The Implicated Subject
Beyond Victims and Perpetrators
Michael Rothberg

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Under the Sign of Suitcases

The Holocaust Internationalism of Marceline Loridan-Ivens



Solidarity from Afar: Loin du Vietnam

In 1967, SLON, a collective of prominent Paris-based filmmakers led by the enigmatic Chris Marker, released Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam), an omnibus indictment of the American war in Vietnam and a declaration of support for the people of that former French colony.1 The film opens with a sequence of three brief scenes: we watch as soldiers on an American aircraft carrier prepare bombers for deployment; then we see Vietnamese soldiers advance stealthily through tall grass; and, finally, Fidel Castro and his comrades walk calmly across hilly terrain in Cuba. Over this sequence of shots we hear the voice of Maurice Garrel describe the stakes of the war in terms that echo and reinforce the images—a war of the rich against the poor, a war to prove the viability of world revolution. Finally, just as Castro walks out of the frame, the voice-over concludes and the credit sequence begins. In place of the image of Castro, a long list of names, including Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Joris Ivens, Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, and—a little further down—Marceline Loridan, appears in simple white lettering on a black background, followed by a series of intertitles. The intertitles state that the filmmakers “made this film during the course of 1967 /to affirm, by the exercise of their profession, their solidarity with the Vietnamese people in their struggle against aggression.” The remainder of the two-hour-long film consists, primarily, of documentary footage taken by collective members in Europe, North America, and Indochina, but it also mixes in newsreel footage and staged fictional scenes.

As the film’s preamble suggests, the filmmakers intend the concept of solidarity to hold together the heterogeneous materials out of which they have fashioned Loin du Vietnam.2 Yet, the question of solidarity in Loin du Vietnam is not an easy one, for as the title indicates, this is also a film about distance.3 The filmmakers were well aware of the complexities of making a solidarity film about a war that remained, for most of them, far away. As the disappearing image of Castro in the opening moments might suggest, their work as filmmakers took place outside the “frame” of the revolutionary struggles in Vietnam (but also Cuba and elsewhere) that they sought to depict.4 One of the most memorable sequences of the film, a monologue by Jean-Luc Godard, emphasizes the problem of distance and addresses it through a characteristic self-reflexivity. Declaring that, since he could not obtain a visa, he decided to stay in Paris, Godard turns the camera on himself. His somewhat rambling monologue, which evokes both the distance of Vietnam and his desire to let “Vietnam invade us,” is accompanied, for the most part, with shots of him operating his large American Marshall film camera, although these are also intercut with shots of a Vietnamese soldier and strikes in France, as well as with excerpts from Godard’s own La Chinoise (also from 1967).5

An hour later, as the film’s final sequence turns outward, it seeks to produce a similar self-reflexivity in its hoped-for European audience. The concluding voice-over monologue addresses spectators directly: “In a few minutes this film is going to end. You will leave this room and many of you will go out into a world without war. It is also our world and we know how easy it is to forget certain realities. We are far from Vietnam, and the Vietnam of our emotions and our indignation is sometimes as far from the true Vietnam as indifference would be. We live in a society that has gone far in the art of hiding its own goals . . . and especially its own violence.” Accompanying these words are images of a burning Vietnamese village and marching Vietnamese soldiers wearing branches and leaves as camouflage that alternate with peaceful urban street scenes from France and the US. At the level of both words and images—as well as between words and images—the film dialectically juxtaposes “here” and “there,” imperialist violence and bourgeois everyday life, in order to provoke its audience into a realization about the invisible but material interconnections between a real war and a phony peace that constitute that audience’s implication in a far-off war. To declare oneself “far from Vietnam” in this sense is to approximate the form of implicated nonidentification that motivates the statement “We are not Trayvon Martin.”

The question of solidarity and distance was already articulated during the film’s production. Although some of the filmmakers remained, like Godard, at home, others did venture to the site of the war. Marker sent two of the filmmakers to Hanoi to request permission to film in North Vietnam. The note they brought with them already thematized the audacity of the project as a problem of solidarity at a distance:

Words of friendship and solidarity, however sincere they may be, are only words. . . . Saying “solidarity” from afar and without risk, may also be a convenient way of easing one’s conscience. Our solidarity occurs in towns that no one bombs, in lives that no one menaces. What does this mean? . . . Where is our place? To answer these questions, we have undertaken to make a film. It is a response that is neither praiseworthy nor heroic, but which has the sole motive of being tangible, within our means and within our limitations. It is with our work, it is within the context of our profession, that we want to bring a little life to this word “solidarity.”6

In asking “Where is our place?” and attempting to answer through the creation of a film dedicated to solidarity at a distance, the filmmakers both reflect on the problem of their own implication in the war and seek to turn that problem, via a collective project, into an occasion for intervention. Instead of trying to speak for the Vietnamese, they seek to speak with those Europeans who share their world and who think they occupy a “world without war,” but in whose name wars of counterinsurgency are being waged. Solidarity here does not mean simple identity of position or cause; it refers instead to attempts to incite change in and from a place that is not immediately connected to the site of conflict, but rather is connected to it through real social and political mediations. The film offers a version of what I called differentiated solidarity in the previous chapter, but it does so primarily through the thematization of difference as distance: the distance between metropolitan and (anti)colonial locations.

