In Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville, a secret agent, Lemmy Caution, infiltrates a city controlled by a super-computer called Alpha60. He is sent to Alphaville posing as a journalist to investigate its residents and encounters a conflict of human emotion versus logical machines.
The weapon of choice for both man and machine is knowledge that the other does not possess. This knowledge is marked throughout the film by Caution’s observations as he deciphers how Alpha 60 reinforces logical thinking by eliminating emotional ideas. These observations are Godard’s epistemological representation of what can only be known to humans and never grasped by computers.
Caution has knowledge of poetic language important in his defense against Alpha60’s interrogation. He is arrested for trying to take photographs of Professor Van Braun, the computer’s creator and taken to Alpha60’s central control. Seated in an interrogation room he is questioned about his purpose for being in Alphaville. He manages to avoid revealing his true motives, which are to undermine Professor Van Braun and destroy Alpha60. He does this by answering in circumlocutory poetic language that the computer cannot register.
The computer’s questions are similar to a lie detector test and the exchange of dialogue marks an important distinction in the knowledge they both possess. The computer’s thinking and speech process is maintained by a knowledge based in logic. Whereas the poetic language Caution uses is knowledge rooted in an intuitive emotional thinking.
The computer at first asks completely factual questions of, places, dates and objects. The only Lie Caution tells is that of his name saying it is Ivan Johnson, his cover as a journalist. The computer can detect this falsity, as it is factual information. It is not until the computer delves into matters of Caution’s opinions and ideas that it has problems detecting him. When asked “Do you make any distinction between the mysterious principles of knowledge and those of love”, Caution responds, “In my opinion, in love there is no mystery.” This boggles the computer, as do his other opinion based responses and he is set free.
Here Caution has encoded knowledge of the self through stating his opinion in poetic phrases. The computer’s question could have been answered by a yes or no, but he hides his meaning just as poetry often hides it’s meaning in the language. Here Caution displays the complexity in how humans have the ability to know as compared to a computer’s ability to calculate only facts. A yes or no answer would be analogous to the binary language of a computer in ones and zeroes, easily decoded. Instead Caution creates something like a code of language that the computer cannot crack.
After the computer interrogates Caution he is led to another room where an engineer interrogates him. Here the engineer tells Caution that his replies to the computers questions were “difficult and sometimes impossible to codify.” No logical meaning could be found in Caution’s replies so he is a mystery to Alpha60 and its brainwashed servants. To explain the thinking of Alphaville the engineer says, “we record, calculate, and draw conclusions.” Within these dialogues Godard has drawn the line between the logical language of computers and the human language of poetry.
The language of Poetry that Caution represents is as he says “inspirations of the conscience.” Alpha60’s binary language of yes and no is limited to that of calculations and conclusions. Knowledge in Alphaville is reduced to this simplified form of logic and as Caution says its people are “slaves of probabilities.” The conflicting forms of knowledge are marked in two different ways in the film. One is the film’s visualization of censorship that expresses the formal language instructed to the residents of Alphaville by the computer. The second is the use of light to symbolize human knowledge in Lemmy Caution and electricity as the artificial knowledge of Alpha60.
There are two distinct ways in which knowledge is contained and censored by Alpha60. With them we see the challenge Lemmy Caution is up against in saving the brainwashed residents of Alphaville. Firstly when the characters say a forbidden word, there are electronic bleeps in the film’s aural soundscape. This marks key words that when used are a threat to the computer’s control over how people think and communicate.
In a scene where Caution reveals censored words to the professor’s daughter, Natasha Von Braun, she says the word “love.” A bleep is then heard over a splice edit of a police car driving past the hotel they are in. Earlier in the film Natasha also says she does not know what the word love means. This same bleep is heard when Caution first meets Natasha in the hotel. He questions her job of entertaining strangers, himself, and says, “it must be nice sometimes”, suggesting she has love affairs with them. The bleep occurs when she asks “Why” to his questioning. Caution learns that “why” is forbidden as many of the residents say, “no one ever says why, one says because.”
This statement embodies the logical thinking of the residents of Alphaville and challenges Caution as a detective or journalist. For him not to be able to ask “why” limits what he can learn about the city and its inhabitants. He must rely on his skills of observation as represented by his camera. His questioning is reduced to the what, who and where of the city as the images he photographs must speak for themselves. In some ways the camera also represents a form of knowledge, as it is Caution’s portal to understanding the city. This is a relevant concept in Godard’s own camera poetically conveying knowledge through the language of film.
