Ellul Meets Bazin: The Ethics of Reality and the Photo/Cinema Image

On the very first page of his book The Humiliation of the Word, the French theologian and cultural critic Jacques Ellul makes his first reference to cinema: “There is also cinematic language—I’m well aware! But too often people forget that this sequence of images is not the same thing as the organization of sentences” (Ellul, 1985, p. 1). Ellul’s claim that cinema is not like spoken languages is his reason for not including cinema more centrally in his written exploration of the denigration of language by the visual in 20th century cultures. For Ellul, cinema is aligned with technological manipulation and ultimately the spread of propaganda. Although the quoted passage may be serviceable for purely personal organizational purposes, however, it is not satisfying as a dismissal of the cinematic medium. Although Ellul sidesteps dealing with film in depth, this paper is the opportunity to bring another voice to Ellul’s brief references to film. The other voice is that of Andre Bazin, the influential French film critic and theorist who is known as the forefather of the Nouvelle Vague in French cinema. Ellul essentially writes that cinema is not verifiable as a language because it does not adhere to the same structural rules as spoken or written language. “Cinema is also a language”; this is how Andre Bazin ends his formative essay, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.”

At first glance, there seems to be very little in common between Jacques Ellul and Andre Bazin. One wrote 58 books on theology, politics, technology, and social theory, and the other never published a book in his entire lifetime. While Bazin was devoted to the exploration of captured and projected sight and sound, Ellul was, for the most part, condemnatory of the use of images in culture, including film and television. And while Bazin spent his time in the major metropolis of France with anyone and everyone interested in cinema (including delinquents like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut), Ellul lived quietly (though with no less activity) in a small town outside Bordeaux.

Upon closer inspection though, significant similarities between Ellul and Bazin reveal themselves. Born six years and less than 200 miles apart, the two French writers were both deeply affected by the second World War and wrote for the magazine Esprit in collaboration with its founder, Emmanuel Mounier, involving themselves in his philosophy of personalism. In addition, both were Christians: Ellul from the Protestant tradition and Bazin from the Catholic tradition. Regarding Bazin’s faith, Robert Cardullo writes “there is no denying the primary source of [Bazin’s] inspiration: faith . . . Bazin was an intellectual and a Christian—better, a Christian intellectual” (2013, p. 7). Despite these connections (as well as numerous interweaving ideas in their writings, as we shall see), there has been no scholarship placing these two important figures side by side.

I will pair some of Ellul’s ideas about the word and image, particularly his view of reality, with those of Bazin, in hopes of illuminating the contours of both writers’ works. The form will be, as much as possible, a dialogue, using The Humiliation of the Word and “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” as the primary texts. Although these sources represent only a fraction of the material left by these two thinkers, they distill some of the core concepts that followed Ellul and Bazin throughout their lives. This paper interacts with these two thinkers in an explicitly Christian context, drawing out their ideas and applying them in a larger Christian system of belief. No personal written theology exists (at least in English) from Bazin, and so any study of his thought in relation to Christianity must work by way of implication and deduction using his many articles and reviews of films and about film in general, instead of employing direct evidence. My claims about Bazin’s thought in this paper, therefore, must not be taken for granted, but be considered incomplete and subject to differing interpretations of the evidence. The views presented by Ellul and Bazin are imperfect, and a comparison may isolate not only their strengths, but also their weaknesses in the hopes of opening a dialogue that may continue.


As with many of Ellul’s books, The Humiliation of the Word is, through most of its pages, a less than optimistic work, pointing out how far from the original (and perfect) system of communication, worship, and thought humankind has wandered. Ellul’s ideas on the power and control of technology (resembling those of the Frankfurt School) go unstated here, but they remain the all-important backdrop to the work. The crux of the book is the essential (if subtle) distinction between word/truth and image/reality. Ellul (1985) begins his book by retaining “the oversimplified distinction between seeing and hearing, between showing and speaking” (p. 1). He goes on to clarify and back up his distinction for the next 47 pages. For him, these concepts go far beyond mere human experience, as on page 55 he writes “God, the World, Time, and History are connected through the Word” (Ellul).

Ellul relies heavily on biblical and historical examples to provide a radical view of the word, the image, and the relation between the two. His claims fall strongly against the contemporary world of industry and culture, in which the image has predominance and guides the thoughts and lives of people who were created for speech and listening as the means of communicating with their Creator. Ellul attempts to establish a binary on which to base his argument by distinguishing between truth and reality, writing that “dialogue requires distance” (Ellul, p. 17), and “the image prevents me from taking my distance” (Ellul, p. 10).

