Simone Weil and Self-Sacrifice
Liliana Cavani directed documentaries and dramas for Italian television and started working on feature films in 1966. Among her works are Francesco d’Assisi (1966), Night Porter (1974) and Ripley’s Game (2004). This conversation was first published in: Ingrid Calame, Mathilde ter Heijne, Jörg Wagner, Kunstverein Hannover, 2004.
Together with Italo Moscati you wrote in 1971 Lettere dall’ Interno, a script for a film about the French philosopher Simone Weil. You studied linguistics before you worked as film director. When I told you that, for my video installation Quo Akti, I had your script translated into the artificial language Glosa, you told me that you did not believe in such a thing. Why not?
It is possible that I did not completely understand the idea. Languages are constantly born and renewed by life. Each word comes from human feelings such as wonder, obstinacy, pride, love, pain, and so on, and so forth. Languages are enriched by poets and particularly sensible people, by the keen intelligence of researchers and the need of a newborn clarity… A country has its own idiom as well as something that linguistics calls idiolect, the individual’s language that is enriched by personal variations creatively motivated by feelings. The assembly of these idiolects makes up the country’s language that constantly undergoes small and constant variations because language is alive for as long as it is spoken. Latin started to die when they stopped speaking it, when, as centuries went by, other words were slowly but relentlessly added. That is why I believe that an artificial language does not have a future. New words are invented on a daily basis for scientific purposes, but that belongs to the realm of normality.
Why was the film never produced?
We were hoping that it was going to be produced by Italian National Television (there was only RAI then). We waited for many years, but nothing happened. They considered Simone Weil too much of an intellectual.
Why did you want to make a film about Simone Weil at that time?
I was interested in her because she dealt with working conditions in factories (they were terrible then) and with the difficulties faced by those who emigrated in search of work from the South of my country to the North. Simone wrote a very intelligent essay about emigration, L’Enraciment (The Need for Roots) that was a sort of declaration of rights for the human race. I was also interested in Simone because, before dying at the age of thirty-four (just like Mozart), she wrote papers that are still valuable for the understanding of modern man, and in my country very few people knew her. Had she been a rock singer it would have been easier to get the movie financed. She was much more modern and stronger than many writers and poets and musicians who became famous in 1968. But she was too deep and too modern.
Would you still like to make this film? Do you think that you could use this script for the making of a film now, or would you change the script to make it more time-compatible?
Simone’s research methods were modern in a provocative way. Before writing La Condition Ouvriére, she decided to work in a factory for six months. She had a profound disliking for intellectuals who spent their time behind a desk. Nevertheless, I do think I would rework a couple of things in my book. I would go deeper in her thoughts because I understand her better today. She is extraordinary not only because of her intellectual honesty, but also because she referred to the working class and to the oppressed as “individuals” and not as “masses”—something that is now finally understood and considered important by Italian Left-Wing Parties —and for her, the individual was made up of body and spirit. The importance of the SPIRIT is slowly also being understood today.
Main themes of Simone’s writings are the search for the reason for the difference between intellectual bourgeois and capitalists, and non-intellectual proletarians. She thought about freedom and the needs of the human soul and talks about the need for roots. Did you base the script on specific writings on or by Simone Weil?
All of her writings, essays, and articles that we could find at the time were the basis of our book. Only La Condition Ouvriére was available in translation at that time. We had to read all of her works in French. Simone Weil’s first biography was published in Italy only in1981. I share many of Simone Weil’s ideas, and I owe her a lot because her writings opened up my mind. I share her awareness and thorough concern for social justice, and her belief in the necessity of nurturing one’s spirituality.
In the script, Simone Weil constantly doubts if her actions and writings are right and effective. Even at the end of her life, she does not know the answer. How did you want to depict the character of Simone Weil? As a hero, a misunderstood genius, or more like a person who did not succeed in reaching the high goals she designed for herself?
