I had a lot of dreams about the cinema…I always wanted to make films. I wrote film scripts and some were shot, but in the end it didn’t work out. 
– Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre was nineteen when he entered the École Normale Supérieure in Paris He was a student at the École Normale from 1924 to1929.  He was then, and for many years after, devoted to the cinema. In 1924, he wrote an Apologie pour le cinéma [In Defence of the Cinema]: Le cinéma est la poème de la vie moderne [The cinema is the poetry of modern life]. He, and a group of students at the School, met regularly to discuss films they had watched, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The films that interested them most were American films, films despised by the critical establishment for their vulgarity, crudity, simplifications, commercialism, for their apparent lack of art, in short, for their Americanism. American films, however, were popular in France. By championing the artless as art, American films rather than ‘quality’ French films, Sartre and his friends at school thought of themselves as belonging to the avant garde, as exceptions, for whom the most common films were the most precious. Those in the group – and Sartre especially – were cinéphiles before the letter, like those who would later constitute the cinéphiles of the Nouvelle Vague, who gathered at film screenings at Henri Langlois’ Paris Cinémathèque, where they discovered the cinema and its history and where they celebrated American films as Sartre and his companions had done at the École Normale before them. Both Sartre and the Nouvelle Vague had been touched by French Surrealism.
Sartre was nourished on the films of the 1920s and 1930s. He was enthusiastic for their transformation of reality, their unreality, fantasy, pleasure and style, especially the films of Chaplin, like René Clair’s appreciation of the cinema of the period. It was not the realism of films nor political or social importance that Sartre valued at the time, but their play, energy and the illusions they created. Sartre, like Clair, was influenced by French Surrealism, the everyday, chance and the accidental made magical and erotic. Sartre was also attached to Henri Bergson’s ideas of time and duration which Bergson had developed in relation to music, its rhythm, harmony, intermingling of motifs, the ability to produce different themes simultaneously.
Sartre’s dream and ambition was to make films like the dreams of the critics of the Nouvelle Vague, only in their case the dreams would come true. In Sartre’s case they did not.
Sartre’s embrace of American films, like that of the Nouvelle Vague’s embrace of Hollywood, was not without a politics, not because these films were ‘political’ in an obvious way (they were not), but rather because they were different from the tasteful and literary French films. In being different, they initiated an entirely new set of assumptions and perceptions of what the cinema could be and thereby perceptions that went beyond the cinema to the way life might be led. Their views constituted the kind of scandal Surrealism and Dada created, a valorisation of the improper, the unusual, the asocial, the despised, the disrespectful, anti-bourgeois, what the bourgeoisie perceived as not artistic because unconventional not in conformity with established views of what art was or should be. The open devotion to the American cinema was a critical revolution and a social challenge, even scandalous, indeed a politique.
There is a relation in this championing and later imitation of American films – are not the films of the Nouvelle Vague modelled on American genres? – with the development in painting in America at roughly the same time, in the 1950s, of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, both heirs to Dada and Surrealism. Pop is an art of imitation and serialisation, a parody, an accentuation of the popular and the commercial, that saw in these common practices, often in advertising, something new to be valued for their artistry and skill, their novelty like the films of the Nouvelle Vague. The early films of Jean-Luc Godard are, I believe, cousins to American Pop, part of the family.
Henri Bergson’s view of music informed Sartre’s view of film. What Bergson derived from music and Sartre from Bergson corresponds, I think, to the play of structures more than a half century later in Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema, especially in his Histoire(s) du cinéma by its intersections of opposities, its simultaneity of differences, its play of juxtapositions. At the beginning of Histoire(s) du cinéma, almost like an introduction or preface to the film, Godard cited Bergson’s Matière et mémoire (1896) as exemplary. The musicality of Bergson’s ideas resonate in the rhythms, rhyming, associations of things remembered, the fragility of images by their brevity and fragmentation in time, the quest in all Godard’s films to create, almost in parallel, differences and their reconciliation as in Godard’s Passion (1982) and his La Nouvelle Vague (1990). Sartre was the maître à penser to the Nouvelle Vague critics, writers and cinéastes. He was the maître à penser to Cahiers du cinéma, to André Bazin, Alexandre Astruc, Jean Domarchi, Roger Leenhardt, Éric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard.