Caution comes to realize that not all can be saved and few are left not completely brainwashed by Alpha60. One is another secret agent, Henri Dickson, hiding in a seedy motel who Caution contacts. Dickson’s fleeting knowledge of human ideas such as love, tenderness, and conscience are reawakened by Caution’s visit. He has also forgotten the meaning of the word “why”, unable to answer Caution’s questions. As he speaks of these ideas Dickson literally chokes on his words, an example of the power Alpha60 holds over the city.
Overwhelmed by Caution’s visit Dickson chokes to death while professing his love to a prostitute. His last words to Caution are to “save those who weep”, and he gives him a book hidden under his pillow titled The Capital of Pain. This is a book of essays and poems that contain ideas Godard loosely based the film on. Caution later shares this book with Natasha, which also marks Caution’s realization as to why the people of Alphaville are how they are and how Alpha60 is controlling them. Books are the second distinct way the film marks how knowledge and language are censored.
With Dickson dead Caution realizes that the only person he can save is Natasha by sharing the Capital of Pain with her. She alone shed a tear when Caution was arrested for photographing Professor Van Braun, relevant to Dickson’s plea to “save those who weep.” Caution begins to free Natasha from Alpha60’s censorship by introducing unknown or forgotten words to her.
These words are found in their reading of the poetic language in The Capital of Pain. Again the word “conscience” is uttered from the book that was hidden under Dickson’s pillow. As she begins to learn these words she becomes confused and emotional, a state of being punished in Alphaville. The more emotional Natasha becomes, the less logical her thinking is and the more Caution understands Alpha60’s control over her.
The books, in the context of Alphaville, contain a language known only to the secret agents and are a symbol of knowledge. In order for Caution to save Natasha from Alphaville he must reveal their poetic meaning. Another book, the dictionary, which replaces the bible in every hotel room, is Alpha60’s way of censoring language and controlling thought.
The dictionary also marks knowledge as something found in a language of exact definition, a form of linear or logical thinking. This contrasts knowledge found in the poetic use of language where words take on abstract forms and meaning. As Natasha says, the writers of books such as the Capital of Pain “write incomprehensible things.”
When Natasha learns the word Conscience she tries to look it up in the hotel room’s bible (dictionary). Before she can find it, an attendant who has brought in room service quickly switches the bible from her hand with a new one. The word is gone and Natasha says that “no one here will know the meaning of conscience any more.” This scene visualizes how quickly Alpha60 can maintain control with censorship. The residents call the book the bible, but in Caution realizing it is the dictionary, Godard contrasts how a society interprets the meaning of language. In the technocracy of Alphaville the bible as a form of poetic language is replaced by the formal definitions found in a dictionary.
The bringer of light, the bringer of knowledge
In a scene where we see how Natasha learns from Alpha60 a contrast is made to books as the source of knowledge. After Caution’s visit to agent Dickson, he finds Natasha in the Resident Control building. Inside a dark room one of Alpha60’s computers is giving a lecture on the nature of time, suffering and the meaning of words. When Caution enters the room, a flashlight is turned on that leads him to Natasha illuminating her face in the darkness. After he sits with her the room lights are turned on and it is here that light is connected to a visual representation of knowledge. It can be said that Natasha is living in darkness being told what to know by a computer. Caution is the bringer of light, as seen by the flashlight representing knowledge, to her darkness.
Fittingly Caution also teaches Natasha the forbidden words during the daybreak scene in the hotel, which is the first natural light scene in a film shot mostly at night. Light is also associated to knowledge in how Alpha60’s computers are specularized. When one of Alpha60’s computers speaks a circular light flashes, as seen in the opening shots of the film, and whenever a computer is shown. This artificial light is a contrast to the natural light of the hotel room representing a knowledge that is artificial or not genuine to the human experience.
The Filmmaker as Poet
The study of epistemology deals mostly with the origin and limit of human knowledge, but Godard is showing more what the limit of computer-based knowledge is. Furthermore Alphaville is Godard’s epistemological study of the differences in how language is acquired and used in computers from how humans form knowledge.
In the end Alphaville is a visual poem about a man who awakens a woman’s innate knowledge of love by rescuing her from her father’s cold logical thinking. It is also, as most science fiction, a film about film, in that the machine embodied by Alpha60 cannot give us knowledge. It is the voice of the poet behind the machine, or director behind his camera from which we must interpret the meaning to gain knowledge.
The DVD of Alphaville is available from the prestigious Criterion Collection
Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville, Film Script.
Introduction by Richard Roud
London: Lorrimer Publishing Inc., Ó2000
Wood, Robin. Alphaville.
From The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, edited by Ian Cameron
London: Studio Vista Limited. Ó1967
Brown, Royal S. Focus on Godard.
London: Prentice-Hall. Ó1972