Feature Four Frames

A Past Still Haunting the Present: Cédric Kahn’s The Goldman Case

In 1970, Pierre Goldman, a left-wing intellectual and militant, was arrested and charged with committing four armed robberies, including one of a pharmacy on the Boulevard Richard Lenoir in Paris during which two pharmacists – both women – were killed. In 1974 he was sentenced to twelve years in prison for the robberies and life imprisonment for the murders. The following year, this sentence was overturned by the Court of Cassation due to procedural errors. A second trial started on 26 April 1976 at the court in Amiens. This time, the jury found Goldman guilty of three robberies, to which he had confessed, but not guilty of murder. The earlier sentence was commuted to twelve years in prison. Goldman was released from prison after six years in October 1976, and three years later, on September 26, 1979, he was shot dead in a street in Paris by unknown assailants. More than 10,000 people attended his funeral at the Père Lachaise cemetery. Since his arrest in 1970, Goldman had made a name for himself as an author. In prison, he had written his autobiography Souvenirs obscurs d’un Juif polonais né en France [English title: Dim Memories of a Polish Jew Born in France], published in 1975, and the novel L’ordinaire mésaventure d’Archibald Rapoport [The Ordinary Misadventure of Archibald Rapoport], published in 1977.

Goldman’s conviction in 1974 had led to an outcry of indignation, particularly in left-wing intellectual circles in France. Public figures such as the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the actors Simone Signoret and Yves Montand and the philosopher and journalist Régis Debray – who in 1967 had gained worldwide attention as Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s comrade-in-arms – had spoken out in support of Goldman. Like Debray, Goldman had joined the South American guerrillas for a time in 1968.

The focus of Cédric Kahn’s The Goldman Case (Le Procès Goldman, France, 2023) is on the second trial in Amiens, and the film is a classic courtroom drama with most of the action taking place in the courtroom itself. There are a few exceptions, including four or five short sequences shot in the small cell next to the courtroom, a single shot showing the front of the court building at night, and the opening sequence, which is set in the chambers of Goldman’s lawyer, Georges Kiejman (Arthur Harari).

All these locations are closed spaces. There is a window in Kiejman’s office, but the framing – close-ups and medium close-up shots of Kiejman and his colleague Francis Chouraqui (Jeremy Lewin) – create a similar effect of closedness. In the trial scenes, the camera often remains close to the characters, again limiting the viewer’s field of vision. The walls of the courtroom are covered with brown panelling, and brown, grey and blue dominate in the characters’ clothing. The black of the robes worn by the courtroom officials and the total absence of bright colours contribute to the feeling of claustrophobia and latent tension that permeates the whole film.

Sometimes violence erupts, as when Goldman (Arieh Worthalter) loses his usual composure or when an uproar is sparked off by young people among the courtroom audience who shout repeatedly “Racist police! Justice accomplices!” Although the spoken word is an important medium in the film, The Goldman Case does not rely solely on dialogue and is visually tremendously rich. Kahn effectively orchestrates inertia with movement, order with chaos and speech with silence, making use of a great variety of images – successions of static shots as well as tracking shots – that are often accompanied by statements and questionings from the off. The viewer can thus follow the reactions of those present in the courtroom to what they are listening to. Without resorting to special effects, complex techniques or dramatic music on the soundtrack (there is no music at all), the film creates tension by juxtaposing different points of view. The various testimonies are interrupted by abrupt cuts that have a disconcerting effect – a clever dramatic device that intensifies the density of the narrative, leaving the viewer no time to catch breath.

Emotion is also created by the lively exchange of viewpoints, including those between the accused and his lawyer. During the trial, Goldman repeatedly takes the floor, challenging his lawyer’s strategy, and there are also heated discussions between Kiejman and his headstrong client during a few breaks in the proceedings. The opening sequence reveals the difficult relationship between Goldman and Kiejman, which is a central topic in the film. In a letter to Chouraqui, Goldman expresses his mistrust of Kiejman, calling him an “armchair Jew”, a term that visibly hurts the lawyer when he is told about it. Goldman is depicted as intransigent, and he vehemently declares: “I am innocent, because I am innocent!”

He tries – as does Kiejman – to expose the ineffectiveness and corruption of the police, who were all too eager to present a culprit for the murders at the pharmacy. However, the two men use different methods. Kiejman’s arguments are based on reason, and they focus on the lack of hard evidence against Goldman. Kiejman claims that the principles of the constitutional state have not been respected, and as the film shows, the testimonies of the witnesses and the police officers are riddled with contradictions. In contrast, Goldman makes use of the court as a platform for his ideological and personal concerns, accusing the police of racism and turning the courtroom into a stage where he repeatedly demonstrates his eloquence and intellectual capacity.

Nonchalant and ironical, Goldman is continually provocative, his statements revealing his political visions but also his inner torment. A child born into a Jewish family on 22 June 1944, he considers himself “born dead” and that the death penalty – which he risks in this second trial if he is convicted for the murders at the pharmacy – is his destiny. His attitude reveals not only a penchant for suicide and martyrdom but also an identity struggle and an obsession with his Jewishness. He expresses his admiration for his parents, heroes of the French resistance, and his desire to live up to their standards. However, Goldman lived at a time that offered few opportunities for heroic action. The attraction that death holds for him seems to be his punishment for being unable to fulfill his most ardent desire.  

Worthalter’s highly nuanced acting reveals the many facets of the accused, his strong emotions as well as his analytical and distant side. In one of the shots, Goldman is framed in the foreground and the blurred figure of his girlfriend Christiane Succab (Chloé Lecerf) appears in the background while an excerpt from his autobiography is read aloud. In this passage from his book, he expresses his love for her and the people from her homeland in the French Antilles. Listening to the reading, Goldman is visibly moved. The camera then moves slightly away from him towards the background, reversing the previous framing. It is now Goldman whose figure is blurred and Christiane a distinct figure in the background whose strong emotions are clearly expressed in Chloé Lecerf’s facial and body language. The slow movement of the camera and the change of focus reveal the strong bond between the couple. During the questioning of his father (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who recalls his son’s boyhood, Goldman, listening attentively, leans over the balustrade of the dock. Facial and body language reveal his tension, suggesting a father-son relationship marked by conflict and the son’s longing for recognition by his father.

The Goldman Case also gives a portrayal of French society through its dialogue and mise-en-scène. Goldman’s family – including his half-brother, the famous singer and composer Jean-Jacques Goldman – is seated on the right whereas the members of the families of the two victims at the pharmacy are seated on the left. Also present in the courtroom are not only a number of French celebrities who support Goldman but also numerous friends of his from the French Antilles. There is also a group of young people who visibly share Goldman’s anti-establishment and anti-racist views. Their presence and strong protests point to the clash between the establishment as represented by the members of the judicial system and the police force and a young generation contesting the values of the bourgeoisie. Christiane and one of Goldman’s friends from the French Antilles also support these views, revealing the pressure put upon them by the police and, by extension, a fundamental racism in French society as a whole.

The Goldman Case is much more than a murder case and the story of one man. None of the killings – neither the murders on Boulevard Richard Lenoir nor the assassination of Goldman – have been resolved. His case, closely linked to questions of antisemitism, racism, discrimination and injustice, remains disturbingly relevant in our time.

By Andrea Grunert

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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