I consider Simone Weil to be a very successful person. Undoubtedly she has had an influence on those who read her books. Personally, I consider her as one of those few minds of the twentieth century who have broadened the limited horizons of sociology, social psychology, and political theory. Her need to directly witness what she researched makes her very contemporary. Her mind was that of an extraordinary human being. Her political commitment was intense. Her antifascist stance was neither a trend nor emotionally dictated, but stemmed from a necessity determined by her intellectual honesty. She did not consider herself a hero. Simone makes us understand that an intellectual could not choose between being a fascist or a Nazi. In 1941, her family escaped France because of Jewish persecution, and moved to New York. She could have stayed there and enjoyed the life of a civilized country, far from the horrors happening in Europe at the time. However, she chose to come back and share the tragedy of the oppressed during these darkest moments of European history. She wanted to be present and active in the disaster areas. However, she was ill and her commitment to the Resistance (from London) was limited to her having a desk job, she, of all people, who wanted to share the suffering of the victims.
Do you see a difference between Weil’s refusal to eat, which caused her death in 1943, and today’s widely known eating problems of girls and women such as anorexia?
There is an enormous difference between Simone’s decision not to eat and letting herself die and today’s anorexic women. When she was in London, Simone felt ashamed of eating while millions of people were dying of hunger in Nazi camps. She wanted to share their suffering. SHARING, as I have said before, was Simone’s most important research tool in all of her intellectual quests. Actually, she felt that only her research methods gave her the right to write about other people. Most writers base their work on books and other people’s experiences. In addition, it would not be fair to Simone to consider her sacrifice in the Christian sense. Sacrifice for her was not a heroic gesture but simply (even if the price to pay was great) the only way to consider herself a human being. Had there been not millions but at least ten thousand people like Simone Weil in Germany amongst the doctors, architects, directors, musicians, etc… maybe things would have taken a different turn, and Germany and Austria of the time would be remembered in a different and better light.
The life and writings of Simone Weil could be interpreted as a sacrifice for the proletariat of those days. Do you think that self-sacrifice is a typical female virtue? Would you describe it as a positive virtue?
I would like to point out that self-sacrifice is not a typical feminine virtue, even if many men believe it to be so. Unfortunately, many women and even society itself believes this to be true. It is handy to think that half of the human race has a “natural” inclination to sacrifice itself for the good of humanity. It is a colossal and absurd lie that women have to bear. Sacrifice is something that a human being can freely choose to do for another human being. I am thinking of Alceste’s readiness to die instead of her husband. However, Euripides clearly states that Alceste does it freely out of love, and not because she feels that she has to do so because she is a wife. Sacrifice is an act of virtue only if willingly done.
You wrote the screenplay Lettere d’all Interno in the 1970’s, around the time your feature film Night Porter was made. The film shows the reaction of a Jewish woman who meets her Nazi torturer from the Second World War again. She does not play the (typical female) victim of a male oppressor but seems to be an active player in the sadomasochistic love relationship that they renewed, years after the war. The spiral of violent self-denial does not stop this time, but ends with their deaths. Did you understand the disappointment of the feminist movement with the way you depicted female behavior in Night Porter? Do you like to be called a feminist filmmaker?
Many things were said about Night Porter, both bad and good, and I was very surprised. The movie’s female character was a victim of violence. She survived, but she was tainted by violence because it is like a drug. Even in times of peace, most women experience and tolerate violence provoked by males, be it verbal or physical. This still happens today. It is a subconscious way of partaking in violence. Even today, the only way for these women to get even is to give birth to a male child who will represent them and who will commit the same kind of violence on other women that their husband committed on them. This vicious violent circle still exists, even in so-called “good” families. I welcome any kind of feminist movement that opens women’s eyes. What does this have to do with Simone Weil? A lot, because she took the luxury of thinking with her own mind and faced all those issues pertaining to political history and to present and past society, often expressing her opposing view on the male past and present vision of he world.
Is it easier nowadays to finance a film about typical women’s issues like violent insults by men, self-sacrifice and anorexia than it was in 1970s?
Even today, it is easier to have a movie financed if it based on female stereotypes. Just imagine: in Italy, women have only had the right to vote since 1946. There is still so much that has to be done.
Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: If It’s Me, It’s Not Me, pages 12-13