A product—and catalyst—of the cultural-political ferment of the 1960s, Loin du Vietnam remains a touchstone of engaged cinema that helps focus questions about the possibility of solidarity in the face of the paradoxical need to acknowledge both implication (i.e., political-economic connection) and distance. Linking the metropolitan centers to scenes of anti-imperialist struggle, the film uses the visual and verbal means of cinema to reveal to citizens of the global center how they are “socially connected,” to use Iris Marion Young’s term, to events far from Paris and New York. In doing so, it raises the central dilemmas of this section of the book: whether and how recognition of implication, complicity, and privilege can be transformed into active forms of resistance to structures of violence and exploitation. In other words, can implicated subjects become political subjects? The answer the filmmakers provide allies them with a significant current of twentieth-century political activity: internationalism. As the note to the North Vietnamese regime makes clear, the filmmakers do not simply employ the language of solidarity, but a language of internationalist solidarity that recognizes distance and difference but seeks to minimize their potentially deleterious effects.7 Inspired by overlapping socialist and anti-imperialist internationalisms, Loin du Vietnam (along with the other works of the SLON collective) constitutes a material instance of—and as we will see in the next chapter, has become an intertextual reference point for—solidarity crafted from a position of implication, a position marked by both distance and proximity.

In the two chapters that make up this part of the book, I explore a pair of very different politically engaged filmmakers whose work intersects with Loin du Vietnam and twentieth-century histories of internationalism: Marceline Loridan-Ivens and Hito Steyerl. Indeed, it was Loridan-Ivens, the subject of this chapter, who—together with her partner Joris Ivens, a well-known Dutch communist documentarian—carried the SLON collective’s note to the North Vietnamese leadership and shot much of the Vietnam footage included in the film; Loridan-Ivens also testified at the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal about what she had witnessed in Vietnam.8 Loridan-Ivens, who died in 2018 at the age of 90, was a French Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who went on to experience firsthand both the emancipatory and destructive possibilities of the moment of revolutionary struggle when she took up anticolonial and Third World causes. Steyerl, the subject of the next chapter, is a German artist and theorist born in 1966. Also attuned to histories of colonial and genocidal violence and in dialogue with the avant-garde aesthetics of Loin du Vietnam, Steyerl picks up the history of internationalism where Loridan-Ivens leaves off: while Loridan-Ivens worked in some of the sites of revolutionary ferment in the 1960s and 1970s, Steyerl starts from the conviction that we live in a postrevolutionary age in which “the myth of the leftist hero [has] come crumbling down.”9 The artistic practices of Loridan-Ivens and Steyerl do not offer us a “pure” internationalism cleansed of its contradictions and less attractive legacies; rather, they teach us about the possibilities and problems created by implicated subjects who seek to become political actors. Despite their radically different biographies and aesthetic projects, they provide us with examples and lessons that enable us to think about what internationalism can be in a moment defined by both intensified globalization and resurgent nationalism.

In the work of Loridan-Ivens and Steyerl, we find different degrees of what I will call “affirmative” and “critical” internationalisms. Like Loin du Vietnam, affirmative internationalism seeks to construct lines of solidarity across national borders in order to combat transnational capital and state-sponsored imperial projects. Critical internationalism engages with transnational configurations of power without retreating into nationalist or localist frameworks, but also without committing to particular internationalist projects. In a rough sense, Loridan-Ivens’s work in the 1960s and 1970s adheres to the affirmative model of socialist and anti-imperialist internationalism, while Steyerl’s work in the first decade of the twenty-first century consists of a postrevolutionary, critical internationalism. Yet, experiences of loss and betrayal complicate the aesthetic-political projects of both filmmakers. Loridan-Ivens’s affirmative approach is tempered and rendered more complex and critical by the personal experience of trauma, the recognition of political error, and the changing political landscape during her lifetime. Inversely, Steyerl’s critical engagement with cross-border politics derives from the mourning of and fidelity to a close friend who gave her life in a late version of “affirmative” socialist internationalism; this fidelity transforms Steyerl into a new kind of internationalist subject who today finds herself in turn occupying a transformed political conjuncture. Exploring the way affirmative and critical internationalisms jostle with each other in the work of these two figures provides purchase on the movement from recognition of implication to the construction of solidarity and the development of new models of political subjectivity.

