with finding his predecessor, who was supposed to capture the scientist, Dr. VonBraun, behind Alpha 60, a hyper-logical computer that runs the city and its inhabitants. Citizens are executed for the sin of being illogical, there is no love (though, like in Brave New World, emotionless sex is plentiful) and everyone denies that there is a past or future, only a present.
Caution breaks the rules by taking photographs to capture the past and, in a classic Hollywood genre convention, falls in love with the daughter of the man he comes to kill, VonBraun. Godard said that one of his biggest inspiration was The Searchers, the classic John Ford western. Although he was clearly influenced by many sources, the end result is wholly unique.
2. Use What You Have
Every story a society tells is in essence a myth about itself, whether set in the past, present, or beyond. In the case of Alphaville, Godard used the city of Paris as his future metropolis. As the director said, "we are already living in the future." To that end, he shot the film in contemporary Paris, with no special "futuristic" sets or effects. According to the film's distributor, Rialto Pictures, it was "filmed in the studios of French national radio, in the vast computer research complex of Bull (with its spinning reels of magnetic tape and the consoles of blinking lights of a powerful new computer called Gamma 60), in the new modern office and residential complex of La Défense, just outside Paris, and on newly built roads running through tunnels glowing with eerie banks of lights."
Godard defamiliarizes the everyday: a "high-style jukebox becomes a surveillance device; a small round traveling alarm clock is a cordless telephone; a set of apartment-lobby call buttons serves as a futuristic pay phone. The alienation through technology that Alphaville depicts as future dystopia is in fact that of the present day." Even if you are working on a genre film that you think may require elaborate special sets or effects, look to Godard's example and see if you have access to items or locations that could be used or slightly altered to represent your film's ideas.
3. Use Symbolism Make Your Ideas Cinematic
One theme explored in Alphaville is that, in the 20th century, the tyranny of technology threatens to destroy its creators in an atomic blast, turning science into a new religion. A miracle of this "religion" is electricity, which did away with time, making permanent daytime an effective reality for millions of people. To that end, Alphaville is "a film about light," with the neon signs that light the city playing a role as onscreen symbol for this philosophical concept.
The same effect is achieved through his aforementioned manipulation of the everyday. Everything you see represents more than itself. Caution's detective takes pictures constantly to capture the present/past. Though forbidden, this goes unnoticed by the hyper-logical citizenry, who do not believe in a "past" or a "future"; for them, life is an eternal present, a tyranny of time, technology and logic. Signs appear everywhere, not words but pictures and equations, and these pictures are illuminated by electricity.
4. Don't Rely on Conventions
As part of his fixation on light as symbol for the future, Godard contrived the titular city as one of contrast, a literal film noir that came from German Expressionism (as well as the Lemmy Caution character). He used a very fast stock manufactured by Ilford, which allowed him to shoot the film at night in available light, but that left dark areas of the frame almost invisible. This was an unconventional shooting approach, and is also an example of points 1 and 2: using what you have and taking inspiration from film history—in this case tropes of Film Noir, or, "black film", so-called because of its high contrast photography and cynical plotlines. Godard also eschewed the psychological realism in his direction during an era when "realism" was common. The film is the product of Godard's refusal to use cinematic conventions as they were intended. It's what he'd done since his first film, and what made him into a cinema hero.
5. Let Your Humanity Guide the Work
Alphaville is, in a way, an update of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, with Caution as the man who escapes from the cave of shadows, bringing light to its citizens to illuminate truth. Ultimately, when Karina's character is able to feel love, her humanity is restored to her, as well as the rest of the citizens. Similar to the error which drives Hal 9000 crazy in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the logic that enslaves the people is defeated by a seemingly illogical riddle posed by Caution to Alpha 60. Lemmy Caution defeats the computer with a paradox in the form of a riddle: "Something that never changes with the night or the day, as long as the past represents the future, towards which it will advance in a straight line, but which, at the end, has closed in on itself into a circle." Alpha 60 is confused by this question. The answer, of course, is a human, and Alpha 60, who cannot understand humanity, destroys itself in a spasm of logic taken to a deadly extreme: "For our misfortune, the world is a reality... and I... for my misfortune... I am myself - Alpha 60."
The final words of the film, "I love you," are spoken by Karina's character as she leaves Alphaville with Caution. This reflects Godard's relationship with Karina, fulfills a genre convention, and also echoes the movies theme; love, after all, is unknown by Alphaville's citizens. Neither is poetry, though poetry is in abundance Alphaville, a film that celebrates the triumph of humanity over the dehumanizing forces of progress. Godard's humanity shines through this film, which is about the light of love in the dark, cold future. No matter what genre your film is, audiences will be able to relate if humanity is at its core.