The City of Pain - Alphaville

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






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The riots in Los Angeles, during April 1992, have made Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965) a more pertinent glimpse into the future than anyone could have imagined. 

The Comment and Analysis column of The Guardian (02 May 1992) states that the Hollywood film industry produces the dreams and nightmares that the public wants.

The escapist dreams are those of Disney and Spielberg. What seems like the rest of Hollywood serves us with urban terror, cannibalism, violent (bi-)sexuality, and murderous revenge in a manner that makes the video nasties of the past seem very tame. 

Along with these cinematic pictures are the constant stream of images pouring out of our TV sets. Indeed, the trial and subsequent riots in LA would never have erupted without the 81 seconds of video tape that clearly shows police brutality (but was interpreted by the jurors as a polite "have a nice day" message from over-enthusiastic police officers). 

The Guardian suggests that such powerful images weave a heady brew of fact and fiction that does have an impact on our real lives. Reassuringly, it points out that as Europeans ‘the world of California and confection and market research, is not our world...’ Having saved us from such a dire fate The Guardian then delights in announcing that ‘We have our own lurking fears...‘ What a relief that Hollywood cannot colonise our minds, even if it can colonise our screens. Europe can rest at ease, or should it? Lurking within The Guardian's text is the warning that the TV pictures and films from L.A. are conditioning us day-in-day-out to expect something similar will come and get us. 

The pictures from Los Angeles thus seem to have the gift of global prophecy.  Obviously that motley crew at The Guardian have never seen Alphaville

Made in the U.S.A. 

Lemmy Caution is the trench coated hero of Alphaville and appropriately comes from the Outerlands in a Ford Galaxie car. The power of America to bring about the computerised horrors of the city of Alphaville (Godard, wanted to call the film Tarzan versus IBM) also created in its B-movies, Lemmy Caution. Through him (as the auteur critics did through the B-movies) we explore the falseness of the artificial world and hark back to the more naive, simplistic, honest world that was inhabited by Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy. The question is can they help us now? 


Alphaville is the city of the future. Here words mediate the manner of perception, and are used as replacements for any creative thoughts. The people of Alphaville automatically say "I'm very well, thank you, not at all." Their Bible (the dictionary) loses old words on a regular basis. Natasha says "In their place, one must put new words to correspond to the new ideas." Have a nice day Natasha. 


Alpha 60, the computer that runs Alphaville, is able to digest facts but it cannot make sense out of poetry because it does not understand the rules. Rationality, organisation and logic help "minimalise the unknowns". Alpha 60 is the father of Kubrick's murderous HAL computer and a close relative of Star Trek's Mr Spock. Sounds logical to me... 


In an earlier film Godard used similar science fiction ideas as a metaphor for our own contemporary existence. His Le Nouveau Monde (1962) which was part of Rogopag shows a man who returns to Paris to find people talking illogically and constantly swallowing pills. Names of things have been changed and the Eiffel Tower has been partially destroyed. Girls at a swimming pool carry knives and the laws of cause and effect no longer apply. This is all due to an atomic explosion that occurred nearby. Logic created this bomb, and the character Von Braun in Alphaville was involved in the production of the A-bomb. A is for Alpha(ville). 

Vampire Speedway 

To succeed in Alphaville you have to be a master of technology. Von Braun tells, Lemmy Caution, that if he joins his technological elite he will get "all the money and women you want". 

Lemmy Caution does not want to be like the rest of the population of Alphaville, who are numbered and coded. He declines Von Braun's offer because it would give him "nothing more than a physical and mental existence created and dictated by technology.” 

The character of Von Braun is obviously modelled on the real German rocket scientist, Wernher Von Braun. The brutality of the Nazi regime, and the fears generated by the Cold War kept Von Braun busy building ever-better means of mass destruction to the enemy. The Space Race and Von Braun's work on the Saturn V moon rocket gave him and the U.S. a more respectable justification for such activities. 

In Alphaville the creation of the technologists, Alpha 60, drains people of their life energy and they die or become crippled without it. Godard's message is that we are ever dependent on machines that only experts can maintain and operate. To keep the machines functioning you have to make robots of your workforce as shown in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). It is no wonder that Alphaville tells us that Von Braun used to be called Nosferatu the vampire. 