In the present chapter, I begin by briefly exploring varieties of internationalism and focus in particular on the versions relevant to both Loridan-Ivens and Steyerl: socialist and anti-imperialist internationalism and the discourse of human rights. As a Holocaust survivor who was active in anti-colonial causes, Loridan-Ivens’s trajectory cuts across these very different models of cross-border solidarity. In the 1960s, when Loridan-Ivens first bore witness publicly to her deportation to Auschwitz and moved in the circles that led her to support Algerian and Vietnamese independence struggles, the dominant progressive discourse was that of the socialist and anti-imperialist internationalism we have seen exemplified in Loin du Vietnam.10 In the wake of the 1960s, however, these movements entered into crisis, even if, as we will see especially in the next chapter, committed adherents remain. As anti-imperialist internationalism declined, recent decades witnessed the dramatic rise of discourses and practices of human rights. In addition, the promulgation of international human rights norms has paralleled, and become closely allied with, the globalization of Holocaust memory, as scholars such as Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider argue.11

While the human rights imperative is not irrelevant to Loridan-Ivens’s story, my focus here is especially on the moment just before its rise to hegemony, when other forms of internationalism offered nation-transcending progressive visions. A look at the period before the globalization of Holocaust consciousness in the 1990s suggests a conception of transnational memory that looks quite different from the cosmopolitan memory oriented around human rights described by Levy and Sznaider. Indeed, the testimony of Loridan-Ivens in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s 1961 film Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer) served in my previous book as the inspiration for the concept of multidirectional memory, which was meant as an alternative to Levy and Sznaider’s account.12 Here I follow Loridan-Ivens’s trajectory beyond Rouch and Morin’s film as she becomes a filmmaker and later memoirist in her own right. Leaving behind—without fully abandoning—the position of victim of genocide, Loridan-Ivens takes on new identities as internationalist and implicated witness. Considered holistically, her story reveals an unexpected constellation of trauma and long-distance solidarity that remains singular, but is also suggestive for thinking responsibility in light of the successes and failures of movements for decolonization and human rights. Her story continues to speak to the present.

Notes

1. SLON stands for the “Société de Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles” (Society for the launching of new works). For details on the SLON collective, see François Lecointe, “The Elephant at the End of the World: Chris Marker and Third Cinema,” Third Cinema 25.1 (2011): 93–104. On the film as a whole—including a transcription of its text that I have consulted—see Laurent Véray, Loin du Vietnam (Paris: Paris Expérimental, 2004).

2. As Thomas Waugh writes, “In the discourse around the production of this film and within the narration of the film itself, [solidarity] designates both the film’s objectives and self-conception as part of a documentary genre.” See Waugh, “Loin du Vietnam (1967), Joris Ivens and Left Bank Documentary,” Jump Cut 53 (2011), http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc53.2011/WaughVietnam/index.html.

3. Distance joins solidarity as a favorite theme of Marker’s. His Lettre de Siberie (Letter from Siberia; 1958), for instance, announces itself with the sentence “Je vous écris d’un pays lointain” (I write to you from a faraway country).

4. Castro reappears later in the film in an interview with Roger Pic, where he links the war in Vietnam to revolutions elsewhere in the world.

5. For a discussion of Loin du Vietnam that focuses on Godard’s contribution and links the film back to Algerian War–era protest, see Matthew Croombs, “Loin du Vietnam: Solidarity, Representation and the Proximity of the French Colonial Past,” Third Text 28.6 (2014): 489–505. Also relevant is Olivia C. Harrison’s discussion of Godard’s contribution in “Consuming Palestine: Anticapitalism and Anticolonialism in Jean-Luc Godard’s Ici et ailleurs,” Studies in French Cinema 18.3 (2017): 178–91.

6. Cited in Waugh, “Loin du Vietnam,” who has taken the text from Ian Mundell.

7. The internationalist focus of the SLON collective continued over the next several years in a series of short films dubbed “On vous parle” (Speaking to you) that connected struggles around the globe, from Chile to Czechoslovakia, with working class struggles in the metropolis. Each title began with the same phrase: “On vous parle de . . .” As Lecointe observes, “the ‘geographic framework’ of a global enquiry was at the base of the construction of [Loin du Vietnam]” and “SLON became a refuge and a hub for images of the entire world” (95, 98).

8. On the SLON note, see Waugh, “Loin du Vietnam.” For the tribunal, see “On Treatment of Civilians: Testimony by Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan,” in Against the Crime of Silence: Proceedings of the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal, ed. John Duffett (Flanders, NJ: O’Hare Books, 1968), 551–54.

9. Hito Steyerl, “A Thing like You and Me,” in Hito Steyerl, exhibition catalogue, with texts by Pablo Lafuente, Hito Steyerl, and Maria Mühle (Høvikodden, Norway: Henie Onstad Art Centre, 2010), 61–71.

10. For an account of this period in France, see Kristin Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), esp. 80–90.

11. Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in a Global Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005).

12. See Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), chap. 6. Multidirectional memory was also meant as an alternative to another theory of globalized Holocaust memory, that of Jeffrey Alexander. See my contribution to Jeffrey Alexander, Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 123–34.