“A 2500 m. d’altitude, dans le Val des Dix, un millier d’homme dresse un mur de béton aussi haut que la Tour Eiffel: le barrage de la ‘GRANDE-DIXENCE’.” So begins Jean-Luc Godard’s very first film, Opération béton. You Francophones will have gathered that, for the debut that would begin his long, passionate career in filmmaking, Godard chose to shoot the construction of “a wall as high as the Eiffel Tower” by a thousand men and out of concrete — a great deal of concrete indeed. Valais’ Grande Dixence dam not only provided Godard the director the subject of his first movie, but the funds to make it as well. Despite having already gained some momentum writing critical pieces for Cahiers du cinéma, the 23-year-old Godard took hard manual work on the dam’s job site, joining his friend Jean-Pierre Laubscher already employed there. Then the idea came to him: why not shoot a documentary about all of this?
Arranging a transfer through Laubscher to a less taxing place on the dam as a switchboard operator, Godard then borrowed a 35-millimeter camera from a friend of a friend and got to work — his real work, that of cinema. “The original commentary for La Campagne du beton (The Campaign of Concrete or The Concrete Countryside), written by Laubscher and dated October 17, 1954, was two pages long and concise; it merely labeled the action,” writes critic Richard Brody in Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. “But Godard gave the film a rhyming title instead, Opération béton (Operation Concrete) and rewrote the commentary. Though he kept several of Laubscher’s felicitous turns of phrase, Godard’s version, which he recorded in his own voice, greatly amplified the verbiage and resembled, instead of a series of photo captions, a person’s enthusiastic, digressive account of his experience at work.” Certain die-hard Godard-heads may also identify hints of the auteur’s favorite themes: labor, capital, nationalism, the machine-like systems that surround humanity. Certainly the industry-admiring tone seems suitably, er, breathless.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.