Jean-Luc Godard’s Debut, Opération béton (1955) — a Construction Documentary

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jean-Luc Godard Films The Rolling Stones Record­ing “Sym­pa­thy for the Dev­il” (1968)

Jef­fer­son Air­plane Wakes Up New York; Jean-Luc Godard Cap­tures It (1968)

Meetin’ WA: Jean-Luc Godard Meets Woody Allen in 26 Minute Film

Jean-Luc Godard’s After-Shave Com­mer­cial for Schick

525 Free Movies Online

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 Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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