Sartre made a distinction in his philosophical writings between necessity in works of art – their conclusiveness, the fatality of actions, their strict continuity of beginnings and ends, their closure – opposed to the reality of the contingency of life. Sartre’s views echoed Bergson’s emphases on intuition and immediacy in contrast to a prevailing positivism. Sartre’s theory of contingency, with its place for accident, chance, inconsistency, lack of finish, and the irrational, in short, by its openness to possibility, came to Sartre, according to Simone de Beauvoir, while they were watching the flow of images in the cinema. De Beauvoir noted that it was in 1931, while Sartre was writing about the cinema, that he first formulated his distinction between the necessity of art and the contingency of existence and the gap between them.
Also, in 1931, in an address to the Lycéens at the Lycée François Ier du Havre, where he taught, Sartre called film “un art populaire” “narrowly linked to our daily life”. “Far from being the end of civilisation”, he said, “the cinema ought to have the same role in our culture as Greek or Philosophy has…the cinema was like a school. It was an art of natural appearances and by that fact a reflection upon the culture and civilisation of the present day. Who better to instruct you about the beauty of the world we live in, the poetry of speed and of machines, the inhumanity and splendid fatality of industry?” he asked, “who, better then to instruct you if it is not your art, if it is not the art of cinema…”  For Sartre, the American popular cinema with its action, heroes, myths and immediate appeal, was crucial, American films as a philosophy of action, an interaction of man with the world, like his Existentialism would become.
In 1928, Jean Georges Auriol founded the Revue du cinéma which he edited until 1932. In that year, Auriol turned to screenwriting and the Revue ceased publication. Later, in 1946, the journal was revived by Auriol, and by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and André Bazin. Five years later, Doniol and Bazin would found Cahiers du cinéma. Auriol, like Sartre, loved the American cinema. “…all the world knows”, he wrote, “what the American cinema represents. Compared to European films: they are something alive, action, entertainment, often invigorating, sometimes extravagant, and sometimes delightful; a product as stimulating as champagne, or coffee or tea; it is one of the most rare of gifts, in short, what our civilisation can still value.” 
De Beauvoir, recollecting Sartre’s and her own reaction to the Soviet cinema of the period noted, “The Soviet cinema gives the leading role in its films to cement and to the tractor whereas the American cinema offers us the spectacle of wonderful faces, those of Garbo, Dietrich, Crawford, etc – and the fleshy Mae West.” The Soviet cinema, for her and for Sartre, “seemed resolutely didactic…and we carefully avoided it and its concerns for the glory of the collective farms…We were attracted instead to the American cinema even though we condemned American politics, despite the fact that we admired the USSR for its social policies and ideology, but whose films left us cold.”
And for Sartre, the American cinema was a “sign of the times”, “which addressed itself to everyone” as opposed to the elitist artificiality of German films.
The Left. Politics. Engagement
In October 1945, Sartre founded and directed the cultural journal, Les Temps Modernes. Its title was a homage to Chaplin’s film, Modern Times, hence to a certain kind of American cinema. For Sartre, Chaplin was “le roi du cinéma” – “the king of cinema”. The love of the American cinema by Sartre and de Beauvoir was essentially aesthetic and philosophical rather than political except perhaps for its social bias, its popularity and populism. It is tempting to imagine, after Simone de Beauvoir’s remarks referring to her and Sartre at a screening in 1931, that it was cinema that gave birth to Sartre’s philosophy.
Political circumstances in the1930s complicated their position toward the arts and towards the cinema: the rise of fascism in Europe, the formation in Europe of national Popular Front’s anti-fascist governments, the war in Spain, and most importantly, perhaps, the ideological shift in the Soviet Union’s Comintern policies with respect to international Communism. The Comintern moved away from its traditional class Marxist positions that had prevailed in the 1920s and early 1930s that condemned national governments for being nationalist and bourgeois. But by the mid-1930s, the Comintern supported instead, and vigorously, Popular Front movements and bourgeois parties in the struggle against fascism. A strict class position was not the way to help create a united anti-fascist Front.
