Elizabeth Taylor and the Holocaust: The Story of Montage by Jean-Luc Godard
On the 27th of February 1932, Elizabeth Taylor was born in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, England. She was born with a rare condition called distichiasis, which in her case manifested itself as double rows of eyelashes around her eyes. She was blessed by nature with something that most women would normally dream of – a hypnotic gaze obtained in a totally effortless manner. However, seven per cent of people with lymphedema distichiasis syndrome also suffer from congenital heart defect. Elizabeth Taylor was among this unfortunate group and in 2011 she died due to congestive heart failure, which was a direct derivative of her rare condition.
When looking at Elizabeth Taylor’s life one can see this pattern of physical beauty accompanied by physical suffering, love followed by heartache, etc., forming one of the most captivating life stories. But such is probably the truth of life that the frictions between happiness and hardship make our existence not only more interesting but also more real, as connected to all spectrums of life. Translating this into the language of cinema, life is reminiscent of montage – a collection of short shots edited into a sequence to produce a condensed version of a bigger narrative. Bearing all this in mind it is perhaps not a mere coincidence that the great French director, Jean-Luc Godard, used the image of Elizabeth Taylor in Histoire(s) du Cinéma Chapter 1A (1988-1998), juxtaposing her physical beauty against the imagery of the Holocaust. This longest and one of the most difficult of Godard’s films examines the history of the concept of cinema and its relation to the 20th century. The film consists of four separate chapters divided in total into eight episodes, and is based on the technique of montage.
The use of Taylor’s image in Godard’s film, as much surprising as shocking, was “the ideal instrument for representing the ‘dubious’ nature of historical relations.” (Michael Temple, The Cinema Alone: Essays on the Work of Jean-Luc Godard, 1985-2000). For this purpose, Godard used a snapshot from A Place in the Sun (1951) by George Stevens, who, as it happened, was among the first to shoot footage of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. “After the war, Stevens filmed a young Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, a Hollywood adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel An American Tragedy. In Histoire(s) du Cinéma Chapter 1A, Godard inserts a tender interlude from Steven’s film into an elegiac meditation on the Holocaust, the relationship between cinema and memory, and the crisis of documentation in the face of terror and mass murder. He superimposes pictures of stacked corpses in the ovens and the image of Taylor’s peaceful smile as she cradles Montgomery Clift in her arms on the shores of a lake. A gradual dissolve reveals the lovers against a backdrop of atrocity and death. It literally appears that the beautiful film star, with a gentle stroke of her hand, might calm the horrors of the camps. Conversely, the pain of an unendurable grief, a sad portent of an unhappy fate, tempers the romantic pathos of the couple’s embrace. They pledge their love in place of a death. Loon Lake holds an awful secret: Shelley Winters and her unborn child will soon find a watery grave in its depths.” (Temple).
Explaining his motives for this peculiar juxtaposition Godard said: “In A Place in the Sun, there’s a deep feeling of happiness that I’ve rarely encountered in other films, even much better ones. It’s a simple secular feeling of happiness, one moment with Elizabeth Taylor. And when I found out that Stevens had filmed the camps and that for the occasion Kodak had given him their first rolls of 16mm color film, that explained to me how he could do that close-up of Elizabeth Taylor that radiated a kind of shadowed happiness…” (Temple).
Elizabeth Taylor’s image offset against the imagery of Holocaust genocide conveyed a multilayered message about the development of history on a larger scale. One may say that, at the same time, the life story of Elizabeth Taylor, the result of equally manifold juxtapositions, makes one see history in a more individual, restrictive context, on a smaller scale.
Film Credit: rizotto99