Is Europe a terrible place to live

Jean-Claude Carrière
"For me, Europe is not a peaceful and united place"

Jean-Claude Carrière (* 1931) is one of the leading French screenwriters. In the course of his career he worked with Miloš Forman, Jean-Luc Godard, Volker Schlöndorff and Luis Buñuel, among others. The interview was conducted by Jeanne Pansard-Besson. She received her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2012 and has worked as an opera director ever since.

Pansard-Besson: Did you have an idea of ​​Europe as a child?

Carrière: At that time, Europe was a center of war for me. It was absolutely impossible to talk about the Germans without seeing them as enemies. For me there was France, but no Europe. We never talked about it, we couldn't imagine anything about it. We knew from school that it was one of several continents.

During my childhood and youth, the European spirit, as it was called after the Second World War, did not yet exist - that more or less arbitrary association of countries that are actually very different from one another. I was french. The continent had broken apart so violently and bloodyly during the war that I perceived “Europe” as a novel idea at best, but not as a fact. The idea first emerged from the 1950s when politicians were thinking about uniting a divided Europe. It began, as you know, with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community by Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. But then the Cold War began.

So for me Europe is not a peaceful and united place. It is up to others to decide whether European unity was good or bad. Because you know, sometimes the “clash of cultures” can also be a good thing. Even in the process of destruction we can understand “the other”. We saw this particularly in the wars in the former Yugoslavia. A terrible hatred had reawakened there by the end of the 20th century. The example shows: Just because we are Europeans, we mustn't assume that we like our neighboring countries too.

When we talked about Europe, it was always about the East and the West

Jean-Claude Carrière

If we look at Europe today on a map, we see a number of small feudal systems, some of which are more important than others and which tend to become more and more closed off. To say I'm better than my neighbor, that's why I look down on him, deny him entry, deny him help - that's in
in recent years a strange kind of return to the Middle Ages, promoted and encouraged by nationalist and far-right parties.

These tendencies followed the Cold War era, in which I lived the most important part of my life. Back then there were only the two blocks. When we talked about Europe, it was always about the East and the West. Europe was divided. Until 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and the hope grew that Europe would gain importance as a solid, economically prosperous entity.

Pansard-Besson: What were your hopes for the end of the Cold War?

Carrière: During communism I worked in Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. For us “artists” the borders were more porous, more permeable than for others.

I'll tell you a story: In the 1980s, among other things, I worked on an implementation of Milan Kundera's “The unbearable lightness of being”. While the script was being written, Mikhail Gorbachev became President of the Soviet Union, so some things were already easier. Nevertheless - as expected - we weren't allowed to shoot in Czechoslovakia. The novel was strictly forbidden there, which is why we ended up shooting the film in France. When we finished everything was different in Moscow. A filmmaker I knew quite well, [Elem] Klimov, had been appointed to head Soviet cinemas by Gorbachev. He organized a film festival and invited us to show this film there. That was in 1980!

What an honor: a film for which the novel was based and the shooting of which was banned in the countries of the Eastern Bloc was allowed to be shown at a Moscow film festival.

When we arrived in Moscow with Philippe Kaufman, the director, Klimov then told us that they would not be able to show the film in the official movie theater, but in a different location. When Philippe asked why, Klimov replied: “We fear that the Czech delegation will leave the room.” In other words, Klimov was concerned that the representatives of those satellite states who now believed themselves to be the better communists would be the new leadership could dup in Moscow. We were quite impressed by that.

Pansard-Besson: Did you have any special experiences in the communist countries?

Carrière: Yes, because I always spent my time there with opponents of the regime. I never met anyone who supported the regime. Whether in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Russia itself - everyone was against the system, even if it was not always openly stated. One can ask how it is
could last that long at all.

I never met anyone who supported the regime - everyone was against the system.

Jean-Claude Carrière

When you are in a country that is foreign in every way - language, manners and customs, and so on - there is still a common language: that of cinema. What does someone want to say and show, which story needs to be told? It is always about this question.

When I was working on “Danton” (1983) with the Polish director Andrzej Wajda, I was fascinated by his 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, had the same reactions or aversions. With a foreign director, especially from a country under Soviet rule, it was completely different. Wajda's position on the revolutionaries, for example, was really exciting. It was not about any value judgments, but about the question of their actions. What did they achieve? And what did they risk? In the end, they all paid with their lives, after all.

Pansard-Besson: How was it for you to work in Germany? It wasn't long after the war ended, was it?

Carrière: I wrote “The Fake” and “The Tin Drum” together with Volker Schlöndorff. Volker and Günter Grass wanted a non-German look at the time shortly before the Second World War. I was the right person for that: thinking together about what happened to us. When Volker comes to Paris, he lives on the other side of the courtyard. He has a small apartment there. We are very good friends.

about the project

As part of the “Tell me about Europe” project, we are inviting ten European cities to hear and discuss European life stories from the perspective of different generations and regions. The project is based on the “European Archive of Voices” of the “Work on Europe” group. After completion, the archive will contain a large number of interviews with European contemporary witnesses who were born before 1945 and who reflect - quite critically - their life and history against the background of the European idea.

“Tell me about Europe” is a Goethe-Institut project, funded with special funds from the Federal Foreign Office for the 2020 German EU Council Presidency.

June 2020

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