In 1936, the French Popular Front, with French Communist Party support, won the electoral vote for a Left Radical Socialist-led coalition under Léon Blum. Sartre’s aesthetic perspective shifted. Aestheticism now appeared to him less justified, a flight from reality, reality grim indeed in the 1930s. To Sartre, it seemed urgent and necessary to be engagé, politically committed, to be anti-fascist (like the Comintern!). From then to his death in1980, Sartre and his journal, Les Temps Modernes, were gauchiste, on the political Left.
By the 1940s, the defeat of France by Germany, the German occupation of France, the beginnings of the French Resistance, the role of the French Communist Party in the Resistance, focussed and intensified Sartre’s engagement. Rather than art being self sufficient, art for the sake of art, in the light of political and military circumstances – the collapse of France, Sartre’s arrest by the Germans in 1942 – Sartre redefined the purposes of art, not an art for the bourgeoisie and bourgeois intellectuals, not avant-garde art, not art distant from the experience of ordinary people, but instead an art for everyone, like the films of Chaplin, like the action films of Hollywood. Popular art, populist art, almost by definition, for Sartre, became political art.
German troops marched into Paris through the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysée in mid-June 1940. On 22 June, an armistice was signed. As a consequence, most of France was occupied, the French army disbanded, a puppet French government established under German control in the South of France at Vichy under Générale Philippe Pétain, a French war hero of the First World War. More than two years after the Armistice, on 1st September 1942, the first edition of the cultural journal of the French Communist Party (PCF), Les Lettres Françaises (LLF), appeared in mimeographed form. The LLF was a clandestine journal of the Resistance. It represented the nationalist and patriotic Front National des écrivains (The National Front of Writers), both journals signs and symbols of French culture and Resistance. Louis Aragon, the Surrealist poet and Communist writer edited the LLF until 1972.
For the Front National des écrivains and for the LLF, the defeat of France and the German occupation were cultural matters, more specifically, there was no dividing line, no separation between culture and politics. Art was political. By threatening French literature and the arts, the German occupation was regarded by the Front and the LLF as a threat to the soul of France. It became their duty then to protect French values and cultural-artistic achievements, which, they believed, were as crucial to the fight for freedom and liberation as the armed resistance against the Germans. No longer could culture, including film culture, be regarded as self-sufficient, something apart from the national struggle, apart from ‘the masses’. The cinema was perfectly suited for this role more so than the other arts, because it was a popular art. The politicisation of the arts and the Resistance by means of culture on the Left and in the French Communist Party politicised Sartre’s philosophical positions and his subsequent work in cinema and theatre.
In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant (Being and Nothingness) was published. It was the founding philosophical work of French Existentialism. In the same year, Sartre’s theatre piece, Les Mouches (The Flies) was performed in Paris and his scénario, Les Jeux sont faits (The Die is Cast) was drafted though not published until 1947. L’Être et le Néant is concerned with matters of freedom as is Les Jeux sont faits. Les Mouches, set in ancient Greece, centres on resistance to established authority.
Sartre met Albert Camus in1943 during rehearsals for Les Mouches. Camus was a member of the French Resistance cell, Combat, which was also the name of its clandestine newspaper edited by Camus. In January 1945, Sartre went to the United States as special correspondent for Combat and for the daily newspaper, Le Figaro. Sartre’s articles for Combat, written between February and June 1945, centred on aspects of American life. His articles were journalistic, part sociology, part travelogue. They were immediate, well-informed, detailed. They introduced the United States as if it was an unknown place whose everyday was exotic, a fairy land, practically fictional: the effects of the war, rationing, consumption (of clothing, manufactured goods, food), industrial production, working conditions, savings, housing, social attitudes, class consciousness, fears, regional differences (the South to the Northeast), the culture of its cities, government development works such as the hydro-electric Tennessee Valley Authority dam…and impressions of Hollywood. There was no overriding theme to these articles. America was varied and for Sartre everything was worth noting.
His articles on Hollywood appeared in February and in June, centred on the streamlined factory-efficient production methods in Hollywood. Indeed, Hollywood was a vast, carefully coordinated dream factory, its division of labour the importance of the producer rather than the film-maker.