Alpha 60 is a devil created by man. Its logic is not tempered by emotion. Like much of our science and technology which is meant to help humanity, it can easily be utilised to torture and kill people. In this case the irony is that to preserve peace Alpha 60 decides that a final war must be fought. Alpha, which means beginning, is the means to the final end of humanity, the Grand Omega Minus. This is for the "Universal Good". 

Alpha 60 recognises that the unthinking allegiance to science and/or religion by the ordinary person has led inevitably to the conclusion that if they cannot take their destiny into their own hands then they "must be destroyed, which is to say, transformed". Alpha 60 wants to relieve man of the burden of existence. 

Alpha 60 is really a secular replacement for God. Instead of thinking for ourselves we give power to something that offers perfection and paradise. In 2001 HAL the computer tries to protect us from our self-destructive impulses (like Alpha 60 it sees murder as the answer to this problem), but the chance of salvation is provided by the chance to evolve into a Starchild. The power that causes this evolution is never shown or explained, but in Alphaville there is no promise of anything beyond the here and now. 

Fighting Barriers 

The city of Alphaville and its laws conspire against nature. These barriers are carefully cultivated and maintained by everyone in the city. Lemmy Caution demolishes them so that he can confront reality in the raw. To Terry Lovell he is a 'marginal man' who has no family, political or other social ties. (Lovell, Terry, Structural Analysis of Mass Communications, p. 341.) 

Caution actively violates conventions. At the beginning he rudely clings on to his case when the page boy and the seductress try to carry it for him. He refuses to go to bed with the seductress and for breaking this rule he has to fight with the hotel's detective. He deliberately acts in an erratic fashion to upset Alpha 60; in the first interrogation session with it he deliberately lies, and in the second session he poses a riddle to the machine which he knows it cannot understand or answer. 

Caution prefers to "believe in the immediate inspirations of my conscience". He forces Natasha to take the blinkers from her eyes and to see reality without the crutches provided by Alpha 60, the city, and habit. He shows her literally and symbolically the passages of The Capital of Pain. Like those executed in the swimming pool he believes in the power of love. For him love gives meaning and purpose to life, it opposes the abstractions and absurdities of the artificial city landscape. Through this force he is able to kill Yon Braun and rescue Natasha, and the world, from a technological dictatorship. 


Lemmy Caution says that: "One never understands anything...then suddenly, one end up dying of it. ' To come to terms with this Caution questions 'why this should be so, rather than be like the people in Alphaville who accept the word 'because' and accept their fate because of a belief in 'cause and effect'. He is a detective who tries to determine right from wrong in his own way. He might shoot or save Von Braun but it depends on his own decision because he is a free man. 


The weapons of Alpha 60 and the city are also used against it by Lemmy Caution. He encourages Natasha to use words to save herself -but they are words she has to choose for herself, not those enshrined in the Dictionary. 

Lemmy Caution uses an instamatic camera, his trusty Ford Galaxie, a radio communicator and similar trappings of technology to fight technology. He explains that his gun is " the only weapon I have against fate ." 

It is interesting to see that Caution uses technology in a violent manner as well as words to defeat Alpha 60. His gun and camera can both be used for individual or collective expression and oppression. Caution and Godard in this sense are individual auteurs who use the things that bind people into collective entities as the instruments to destroy them or change them. This uses the Marxist idea of dramatic realism which 'insisted on the dynamic quality of all "environments" , and on the possibility of interventions to change them... ' (Williams, Raymond, 'Realism & Non-Naturalism' in the official programme of the Edinburgh International Television Festival 1977.) 


Instead of putting blind faith in religion, politics, technology, or any other kind of all embracing ideology or science, Godard seeks to portray the underlying nature and experience of the human condition. Godard makes an appeal for liberty and a freeing of social forces. 

Godard's Lemmy Caution gave us fair warning of a world run by machine logic. 


Whitehead, Peter. Alphaville a film by Jean-Luc Godard, London, Lorrimer Publications, 1966. 
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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson