Jean-Luc Godard – Alphaville
At the immediate glance, Alphaville is a story of a dystopian future where technocratic totalitarianism has succeeded in abolishing emotion, sensibility, and every form of artistic expression. This is also the theme which this paper will deal with, but should not be mistaken as the single attribute of this movie. A defining fundamental of art lies in its diverse form of expression. Visual arts, like cinema, is obviously no exception. There are many sides to Alphaville that can be discussed endlessly, one of them taking form in a question regarding why this film was made, and why Godard decided to portray Alphaville the way he did. I will however not address these questions, as they belong to a paper better described as a cinematic review. Focus will lie on the Orwellian, dystopian theme that Godard illustrates, and I will try to review it as thoroughly as possible.
The paper is divided into two parts. The first part will be outlining the social, governemental and physical structure of Alphaville, while the second part will revolve around dystopia as a concept.
As we are introduced to Alphaville, we learn that it is ruled in a totalitarian fashion by a centralized power in form of an advanced super computer. Much reminiscent of Stanely Kubrick’s HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the super computer advocates logical reasoning in a most extreme manner. A twisted form of consequentialism, where the ultimate happiness for common man resides in collective scientific achievment, provides the institutional law of Alphaville. Spontaniety, creativity and critical thought is effectively disencouraged, and machine-like logical thought is enforced upon its citizens through indoctrination, punishment, survelliance and medication. Individuals deemed illogical are brutally excecuted, motivated by the strive for the ”common good”.
Throughtout the movie, we are never certain of the geographical, or physical form of Alphaville. Neither do we know where it is, or when the events in the film is taking place. It is suggested that one has to travel through ”galactical space” to get to Alphaville. However, we do not know whether it is a literal expreesion, as we find our protagonist driving his car to Alphaville in the film’s opening sequence. The car, a Ford Galaxy, is one of the few pieces of resemblance we encounter in an otherwise broken and malformed reality. What we do know is that time, space and geography plays a minor role in Godard’s Alphaville.
The film’s human antagonist, puppeteer of the super computer and dictator of Alphaville alike, is represented by a character named Professor Vonbraum. Credited for every scientific achievment in history, Vonbraum does not only represent the ideal human being. Sharing similarities with the relationship between an authoritative father and his young child, the citizens of Alphaville channel and accept Vonbraum’s actions and directives without question, regardless of consequences. Unsurprisingly, we get the sensation that Professor Vonbraum is one of the few, if not the only person in Alphaville that possesses integrity. Although thinking of Vonbraum as the expatriate founder of Alphaville is tempting, we do not know per certainty that his position has not been passed down from a previous dictator. Additionally, the age of the citizens suggests that Alphaville and all its organs of governance have existed longer than its present leader has. The ultimate role of Alphaville’s human leader, beside serving as an object for admiration and gratitude, is to direct labor, science and research while the super computer enforces logical thinking.
The film’s protagonist, a secret agent disguised as a journalist is sent from les extérieurs to be our leading hand through Alphaville. In the film, his objectives consist of rescuing a fellow agent who later dies, and to capture or kill the leader of Alphaville. Through our protagonist, we witness the colorless alienation that the inhabitants of Alphaville radiates. Automized phrases reveal an extreme lack of sensibility, and absence of characteristics dissolves individuals into a grey, collective mass of labour, separatable only by the bar codes imprinted on the back of their necks. With a distaste of a defiant teenager, our protagonist refuses to conform to any of the customs of Alphaville, even though he is being treated physically well and his integrity never is questioned, albeit never understood. Soon, his out-of-line behavior recieves the attention of the super computer and he is deprived of liberty. The growing bubble of discomfort and repressed fear, in which our protagonist resides, unavoidably bursts into an ethical nightmare.
In a scene with the super computer, depicted as a flashing light accompanied by a distorted voice of an old man, our protagonist is questioned about values and the mysteries of life. He lies, not undetectably, and answers in manners which no Alphavillian citizen would. Unable to derive either logic or illogic from our protagonists replies, and sensing information and thought processes it cannot yet understand, the super computer lets our protagonist go for the time being. During his temporary freedom, our protagonist discover new facts about Alphaville that further motivates his cause. He discovers that the bible – a recurring object in the film – de facto is a constantly evolving dictionary containing the Alphavillian language, having a strong resemblance to George Orwelle’s Newspeak in 1984. It is also revealed that Alphaville send spies to neighbouring civilizations, in order to spread their technocratic, totalitarian consequentialism and if that fails; bring about havoc.
During the second interrogation scene, where the true identity and intentions of our protagonist have been discovered, our protagonist tells the computer a riddle. He continues by saying that if the computer finds the solution to the riddle, it will destroy itself simultaneously. The nature in the answer lies in a sensible understanding of the human being, and would bring the computer to the same mindset as our protagonist upon realisation. Distilling the dramaturgy from the story; this is effectively what happens. Alphaville crumbles under the self-destruction of its mastermind, and our protagonist kills Professor Vonbraum – an act no longer addressing purpose or logic, but being a manifestation of free, unconditioned will. Dramaturgy aside, I believe this sums up the dystopia presented in Alphaville.
The concept of dystopia is often regarded as the opposite to utopia. While I agree with this, I would like to further elaborate on the concept. In my definition of utopia, a utopia isn’t a finite state of being at a fixed point in time and space. I consider a utopia to be a utopia only when we know that we can make it better. If we decide that no improvement can be done, how is that perfection and not mere failure to see the room for improvement? From this follows that I see utopia as an ever-converging state of being that never reaches an end.
Speaking from personal thought, I do not consider dystopias to theoretically exist. Following my view on utopia, a dystopia is a state of being where no improvement can be done, and we think it can be done. While this sounds plausible, consider the following: If a state of being to us, is utopian, but we cannot improve, is that not dystopian?
Consider the situation of the inhabitants in Alphaville, and (for the sake of the example) regard their mindset as thinking they are in the perfect state of being where nothing can be improved. They are in their perfect world. But in a more objective sense, with improvement as the key word, they are in dystopia. Leaving the example and returning to my definition, we see that a perfect state of being does not exist, and neither does dystopia.
Although one might argue that perfection equals utopia, and that my definition where improvement contradictously is the key ingredient of utopia is mere nonsense, I think that discussing utopia from a slightly different viewpoint can arise some thoughts that people ordinarily wouldn’t pursue.
I found Alphaville particularly interesting for its very prominent image of what a dystopia is and how people watching it relate to it. Today, the everyday use of ’dystopia’ still refers to the the fictional, totalitarian worlds created by Godard, Huxley, Orwell, and somewhat reflects in us the fear of where a distant future might lie, and somewhat comforts us in the idea that we are not yet there. I suppose similar things could be said for other types of fictional media regarding other subjects, whether it deals with romanticism or some sort of realism.
Dystopia in general is not as thoroughly discussed as utopia, and being each others opposite, presumably, I think that one can learn something about one extreme by digging deeper into the other, perhaps even use their symmetry as a basis when reflecting over either one of them.
My only reference for this paper, save for stray mentionings of similar works, is the movie; Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution directed in 1965 by Jean-Luc Godard.