While in America, Sartre saw Orson Welles’ first film, Citizen Kane, that had been made in 1939 and he wrote a review of it. The review, published in the Communist film journal, L’Écran Français, in August 1945, was negative, dismissive and hostile. All the claims for the genius of the film were rejected by him.
L’Écran Français, like Combat, was founded in 1943 and like it an underground publication as part of the Resistance until the Liberation in 1945. It was subsidised in part by the PCF. The editorial committee of L’Écran Français was composed of French intellectuals and artists on the Left, many of whom were members of the PCF, and most associated with the cinema as directors, writers and critics. It included, besides the painter Pablo Picasso and the composer Francis Poulenc, Jacques Becker, Pierre Bost, Albert Camus, Marcel Carné, Louis Daquin, Jean Grémillon, André Langlois, André Malraux, Léon Moussinac, Jean Painlevé, Jacques Prévert, Georges Sadoul and Jean-Paul Sartre. L’Écran Français was integrated in 1952 with the LLF. Articles and reviews of film appeared in every issue, written at first by Roger Leenhardt and then, after 1952, in the expanded LLF, almost exclusively by the film historian Georges Sadoul. Sadoul was a committed Communist and a Stalinist and though his reviews of American films were sometimes hostile and ideological, because they were American, he also admired, despite his politics, the films of Howard Hawks and Hitchcock, as Cahiers du cinéma did. It is unlikely that Sartre’s negative view of Citizen Kane was motivated by anti-Amercanism, but more to do with the populist politics of the French Resistance and L’Écran Français which Sartre identified with.
One of the most interesting and informative essays on Sartre’s involvement with the cinema as a writer of screenplays is by Pascale Fautrier:
He sought to analyse the narrative possibilities of montage: a film like a musical work constructed according to a ‘thematic unity’, which allowed for an interweaving of motifs and of varied actions…without compromising the unity of action so important in theatre…This ‘extreme mobility’ creates metaphoric and rythmic effects, which makes possible the development simultaneously of several themes, thanks notably to objects functioning as signs of deep and hidden relations.
During the war and the Occupation, in 1942, the French film company, Pathé, offered Sartre a contract as a script writer. He wrote eight scripts for Pathé between 1943 and 1945. He accepted to write scripts in part for the money, (he and Simone de Beauvoir were short of money then) and in part as a step towards making a place for himself in the French film industry in a post-war future. Of the eight scripts, only two, however, were produced: Typhus, released in 1953 under the title Les Orgueilleux (The Proud Ones), directed by Yves Allégret; and Les jeux sont faits. There were two other scripts of Sartre’s worth noting, both from 1962, and both from which he withdrew his name after disagreements with the directors: The Condemned of Altona (I sequestrati d’Altona) based on a theatre piece by Sartre, directed by Vittorio de Sica and Freud, the Secret Passion, directed by John Huston. By all accounts, Sartre’s scripts were very good, for example this assessment from Michel Contat who had worked with Sartre on a number of occasions:
What immediately one notices reading Sartre’s scripts, is that he thinks in images, in camera movements, angles, framing and in sound, his cutting and his dialogue are already montage. He has an intimate knowledge of the visuals of film learned from the American cinema of the 1920s and 1930’s, as well as from the Russian and French cinemas. One might venture to say that if the conditions of production had been different during the war and the immediate post-war, Sartre might have become an auteur in the same way the film makers of the Nouvelle Vague became auteurs and film directors. But in that period, directors and producers controlled the cinema, while script writers merely served an industrial process. 
And, from Odette and Alain Virmaux, art historians and critics well acquainted with Sartre’s film work:
What is striking reading his scripts is the importance given to filmic expression. The entire range of film effects are evident (inserts, tracks, musical counterpoint, parallel montage). Nino Frank  confirmed this: “For the first time I met a script writer who saw things in terms of shots and not scenes…astonishingly instinctive, that is cinematographic”. In effect, Sartre worked with remarkable ease within the cinematographic approaches of his generation. He wrote his scripts easily and brilliantly, with his personal concerns, though one is surprised to discover that there is very little in it that is revolutionary, making it hard to forget the reservations expressed by Sartre in 1945 regarding Citizen Kane of Orson Welles… one might have hoped, however, that the author of Le Mur (1939) would, in his scripts, overturn more decisively established film conventions. 
