“Alphaville” totalitarian fears still relevant decades later

One of my favorite genres depicts dystopian sci-fi societies, wherein humans fight for freedom from futuristic fascism. George Orwell’s terrifying 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are the greatest exemplars of this type of anti-totalitarian tale in tomorrowland. But for this film lover, arguably the greatest interpretation of dystopia for the silver screen is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 masterpiece Alphaville, which has been lovingly, lushly restored, and theatrically re-released in all its black and white glory by Rialto Pictures. Almost 50 years later, the prescient Godard’s sci fi classic takes on a whole new dimension as a parable of the NSA national security surveillance state.

The 35-year-old auteur was in fine form when he and renowned cameraman Raoul Coutard shot this low-budget take on high-tech totalitarianism. When the French New Wave shook world cinema with imaginative, stylish pictures, among other things, these filmmakers made their own versions of Hollywood genre movies. Godard’s first feature, 1960’s Breathless, took on the conventions of film noir, as did Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, also 1960. In 1964, Jacques Demy made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, an MGM-like movie musical.

In 1965, the visionary Godard synthesized film noir, espionage movies, and science fiction with Alphaville, creating a potent political work of art presaging his revolutionary agitprop.

Alphaville‘s alpha male is portrayed by L.A.-born actor Eddie Constantine, who reprised the role he was noted for in French films: Lemmy Caution, a two-fisted tough guy, secret agent, or detective. But in Alphaville, wearing a Bogie-like trench coat and fedora, Lemmy is thrust into a dystopian future where the despotic state is ruled by the omnivorous, omniscient Alpha 60, whose eerily disembodied voice preceded Siri by several decades. Alpha 60 is the cinema’s spookiest computer this side of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL in that other sci fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. As secret agent 003, Lemmy goes undercover, posing when he enters Alphaville from the “Outlands” as a reporter for the Figaro Pravda newspaper named Ivan Johnson (while Lyndon Johnson was U.S. president).

Godard’s wordplay throughout is tellingly droll and Orwellian: Alphaville is on “Oceanic” time, a reference to 1984, as is the futuristic city-state’s “Ministry of Dissuasions”; the close-up of an elevator button reads “SS” – a play on the French word for basement (“sous-sol“), clearly a nod to the Nazis’ secret police – and Alpha 60’s mastermind is the über-scientist Professor Leonard von Braun, aka “Nosferatu,” obvious references to both the Nazi rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, who went on to work for the postwar U.S. space program, as well as to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 German expressionist Dracula classic.

Lemmy gets mixed up with von Braun’s daughter Natasha, charmingly played by Anna Karina. Although Natasha is assigned to Lemmy as a “Seductress, Third Class,” her dialogue suggests that Natasha is quite innocent and naïve, perhaps even virginal – at least when it comes to the notion of love, whose meaning Natasha claims not to know.

Indeed, love is the animating force of this struggle against a computerized tyranny where “logic” dictates human behavior at the expense of “conscience” and “passion.” Beneath Lemmy’s brawny private-eye persona lurks an idealistic romantic. So like Winston Smith and Julia in 1984, Lemmy and Natasha couple up and resist the Big Brother-like computer, which attempts to reign over a “technocracy, like ants and termites.” Lemmy and Natasha are all-too-human: There’s a nearly rapturous scene when they discover and express their love for one another, which was quite avant-garde for 1965 and remains rather lyrical, even poetic. Lemmy and Natasha take their place alongside Tony and Maria, and Porgy and Bess, among Western culture’s great 20th century lovers.

Alphaville is full of Godard’s signature style and leitmotifs – rapidly cut montages, pictorial panache, Paul Misraki’s Noirish soundtrack, the use of written words (Godard even compares the dictionary to the Bible). And of course, no Godard film would be complete without his pseudo-philosophical musings, a vital, dissenting, visionary voice pleading for love, conscience, and poetry in our increasingly regimented, mechanized world. In Alphaville, Godard arguably prophesied the advent of the NSA’s techno super-state half a century before Edward Snowden bravely blew the whistle.

The newly restored Alphaville opened at the Nuart in L.A. on Apr. 25, and is being released to arthouses across the U.S. through July. From Alpha 60 to the NSA, fight the power!

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.