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Each country writes history its own way

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An inspirational history teacher
Jean-Claude Carrière Film-maker
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I took the decision to study history in khâgne, after having taken the baccalaureate. As I was a reasonably good student, they put me in khâgne to prepare for Normale Superieure. And when you reach khâgne, you choose… the literary khâgne, because the maths one is called taupe. In the literary one you can choose philosophy, classics and history... I think what pushed me into history was one of the teachers.

I had a wonderful history teacher at Lycée Lakanal called Jean Breua who at the time was a communist, I mean he had a Marxist  perspective on history, but a wonderful teacher still, who gave us... who gave me a real taste... he first helped me understand what history was and gave me the desire to continue, and he was the one who... he helped me pass my first exams and my degree. And I became an historian because of him, even if I have never worked as one, or even been a history teacher. He was an extremely methodical man, he always... he was sequencing history, 'firstly, secondly, thirdly'. So, it is always quite artificial because the reality of the times, of life can't be cut down into 'one, two, three'. There is always that complexity, obviously, that constitutes life. But there, the beauty of the system was it helped to remember. He kept saying, 'I make a plan, but forget it! But the plan is also there to help you remember what we talked about'. And he was also someone who, for instance, and that has been so useful recently... I saw it again... next to the official Sorbonne programme required to pass exams, he was writing the most unexpected of courses. For an entire year, he gave us a course on the history of the European banks. It doesn't exist, there is no book on the history of the banks. But it is the most fascinating subject, he did all that incredible in-depth work, I kept all the notes I took at the time, regarding the creation of the idea of banks and the banks' existence during the 19th century and the start of the 20th.

It is most fascinating as through the banks, you can see the politics of the time, you can see the succession of times going by, entire lives of countries and societies. That's what I liked a lot with Jean Breua, who died a long time ago. There was something quite moving in that he was the official historian for the Russian Bolshevik Communist party. He was, he is the one who wrote the Que sais-je on the history of the PCB [Bolshevik Communist Party]. And he was forced to rewrite them two or three times. Small alterations, ordered by the party, directly from Moscow. He was, I once saw him at his home, as he invited me to his home - his flat - extremely sad, trying to erase certain things and transform them according to orders. That's the day I started... I seem to remember now... started doubting the possibility of writing history.

Le choix pour l’histoire, chez moi, c’est fait en khâgne, c’est à dire après avoir passé le baccalauréat. Comme j’étais apparemment assez bon élève on m’a mit en khâgne pour préparer Normale Supérieure. Et en khâgne on rentre… khâgne littéraires, les mathématiques ça s’appelle «la taupe»… la khâgne littéraire il y a la philosophie, lettres classiques, humanités classiques,  et histoire comme… comme choix. Et je crois que ce qui m’a décidé à choisir histoire c’est la personnalité d’un professeur. J’avais un professeur d’histoire merveilleux au lycée de Lakanal… qui s’appelait Jean Breua et qui était à l ‘époque un communiste, c'est-à-dire un  marxiste du point de vue de l’histoire, du point de vue de sa formation d’historien mais un extraordinaire professeur qui nous a donné… qui m’a donné le goût… d’abord qui m’a révélé ce qu’était vraiment… ce qu’était vraiment l’étude historique et qui m’a donné le goût de poursuivre et c’est lui que j’ai vu… qui m’a aidé à passer mes premières examens, ma licence etc. Et c’est grâce à lui je crois que je suis devenu historien, même si plus tard je n’ai pas exercé le métier d’historien ni même de professeur d’histoire. C’était un homme extrêmement méthodique, qui avait toujours… qui réduisait la réalité historique à des plans : premièrement, deuxièmement, troisièmement. Alors cela à quelque chose d’artificiel toujours, parce que la réalité d’une époque, d’une vie quelle qu’elle soit, ne peut pas se mettre à un, deux, trois. Il y a toujours une complexité, bien entendu,  qui fait la vie. Mais là, la merveille de ça c’est que cela permettait de se rappeler. Et il disait toujours: «Je fais un plan, oubliez le. Mais le plan est là pour vous rappeler de quoi nous avons parlé». Et c’était aussi un homme qui, par exemple, et cela nous a  été très utile récemment… je lai revu… à coté du programme officiel de la Sorbonne qu’il fallait suivre pour passer les examens… nous faisait des cours tout à fait inattendu, qu’il imaginait. Pendant toute une année il nous a fait un cours sur l’histoire des banques, en Europe. Ca n’existe pas, il n’y a pas un livre sur l’histoire de banques.  C’est tout à fait fascinant, il a fait un travail considérable, j’ai gardé toutes les notes que j’ai prise de cette époque là, sur la création de notion de banque et toutes la vie de banques aux XIXe siècle et au début du XXe. Vraiment tout à fait fascinant parce qu’au travers des banques on voit les régimes politiques, on voit la succession des époques, on voit toute la vie d’un pays et d’une société. C’est ce que j’avais beaucoup aimé chez Jean Breuat [ ?]  qui est décédé il y a longtemps.  Il y avait quelque chose de pathétique, c’est qu’il était l’historien officiel du parti communiste bolchevique russe. Il avait… C’est lui qui a fait le «Que sais-je» sur l’histoire du  PCB. Et à deux ou trois reprises il a été obligé de corriger ses textes. C’est à dire de retoucher en fonctions des directives du parti, lesquelles venaient bien entendu de Moscou. Il a été… Je l’ai vu une fois chez lui, car il me recevait chez lui,  dans son appartement,  très triste en train de rayer des choses et de les transformer sur ordre. C’est ce jour là, où j’ai commencé….je crois m’en rappeler maintenant… à douter de la possibilité d’écrire l’histoire.

French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière began his association with films aged 24 when he was selected by Jacques Tati to write for him. This early experience led to further contact with other film-makers, including Luis Buñuel with whom Carrière collaborated for many years. He has written screenplays for films including 'Belle de Jour', 'The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie', 'Tin Drum' and 'Danton'.

Listeners: Andrzej Wolski

Film director and documentary maker, Andrzej Wolski has made around 40 films since 1982 for French television, the BBC, TVP and other TV networks. He specializes in portraits and in historical films. Films that he has directed or written the screenplay for include Kultura, which he co-directed with Agnieszka Holland, and KOR which presents the history of the Worker’s Defence Committee as told by its members. Andrzej Wolski has received many awards for his work, including the UNESCO Grand Prix at the Festival du Film d’Art.

Tags: Bolshevik Communist Party

Duration: 3 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2010

Date story went live: 26 July 2010