The pop star and the revolutionary: The myth of the Goldman brothers

An essay by historian Ivan Jablonka and a film by Cédric Kahn reexamine the disparate figures of Jean-Jacques and Pierre, icons in contemporary France

Goldman brothers
Pierre Goldman is escorted by police officers after a session of the trial in April 1976.Michel ARTAULT (Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images)
Marc Bassets

They were brothers and they couldn’t be more different. The Goldmans — icons of a moment in French history and society — are topical again, thanks to a book and a film.

The eldest, Pierre, was an angry young man. He rebelled against everything and everyone. He was an adventurer, a revolutionary, and an alpha male. Pierre Goldman was a violent man and a romanticized robber who became a cause célèbre for the French left in the 1970s. Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Montand signed manifestos in his favor. The singer-songwriter Maxime Le Forestier dedicated a protest song to him.

Jean-Jacques was seven years younger and was trying to make his way in the music business at the time. He became the king of French pop-rock, and had sold millions of records. His personality was the polar opposite of Pierre’s. Jean-Jacques was an artist who was integrated into the system. He was progressive but not revolutionary. He was a star despite himself — a humble and ordinary man who represented a tender and sensitive masculinity. Nowadays, he would be called a feminist “ally.”

Pierre was murdered in 1979. He was 35 years old. Thousands of people attended his funeral at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Jean-Jacques left the scene at the beginning of this century. He retired after being easily the most famous pop star in France (yet little known outside the Francophonie). He was and despised by the elite — the perennial arbiters of good taste — as a popular easy listening artist from the late 1960s and 1970s who had a broad appeal. There have been twenty years of silence since then. And, although he no longer records albums and very rarely appears in public, according to poll after poll, he is the French people’s favorite public figure.

Actor Arieh Worthalter stars in the film 'The Goldman Case.'
Actor Arieh Worthalter stars in the film 'The Goldman Case.'

What was so special about those brothers? They were the sons of a Polish-born Jew who participated in the French Resistance, but each had a different mother (Pierre’s was also a Polish Jew, but Jean-Jacques’s was a German). What does their legend explain about the France of their time, and today? The publication of an essay about the artist Jean-Jacques Goldman and the release of a film about the gangster-revolutionary Pierre Goldman demonstrates the strength of the ambivalent Goldman myth.

“The coincidence [in the release of] the book and the film says something about the history of the Goldman family, which, if we go back to the father, embodies almost a century of French history,” explains Ivan Jablonka, professor of History at the Sorbonne Paris North University and author of Goldman, one of the essays of the year in France. “It also says something about the fratricidal struggles on the French left. And about the way in which immigrants, and especially Jewish immigrants, integrated and embody French history.”

The analytical and narrative scalpel that Jablonka applied to the murder of a woman in Laëtitia ou la fin des hommes, (Laëtitia or the end of men) and to the feminist revolution and machismo in Des hommes justes (Just Men) — both published in French — is now applied to the pop star. Bridging the musical, sociological, and ideological distances, it is as if someone wrote an essay about Bon Jovi to understand the United States and the Americans of the 1980s, and those of now. With the assumption that a relative of the group had been a mix of Frank Abagnale and a far-left revolutionary in the 1970s.

Jean-Jacques Goldman, in concert in 2003.
Jean-Jacques Goldman, in concert in 2003.Eric CATARINA (Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images)

The film The Goldman Trial, directed by Cédric Kahn, focuses on the other brother. This is a reconstruction of the second and last trial of Pierre Goldman in 1976 for several robberies and for the death of two pharmacy employees near the Place de la Bastille, in Paris. He was eventually acquitted and released from prison. The film is the story of a man possessed by uncontrollable rage and tormented by the Holocaust.

“I was born in the shadow. I was born in the shadow, and for a long time my wish was that they would not tear me out of the shadow where I find myself,” he wrote in Dim Memories of a Polish Jew Born in France, a powerful book of memoirs he wrote in prison, in which he states: “I dreamed of a civil war, an anti-fascist war, a true return of time, of history.”

There is a secondary character in the film, but from whom it is impossible to look away. Sitting in the front row of the courtroom, next to his parents, is a boy in a suit and tie with “long hair,” as Pierre describes him in his memoirs. It’s Jean-Jacques.

“Jean-Jacques,” Jablonka points out, “defined himself in opposition to his half-brother, even though they were from the same family and had the same father, although I think there was a certain tenderness between them.”

Their father, Alter Moishé Goldman, was active in left-wing Jewish organizations as a young man. He was an athlete: the start of the Spanish Civil War caught him participating in the Popular Olympiad in Barcelona. After World War II, he ran a sports clothing store in Montrouge, on the outskirts of Paris. Jean-Jacques worked there until he got his first great musical hits. While he had followed the classic trajectory of meritocracy (as a boy scout and an obedient son to a father obsessed with integration in France), Pierre rebelled against all this. He was expelled from school. He traveled to Cuba and Venezuela. He despised the revolutionaries of May 1968 and thought they were timid.

Funeral of Pierre Goldman in Paris, September 28, 1979.
Funeral of Pierre Goldman in Paris, September 28, 1979.Michel ARTAULT (Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images)

“They opposed each other on at least two points,” says Jablonka. “First, in their relationship with what is Jewish. Pierre’s was very claimed. He would have liked to have been a Jew in a ghetto and have killed Nazis. Jean-Jacques’s was much more discreet, faithful within a biblical affiliation, and reflective on uprooting and exile. If anything, he was much more humble.”

“The second point,” he continues, “is obviously the political positioning. Pierre Goldman is the star of the 1970s, the radical left who wanted to stage revolution with a capital R, before devolving into gangsterism. On the other hand, Jean-Jacques was more of a social democrat, a liberal: the pragmatic left.”

Jablonka’s Goldman can also be read as a self-portrait. Jablonka was born into a family of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, like Jean-Jacques, and identified with social democracy and attached to the “vulnerable, fragile nature of masculinity.” It is the story of a generation: the teenagers of the 1980s, for whom Jean-Jacques’s hits including Comme toi, Elle a fait un bébé toute seule, and Là-bas were an education, in the same way that Pierre’s adventures fascinated the public in the turbulent late 1960s. The historian says: “Jean-Jacques Goldman has become a national myth, almost an institution that is part of the collective heritage.”

One myth, or two. And two mysteries: Jean-Jacques’ silence, which he broke to express his disagreement with Jablonka’s book. And Pierre’s death. He was shot by three men in a square in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. An organization called Honneur de la Police (Honor for the Police) claimed responsibility for the killing. Years later, a former far-right mercenary also claimed to have assassinated Goldman. Yet another hypothesis has circulated in the French press since the murder: the Spanish connection that is perhaps related to the dirty war against ETA, a separatist organization in Spain that used terrorism in its campaign for an independent Basque state. Someone heard one of the gunmen say “This way, men!” in Spanish as they fled.

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