Jean-Claude Carrière
“For me, Europe isn’t a peaceful and unified place”

Interview with Jean-Claude Carrière
“I never met anyone who supported the regime, even if they didn’t always say it”: Interview with Jean-Claude Carrière | Collage (detail): © private/TEMPUS CORPORATE

Jean-Claude Carrière (1931) is one of France’s foremost screenwriters. Over the course of his career, amongst others he worked with Milos Forman, Jean-Luc Godard Volker Schlondorff, and Luis Buñuel. He was interviewed by the opera director Jeanne Pansard-Besson.

Pansard-Besson: What was your perception of Europe as a child?

Carrière: In my childhood, Europe was a source of war. It was absolutely impossible to talk about the Germans without seeing them as enemies; as we had been at war before, and one of my uncles had been killed in the war of 1914-18. There was France but there wasn’t Europe. We wouldn’t talk about Europe. We didn’t even know what it was. We learned in school that it was one amongst other continents.

But during my childhood there wasn’t, what appeared after the war, the European spirit, the more or less arbitrary idea of unification of a group of countries that are very different from one another. For me, initially, I have to say Europe didn’t exist. I was French. Europe arrived more as a new idea than a fact – as it was fiercely and bloodily divided during the war. It arrived from the 1950s onwards, in diplomats’ speeches, in diplomats’ meetings: why not put an end to this divided Europe and make a united Europe? It started, as you know, with the Coal and Steel deal, and with France and Germany as the founding couple, with their choir children around them. And then very soon this ‘Europe’ was divided again, torn apart into the Eastern and Western bloc.

So, for me Europe isn’t a peaceful and unified place. If that’s an advantage or a disadvantage, I leave it up to other people to decide, because the clash of cultures can sometimes be a good thing, you know? It allows for us to understand ‘the other’ even if it is through the process of trying to destroy them. We saw this in particular with the wars that came with the breakup of Yugoslavia. At the end of the 20th century, the hatreds that awoke were dreadful. We mustn’t assume that because we are European, we will adore our neighbours.

If we look at Europe on a map today, is a series of small feudal systems, some more important than others, which have a tendency to close themselves off more and more. To say I am better than my neighbour, and therefore I will despise him, close my doors to him, not do him any favours, and most of all, close myself off to people who come from further away – there’s been a sort of strange return to the Middle Ages in the past few years, encouraged by very nationalistic, extreme right parties.

And this new tendency came after what has been the heart of my life – I am 88 years old – the heart of my life has been The Cold War, the two blocks, West and East. This was all everyone talked about: when talking about Europe. Europe was communism on one side, market economy on the other. Until eventually in ‘89 the Berlin Wall fell, and then there was a sort of hope again that Europe would have a weight as Europe, as a solid unit, economically prosperous.

Pansard-Besson: You said that Europe gave rise to a new hope after the reconciliation. Did Europe make you dream, too?

Carrière: Under communism I used to work in theatre and cinema in Russia, in Poland with [Andrzej] Wajda, in Czechoslovakia.  For us ‘artists’ in cinema and theatre, borders were more porous than for others.

I’m going to tell you a story. One of those films I worked on in the 1980s is adapted from Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. During the writing and the shooting of the film Gorbachev came to power, so things were getting easier already. As expected, it was impossible to shoot in Czechoslovakia. We reconstituted the film in France. We even almost shot in Zagreb, but the novel was strictly forbidden there, therefore the film was too.

But when the film was finished, so many things had happened in Moscow. A filmmaker who I knew quite well, [Elem] Klimov, was put at the head of Soviet cinema by Gorbachev. And he organised a film festival where he invited us to screen our film. That was in 1980.
It was a very significant event – a film which had been forbidden to be shot in Soviet countries invited to a Moscow festival. It was an honour. So, we arrive in Moscow with Philippe Kaufman, the director, and Klimov tells us that they wouldn’t be able to screen the film in the official theatre, but they’d screen it in another room.

Philippe asked, “but why not in the official theatre?” And the answer says it all: “we are afraid that the Czech delegation might leave the theatre”. In other words: We are afraid that those who claim to still be communists in the countries that used to be called satellites might be more communist than the new Muscovite leaders. That was something that struck us very much.

There are many stories like this that can be linked together through one’s work – we can follow, if interested, the political life simply through what happens in our jobs.

Pansard-Besson: You mentioned your travels in the communist bloc.

Carrière: The experience of communist countries is very particular. I was spending all my time with opponents to the regime. I never met anyone who supported the regime. Whether in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or even in Russia, everyone was against the regime, even if they didn’t always say it. So, one can wonder how it held together, and it lasted for such a very, very long time.

I never met anyone who supported the regime, even if they didn’t always say it

Jean-Claude Carrière

When you’re in a country that is foreign in every respect – language, custom etc. you have one thing in common which is cinema, the language of cinema. If you say any film term, you are speaking the same language. And that, that’s the most important thing. It’s to know what one is talking about, what one wants to show, what one wants to say, what story one wants to tell.

When I was working on Danton (1983) with Wajda, it was absolutely fascinating to see their point of view. I had always refused to make a film about the French Revolution with a French person, because we would have read the same books, we would have had the same reactions or aversions etc. Whereas making it with a foreigner, especially from a country under Soviet rule, was absolutely fascinating. To see Wajda’s point of view on Robespierre, for instance. That was really very interesting. It wasn’t any value judgements, but rather what they thought of their work, of what they had accomplished, of what they had risked – for they all payed with their life.

Pansard-Besson: How was it to work in Germany? It wasn’t very long after the end of the war, was it?

Carrière: I wrote Die Faelschung and The Tin Drum with Volker Schlöndorff. Volker and Günther Grass wanted a foreign perspective on that period just before the war, which wouldn’t be German. It was very interesting to do. That’s what we’re useful for, right? To come together and think about what happened to us. When Volker comes to Paris he lives on the other side of the courtyard, he has a small flat, just there. We’re very good friends.