One of the interests of Nino Frank’s remarks and those of Fautrier is that their notion of what was cinematic in Sartre’s scripts was the attention he gave to shots rather than to scenes and sequences. In effect, what they noticed was Sartre’s attention to the techniques of the classical cinema whereas Bazin’s and Leenhardt’s appreciation of Citizen Kane and later to other films of Welles was precisely the opposite. For them, it was the scenes and sequences that were a matter of note made possible by Welles’ use of depth of field and a moving, tracking camera by which the fragmentation of scenes and therefore of time and space, an inheritance from the silent period carried over into classical cinema, was now less necessary. Welles’ films, therefore, in the judgement of Bazin, were more realistic than classical films because time and space, by not being fragmented, were made more ambiguous and open to question. Perspectives and the attention of viewers by Welles’ approach were less directed, less imposed upon, essentially labyrinths where fiction was at stake, in sharp contrast to Hollywood practices in the 1930s and 1940s, where scenes were constructed by shots, the shot-reverse shot schema and the films tended to be straight forward and transparent.
Citizen Kane was first screened in Paris on 10 July 1946 after the Liberation. Sartre reviewed the film when he saw it in the United States in August 1945 before Les Temps Modernes was launched in October of the same year. Sartre’s unfavourable review had four aspects. First, the film though unique to the United States, he said, was familiar to Europe. In effect, Citizen Kane was not original. Second, he said, it was a film of an intellectual for intellectuals, for the New York élite, that is rootless, cut off from most Americans, cut off from the ‘masses’, unable to relate to their concerns, a condition made obvious, Sartre asserted, in the compositions of the film which were shaped like a puzzle made of discontinuities, repetitions, and the use of the frequentative. Thus, the film was politically suspect (elitism) whereas Welles’ innovations regarding time, space and continuity by his use of the camera and of depth of field were as if not noticed by Sartre, or if noticed dismissed as commonplace. Third, the film, for Sartre, was abstract, overly artistic, an “l’écriture artiste” (citing Goncourt), essentially without social relevance, which was, for Sartre, the dilemma and drama of American intellectuals, a sign of their social isolation, where to be an American and to be an intellectual were incompatible, an oxymoron, contradictory. Finally, the events in the film, were made subordinate to a message, that of American liberalism and anti-fascism. Though the message was praised by Sartre and for which he was sympathetic, the fact that it was a message where everything was already said in advance, and therefore the action nothing more than an example, it denied the film any life, any spontaneity.
Sartre’s shift toward politics in the late 1930s and his new found identity as an intellectual engagé and his insistence that art and film be politically committed is the background to his negative view of the Welles’ film. That view, as Odette and Alain Virmaux commented, is disappointing. In practice, what Sartre defended and argued for was a conventional cinema. What he rejected and could not perceive was a film that radically changed such conventions. Sartre emerges by his criticism of Welles as insensitive to what was new and modern in the film, thereby insensitive to the future of the cinema, not for aesthetic reasons, but for political and ideological ones that he brought forward from the 1930s.
Aside from his mention of the use of the frequentative (the sequence of Susan Alexander’s repeated failed performances at grand opera), Sartre concentrates not on the style of the film, but rather on its social and political aspects, a criticism of its supposed content. It is precisely the virtues of Citizen Kane that Sartre rejected and its lack of ordinariness that he lamented. The film for Sartre was too obviously dèsangagé, despite its liberalism and its parody-caricature of the journalist tycoon, William Randolph Hearst on whom the film is based, an anti-semitic pro-Nazi fascist.
Sartre’s position was self-contradictory. Because Kane had a political position, the style of the film suffered (unduly intellectual and mannered, he said). And because that style was complicated, in short, the films was an ‘art’ film and, as such, remote from American audiences, stylistically it was dèsengagé Sartre implied; as if the film self-destructed either because it was too political (the film was dead) or because it was political in the wrong way (avant-garde) and therefore ineffectual both as film and as ideology. Citizen Kane was historically and by implication in the context of French culture and politics, the antithesis of the concerns with the content of film by the Left.