A significant portion of the book is dedicated to reconciling this binary with the accounts of God and humans found in the Bible. Careful attention is given to seemingly visual forms of communication from God to people, from prophets to people, and between people, and the consequences these interactions produce. For example, Ellul discusses the creation of the world, emphasizing the action and matter produced directly through speech. The origins of speech’s characteristics are not within culture but “are such because they are the characteristics of the Word as expression of God the Creator. For human speech possesses eminent dignity” (Ellul, p. 64). In a spiritual sense, sight must be subordinated to sound, and not just any sound, but specifically the spoken word. Such a position is in stark contrast with the trajectory of linguistic study in the 20th century, which increasingly focused on the instability and unbounded nature of language. Ellul sees language as essentially comprehensible, although humanly imperfect.

Ellul goes on to demonstrate how contemporary culture (and even the Christian church) is built from the power of the image. Using examples of photography, film, television, education, politics, and iconography, he makes plain the extent to which the image rules the world. However, it would be unfair and false to forget Ellul’s multiple clauses reminding us of his intention. One of these is worth quoting at length:

Let us be clear that we must not make a reality of this analysis of the myth. I am not saying that the word is good and that sight is evil! Nor that the word is pure and sight impure! To say that amounts to reentering the universe of realism—the universe of this reality where sight is autonomous! I simply insist that the word belongs to the order of truth and sight to the order of reality. When the two were separated and their unity had disappeared, humanity, submitted to reality alone, entered into separation from truth. This rupture with God is called sin. (Ellul, p. 102, emphasis in original)

While sight and reality are not the sources of evil, they are problematic aspects of this fallen world. Ellul does not leave us in the dark, however, but looks forward to a coming-together of word and image “in the ‘eschatological’ truth that is revealed only at the consummation of human history by God’s final actions of judgment and salvation” (Greenman, Schuchardt, & Toly, 2012, p. 56). Now let us move on to see how Ellul’s view of realism and reality contrast with that of Andre Bazin.


Bazin has faith, not merely in reality, but through reality and its representation. This is made clear in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” as he argues for the liberation of the arts through the realism of the photographic and cinematic mediums, which significantly rely upon an automatic, mechanical process. Bazin differs significantly from Ellul in his affirming view of the present world and humans in the world. Bazin sees reality as God’s creation, created holy but no longer so. Reality, however, still has the capability to interact with and, more broadly, to point towards the spiritual world—that which Ellul calls “truth.” Writes Bazin, “The photograph allows us . . . to admire in reproduction something that our eyes alone could not have taught us to love” (Bazin, 1967, p. 16).

The two Frenchmen agree that the photograph is fundamentally different from other tools of representation. Ellul: “the public does not tolerate photographs as illustrations. They are perceived as fact—as unimpeachable witnesses. The photograph’s power of evocation should not be capable of deception” (1985, 136). However, as the theorist quickly points out, photographs lie frequently, especially about the presence of a human behind the mechanism. Bazin states the case of the photograph’s power no less strongly: “We are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space” (1967, p. 13-14, emphasis in original). The words “facts,” and “time and space,” found in these passages seem to point only to the realm of creation. What about when non-material elements are introduced, such as absence and death?

Ellul and Bazin begin to diverge in the use of photographs for remembrance, eventually coming to utterly separate conclusions about the practice. Writing of departed friends, Ellul forcefully states, “Either you loved them and their faces are engraved in you . . . or you did not love them . . . Their absence is neither filled up nor ensured by looking at the picture. No, let’s not have pictures of dear ones who are no longer with us” (p. 123-4). Bazin views the practice in more powerful, even supernatural terms: “It is this religious use, then, that lays bare the primordial function of statuary, namely, the preservation of life by a representation of life” (p. 9). While Ellul sees photography and film as deceptive because of their “feeling of currentness, presence, and immediacy” (p. 138) that takes advantage of the fact that “we are conditioned by all of human experience” (p. 138), Bazin views the endless process of modelling and capturing as the manifestation of the innate desire for the perfect and coming Kingdom of God. “Change mummified” (Bazin, p. 15) may be the extension of the fight against death, the struggle for eternal life. While Bazin would agree that eternal life and deliverance from death can only be found in Jesus Christ, the natural drive to live is also an innate and meaningful aspect of the Christian life.

