Jean-Luc Godard, revolutionary filmmaker who polarized Jews with his Israel and Holocaust commentary, dies at 91

Courtesy of JTA. Photo credit: Jacques Haillot/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

The director Jean-Luc Godard in 1965

(JTA) — In 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced plans to award French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard an honorary Oscar. Many in the Jewish community revolted.

Calling on the Academy to rescind the Oscar, the right-wing Zionist Organization of America called Godard a “virulent antisemite,” arguing that Godard had a record of making antisemitic comments and putting antisemitic language into his films.

Such claims of antisemitism were a constant throughout the long and idiosyncratic career of the pioneering French New Wave filmmaker, who died Tuesday at age 91 from assisted suicide. But for Godard, life was just an extension of cinema — all a public performance, as his Jewish biographer Richard Brody chronicled in the book “Everything Is Cinema.”

Even as his films included jokes about slaughtering Jews (in 1964’s “A Married Woman”) and a line about Jews inventing Hollywood (in 2010’s “Film Socialisme”), he also expressed sympathy for the Jewish people, befriended Europe’s leading Jewish intellectuals and engaged in rigorous, thoughtful debates about the ethics of how and when to depict the Holocaust on film.

Godard first came to the world’s attention with his 1960 rule-breaker “Breathless,” about a disaffected criminal and his American girlfriend, which used frenetic editing and genre mash-ups to form a new kind of cinematic language. 

More acclaimed films followed before the filmmaker dove headlong into Maoism and began incorporating radical political statements into his movies, embracing the outermost fringes of the art-house circuit. Decades later, he continued to push against the limits of what cinema could be with essayistic collages about a range of sociopolitical ideas, and even a 3D film late in his career (2014’s “Goodbye To Language.”)

Throughout, Godard was seen in the film world as a complex figure, a globally revered artist who enjoyed challenging conventional wisdom and getting a rise out of his contemporaries — including about the role cinema should play in Holocaust memory. 

Filmmakers and cinema scholars alike were paying full tribute to Godard as a titan of the medium on Tuesday.