If À bout de soufflé is the work of a young filmmaker, then Le Petit Soldat is as well. In many ways a surprising choice after À bout de soufflé, Le Petit Soldat is a dark and pessimistic film about the ongoing Algerian War of Independence, which ran from 1954 to 1962. The film was made in 1960 - it was banned for three years and ultimately released as Godard’s fourth film – and it can be considered his first political film and a bold attempt to address the crimes of his own country.
Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) is a twenty-six year old secret agent working for a French paramilitary organisation in Geneva during the Algerian War of Independence. He does not seem to have many serious political convictions and seems to have wandered into his role. When he is ordered to kill Professor Palivoda, whose only crime it seems is to have not chosen a side, he refuses. Either from apathy or from the distraction of falling in love with Veronica (Anna Karina), he is unable to get away in time.
With Le Petit Soldat, Godard addresses politics for the first time, but instead of identifying himself with one side or another as he would later on, here he identifies himself with Bruno, a member of the French secret service who nonetheless has sympathies for the other side and talks about uniting Right and Left. He is horrified by the violence done on both sides, as is Godard. He opens the film in the aftermath of a French terrorist atrocity and will show both sides committing torture. Godard’s awareness that the French were guilty of violence and terrorism is the main reason the film was banned and is a brave and provocative statement for a young filmmaker to make against his own country in wartime.
However, Godard also suffers from Bruno’s confusion and apathy. Admitting that both sides have done evil, Bruno is left with nowhere to go and no one to help. The film has a pervasive sense of a murky world full of secret agents and double agents. Godard heightens this with many of the techniques from À bout de soufflé, using some disorientating jump cuts and a discordant score to increase the sense of Bruno’s, and the viewer’s, confusion – both political and moral. In one early scene on a train, Bruno listens in on a man telling a friend a long-winded joke. Godard cuts seemingly key sections of the joke, leaving the rest as mere gibberish. The two men are laughing away, but it means nothing to us and it leaves an odd alienating and eerie impression, furthered by the sound design throughout which isolates separate sounds and favours voices disembodied and layered over silence. The plotting, though fairly simple, is kept fairly discreet. Throughout the film, we are never quite sure what is happening and what is about to happen, Godard having achieved a wonderful (dis)harmony between form and content.
This film contains one of Godard’s most famous aphorisms – ‘Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times per second’ – though it feels like a statement that has been taken wildly out of context, given the confusing and undecided nature of the rest of the film. Add also the fact that Bruno says this whilst trying to distract Veronica enough to contrive an ‘authentic’ photo of her. Rather than affirming cinema, Godard may instead be trying to interrogate truth. Bruno’s final monologue towards the end of the film is one of the key moments of the film, given that here we see the end result of Bruno’s involvement in this dark world. This diatribe, which moves from a refutation of nationalism to talk of having no convictions to the pointlessness of revolution to the inability to know oneself. After denying anyone’s ability to know what he is thinking, Bruno turns to the camera and tells us what exactly he is thinking, but even he cannot hold onto his thoughts for very long. He has been emptied. His dalliance with this dirty war (compared negatively to the seemingly more virtuous Spanish Civil War – a can of worms there) has left him with nothing, only total apathy and existential confusion. The scene ends with the image of people looking for truth (that word again) by sifting through words, eventually being left with only one – silence.
So key to the film’s sound design, this silence is also what prolongs Bruno’s torture at the hands of the FLN. Captured by the Algerians, they torture Bruno for information and he keeps quiet, without thoroughly understanding why. This torture sequence is the most famous sequence in the film and it is unremittingly bleak and disturbing. Moving from burning to near-drowning to waterboarding to electric shock, it is long, uncomfortable, drawn-out. Godard here had in mind Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, the ‘banality of evil’ and so this sequence is fairly subdued, near-silent apart from Bruno’s voiceover, almost dull. It is horrible to watch and there is a strong sense that the torture is degrading for both of Bruno and his torturers.
There is one thing that cuts through all of this pessimism and that is love – although, as we have seen already with À bout de soufflé, love is not enough against the pressures of this world. Bruno falls in love with Veronica, despite their political differences and there is a real feeling of optimism in their plans to escape everything and go to Brazil (though even their love is expressed through indirection – Bruno asks her to tell him lies and Veronica replies that she does not love him). However, this love ends up being used by the French as a means to get Bruno to finally kill Palivoda. Here, at the end of the film, Godard may well be at his most pessimistic. Bruno shoots Palivoda in front of a street full of witnesses and runs away. While he flees, we learn in voiceover that Veronica has already been tortured to death and that Bruno is shortly to learn of this. Bruno is left with nothing and will not be able to do anything about it – whether from the range of forces pitted against him or because of his own apathy is left unknown. All he has left to do is learn to not be bitter about it. With these closing lines and a shot of a hunted Bruno disappearing around a corner, the film ends – this sudden, shocking, intentionally dissatisfying ending leaving us with Bruno’s sense of anger and loss.
Le Petit Soldat is amongst Godard’s best films because it is a challenging, committed, bold and angry work from a young filmmaker who was still finding his voice in cinema and in politics. Ultimately giving way to pessimism and apathy, Godard’s critique may not have the sophistication of hindsight, given that it was made during the Algerian War of Independence, or of his later work but it is nonetheless a brave work. With only his second film, Godard had proven that he would not be a filmmaker who would try endlessly to repeat an earlier success nor one who would remain differential to his country in the face of their crimes at home and abroad, but one who would make films after his own interests and would continue to innovate. Godard would not follow the caprices of the audience, he would ask that the audience follow him. And, next, Godard felt like making a musical comedy.