The real subject of Citizen Kane is, as in Bazin’s view and Leenhardt’s, its mise en scène, its cinematic qualities, its innovations and its reflections on the cinema. Though Sartre recognised in Citizen Kane its break with the kind of film most Americans were accustomed to and liked, it was precisely this aspect of the film that troubled him. It was not a new position for Sartre. It recalls his earlier unease toward the ‘heroic’ avant-garde of the French cinema of the 1920s and 1930s. For Sartre, American films were designed and should be designed to appeal to everyone, the virtue and hallmark of the American cinema. Citizen Kane was not only unlike the films of the cinema that Sartre loved and that Americans he believed preferred, ‘classical’ films of a naive realism, with action, movement, with heroes that were practically mythical, of a simplicity, directness and grace without the need to prove anything. The merit of the American cinema for Sartre was not that it was worthy intellectually, still less that it was ‘artistic’, least of all that it catered to a sophisticated few, but rather that it was entertainment for the many, close to their lives and experiences, essentially democratic and populist, like the genre films that had for him characterised the American cinema: gangsters, cowboys, beautiful women, the magic and eroticism of stars.
Everything for Sartre was over analysed in Kane, taken apart, presented in a false, essentially intellectual order where events were subordinated to causes, a narrative mosaic of past times, suited to the novel perhaps, but not to film. And, however impressive Citizen Kane might seem, rather than there being characters in the film, there were instead, for Sartre, merely explanations (explications) of characters and rather than there being forms and techniques that functioned to understand life (pour comprendre la vie), there was only a demonstration of technique, a showing off. Thus, for Sartre, the stylistic displays in the Welles’ film lacked substance, were meaningless, essentially empty, were not by themselves a film: Bref, j’assistais à une explication de caractère et à une démonstration de technique. L’une et l’autre sont parfois éblouissantes: mais elles ne suffisent pas à faire un film. (In effect, I was present at an explication of character and a demonstration of technique. The one and the other are sometimes dazzling: but are not enough to constitute a film.)
Citizen Kane, for Sartre, rather than signifying the birth of the modern and the new, a revolution in the cinema that dated everything that had been before it, was a sign of isolation, irrelevance even, not an example in any case for the European cinema to emulate, certainly not the future of the cinema.
Alas, for the cinema, it was Sartre who made himself irrelevant as French producers came to realise, despite Michel Contat’s praise. Few of the films he wrote were produced, and irrespective of his dream to make films, he never made one. What was within his reach was not worth making and what was beyond his reach, films of the present, films like Citizen Kane, he did not understand, too intellectual for this intellectual engagé. In the end, Sartre, with respect to the cinema, was too conventional, too much part of the past. Perhaps Welles was, as Sartre asserted, indeed cut off from the masses, not popular, but Sartre had cut himself off from the future, not popular either.
 Quoted in Pascale Fautrier Le cinéma de Sartre Littérature Histoire Théorie Décembre 2006.
 The French Grand Écoles are prestigious higher education establishments for research and the training of teachers.
 Pascale Fautrier, op.cit.
 Antoine de Baecque, La Cinéphilie: Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture 19441968. (Paris: Fayard 2003), p. 103.
 Dominique Chateau Sartre et le cinéma Séguier, Biarritz 2005, p.37.
 Fautrier op.cit.
 Sartre’s script for Les Jeux sont faits was filmed in 1947 by Jean Delannoy and was presented at Cannes that year.
 JeanPaul Sartre, ‘Quand Hollywood veut faire penser… “Citizen Kane” Film d’Orson Welles.’ L’Écran français n.5, 5th August 1945.
 Pascale Fautrier, op.cit. The words in quotes are Sartre’s. The translations from the French throughout this article are mine.
 Michel Contat, ‘Sartre et le cinéma’, Magazine littéraire n.103104, Septembre 1975.
 Nino Frank was a film critic who wrote for L’Écran français.
 Le Mur (The Wall) is the title of a short story by Sartre in a collection of short stories by him entitled Le Mur and published in 1939.