This leads to a deeper difference between the two, a difference in the view and value of reality itself. Ellul and Bazin both think that the cinema is intimately connected to reality. For Ellul, the experience of the image is limited to the things of this world, and even blocks the viewer from thinking and speaking beyond it—in his words, “audiovisual methods immerse us in reality alone” (1985, p. 219). Bazin, meanwhile, sees within reality the spark of something larger, beyond the physical. In fact, the viewer’s participation with the image is for him more active than immersion. Robert Sinnerbrink writes, “The key to Bazin’s valorisation of (aesthetic) realism is belief: the psychological propensity to invest the image with a sense of reality, the conviction that it bears the trace of a former presence” (2012, p. 97). What is this “former presence”? Could not Sinnerbrink be referring to the trace of the Creator, the mark of the spiritual that is encapsulated through the transformation of reality? The leap from belief in the visible projection to the unseen spiritual realm may be smaller than it seems.

More, however, can be said. In Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, Caveh Zahedi describes Bazin’s view with the term “the holy moment.” He claims that the Creator is active within his creation, that “God is manifesting as this . . . So film is like a record of God, or of the face of God, or of the ever-changing face of God” (Pallotta, T. et al, 2001). While Zahedi may overstate his case, a more apt statement can be found in the Psalms: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1 New International Version). Perhaps David’s psalm is a poetic representation, but it speaks directly about created things declaring (as in speech) the glory of God, and His work not in terms of speech but as works by hands (anthropomorphic); indeed, the act of declaring manifests itself in a visual way. Ellul believes this is no longer extant: “Nature ‘promises us harmony and speaks to us of a divine message; but it gives us incomprehensible signs which have to be interpreted.’ This is made essentially impossible by parasites on the wavelength and by interference, which prevent us from understanding this first indication of a possible word” (1985, p. 195-6).

The question Bazin might put to Ellul is: Why can’t imperfect physical reality point to (not capture or convert) spiritual reality? Why can’t God be found (though not fully) in his creation, noisy and polluted as it is? Ellul argues that “A human being’s sight commits him to technique” (p. 11, emphasis in original), but what about instances where sight leads directly to praise? In David’s psalm, the heavens provide a visual decentering of the human being. By taking in the expanse of the universe, it can be communicated that the viewer is not the “master and subject” (Ellul, p. 11), but merely one being of many declaring the glory of God.

Bazin dates to the sixteenth century a distinct growth in the desire for realism, what he calls the “proclivity of the mind towards magic” (1967, p. 11). Technical developments led to perspective, which Bazin titles “the original sin of Western painting” (p. 12). It is photography that released artists from this burden by satisfying the desire for ultimate resemblance. Here it is technique that got painting into trouble and technique that got it out: “all the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence” (Bazin, p. 13). In Bazin’s view, photography ceases to be technique for it has reached its end, it has served its purpose. Now the mechanism merely points us back to whatever is real over and over, no longer interested in efficiency or progress (of course the technology continues to evolve, but not fundamentally). Philip Rosen states that “the distinctive cultural and aesthetic role of photographic and cinematic technologies resides in their relation to this irrationality” (Andrew, 2011, p. 109); rationality, reason, and efficiency are, according to Ellul, some of the main tenets of technique (these the camera no longer exemplifies). Bazin, however, does not see realism as a linear search in the way that Ellul sees technological progress in society; Bazin writes, “There is no one realism, but many realisms. Every era seeks its own, meaning the technology and the aesthetic which can best record, hold onto and recreate whatever we wish to retain of reality” (Bazin, 1997, p. 13). Technologies of representing reality can be seen as the counterweight to Ellul’s concept of technique, which has made the world inhospitable for humans. Realism reconnects the human with their environment, breaking the blinding force of technological conformism, if only temporarily.


Bazin begins his essay “Cinema and Theology” by writing, “the cinema has always been interested in God” (1997, p. 61). The context of the statement is a brief history of religious cinema, but the words reveal a double meaning: cinema has always been interested in God because that which it portrays (physical reality) is also interested in God. If the skies proclaim the work of his hands, how else might matter point toward a maker? The barrier to recognition of these signs and glories may be the inability, or more precisely the practiced unwillingness, of human sight. This is why Bazin values in photography what Ellul includes in his seven characteristics of technique: “automatism, which is the process of technical means asserting themselves according to mathematical standards of efficiency” (Matlack, 2014, p. 51, emphasis in original). The camera’s mechanical nature is what sets it apart from us, and what allows us to see another side of reality within it. Ellul writes, “At no point can we say: ‘Stop, image; you are so lovely.’ The image has gone and we will never see it again. The basic rhythm of life escapes us” (1985, p. 141). Bazin would see this as well and say the opposite: isn’t the image also a rhythm of life, one that escapes our human consciousness? Bazin loved and valued animals, and even in his criticism he looked, as Fay writes, “for scenes that respect the spatial and temporal continuity of reality, and above all its complex ambiguity . . . His theorizing of cinema was never far removed from his thoughts about animals” (2008, p. 41-42). Animals, while without eternal souls, undoubtedly represent different perspectives on the world from our own.

While for Ellul reality is forever tainted (even controlled) by technique, Bazin writes in “The Myth of Total Cinema,” “what strikes us most of all is the obstinate resistance of matter to ideas rather than of any help offered by techniques to the imagination of the researchers” (1967, p. 17). Neither technique nor humanity have conquered the world, since the mysteries of life remain. Science (similar to Bazin’s use of the word “ideas”), while using matter, does not and cannot become the new nature by explaining everything. And when it seems to, it is merely concealing matter and mystery. The physical is imbued with some measure of the spiritual. By piercing one we may reach the other. This is Bazin’s claim. Bazin might agree with Ellul that in everyday life the individual’s relationship with reality is primarily physical, intuitive, pragmatic. However, Bazin would argue that this stems from a dulled sight, a one-dimensional perspective of the surrounding world. According to Bazin, it is possible to renew the vision. Ellul, on the other hand, sees the movie-theater as a dangerous place where emotional and moral guards are let down. “The film viewer is placed in a state of emotional accessibility that opens him wide to influences, forms, and myths” (Ellul, 1985, p. 119). More broadly, Ellul says “visible reality transferred to the illusion of images becomes our ultimate reference point for living (not for thought!)” (p. 195, emphasis in original). The danger is not the possibility that images control our lives, but that this transfer of control has already occurred.

Bazin presents another route of thought. He writes of the “irrational power of the photograph to bear away our faith” (1967, p. 14). Ellul sees the Christian life as based upon faith, which “comes by hearing exclusively, and absolutely never from what one sees” (1985, p. 80). Bazin, though, may not be talking about faith in the unseen, but faith in reality. By re-presenting reality to us in a specifically visual and auditory form, cinema may be dissolving our faith in reality by “proving” it to us over and over, and thus allowing (making room) for faith in what is not empirically evident. Sinnerbrink writes that “[Bazin] thus proposes a psychological and aesthetic thesis concerning [the photographic image’s] power to carry perceptual conviction: a pre-reflective belief in the veracity of what we perceive through the image” (2012, p. 97). This veracity has the potential to carry beyond reality and into spiritual terms. While Ellul argues that “we progressively detach ourselves from reality” (p. 194), Bazin’s work leads to a claim that the photograph can catapult us through reality to the truth.

Fundamentally, Bazin and Ellul have different conceptions of reality. One’s reality is redeemable only in eschatology, while the other’s is alive with the possibilities of God’s glory, in spite of reality’s fallen state. Near the end of his book, Ellul concludes his thoughts on icons, not calling for a full prohibition but naming them “acceptable as the recall of a promise and as a reference to the reconciliation of sight and word not yet accomplished, but simply announced” (p. 242). Bazin, on the other hand, speaks of “the natural image of a world that we neither know nor can see,” (p. 15), an image that is beyond sight, that leads beyond what Ellul calls reality to something true, to the realm of truth. Drawing from Bazin, we can claim that reality is what we must praise God within, for our beings are (perhaps temporarily) locked within it. To deny the possibility of reality’s praise is to continue to ignore the immanence of God within it. “Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently, to my love” (Bazin, 1967, 15). Love is the result, and this result transcends the image and the mechanism, reaching beyond to the One unseen.


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About the Contributor

Jonathan Wright

Jonathan Wright
Jonathan Wright is an independent learner and musician based in Chicago. His research interests are in film philosophy, especially the study of the image in relation to phenomenological viewing, memory, and projection. His current study is on the ontology of recorded music. In 2016, Jonathan founded and directed the Undergraduate Lecture Series in the Humanities at Wheaton College, a platform for students to formally present research to their peers. 


  1. Howard Wetzel says:

    I don’t know Bazin, but he seems devoted to the moving image and its grammar, its Logos. Ellul is perhaps too devoted to the Word as only word. For both, critical awareness of technique, the rhetoric of image or word seems essential. Neither is superior, and both are dangerous in the hands of a skilled manipulator before an uneducated, uncritical audience. The West is still sorting through the damage Plato did, and Leni Riefenstahl is acknowledged as one of the greatest film propagandists ever – for Hitler. For the student of McLuhan, this means we must keep an awareness fo both image and word, and especially in the present recognize when each crosses into the other realm.

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