Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.
In the genre of revolutionary political films, Peter Watkins’s six-hour epic treatment of the Paris Commune, La Commune (Paris 1871), is a departure from what can be usually expected. The benchmarks of this genre, Eisenstein’s October and Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, stand only at a few years remove from the events which they represent, and as such, can be easily mistaken as documentary treatments of their subject. Watkins, on the contrary, has to bridge the yawning 130-year chasm that separates film from event, and do so without the aid of documentary footage. Eisenstein and Pontecorvo set out to mythologize the revolutions which they so admired, and achieved exceptionally in this regard, while Watkins takes on a revolution garlanded with ready-made mythologies and contested legacies. So, what does Watkins see in the Commune that hasn’t been seen before, and what is its relevance to the new millennium?
Before tackling this question, it might be useful to review the historical significance of the Commune. In the summer of 1870, Chancellor von Bismarck, in his bid to unite the German provinces, lured Emperor Napoleon III and his French troops into a war with Prussia. To the general astonishment of Europe, the Prussian forces easily defeated those of the French, resulting in the collapse of Napoleon III’s Second Empire government and the subsequent declaration of a Third Republic, (provisionally governed by Adolphe Tiers). From September 1870 to January 1871, the Prussians laid siege to Paris, during which time the provisional French government fled to Versailles for safety, entrusting the defense of the city to an expanded, more robustly armed Parisian citizens’ militia – “The National Guard”. Once the Prussians captured Paris and forced the government in Versailles into a shameful armistice, the National Guard, embittered by defeat, defied the government’s orders to return a consignment of cannons, and on March 18 seized power in Paris where the Versailles government had vacated it. The National Guard established a Central Committee and moved its headquarters to the mayoral palace, l’Hôtel de ville, over which it flew the red flag of socialism, rather than the republican tricoleur.
La Commune picks up at this point, and follows the events of the Commune for the entirety of its sixty-day existence, up to the moment of the provisional government’s bloody massacre and defeat of the Communards. One of the film’s triumphs is the painstaking care which is taken to reconstruct the struggles of the Communards. Watkins achieves this effect initially with a documentarian’s approach, inviting characters to speak directly to the camera of their lives and circumstances, while the rest of the film documents the Communards in pitched and passionate debate over the principles that would define their cause. The film’s bloated running-time enables Watkins to balance the various and sundry social measures enacted by the short-lived Commune: the separation of church and state, abolition of night work for bakers, return of workers’ tools from pawnshops, remission of rents, feminists’ struggle for the right to care for the sick and wounded. While each interest is given a voice – the bourgeois anti-Communard women of Paris, the soldiers loyal to Versailles, the Central Committee of the Commune – the film’s momentum is carried by the nameless masses of Paris, radicalized, desperate to improve their luckless lives.
Watkins steers clear of a temptation that might prove irresistible for a leftist making a film about the Commune: taking a stand on the ideological content of the Communards’ struggle. After all, what sets the Commune apart from any of the three previous French Revolutions – 1789, 1830, 1848 – is the vibrancy of the European socialist and anarchist movements and the profusion of their ideas among the unpropertied classes. The Commune is often mistaken for a Marxist or proletarian revolution. While the events of 1871 certainly impelled Marx to reconsider the importance of democratic struggle and working-class politics within the socialist movement, thereby effecting a permanent shift in Marxist political thinking (galvanized by Lenin’s State and Revolution), the Commune was in fact much more ideologically heterogeneous than is usually supposed. Socially, a majority of the revolutionaries were frustrated artisans-turned-insurrectionists, and therefore not members of the industrial proletariat. Insofar as the Communards identified with a revolutionary tradition at all, their demands – free individual expression, recognition of diverse political and social organizations (for both sexes) – were more resonant of Marx’s great anarchist rival, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, than by the founder of scientific socialism.
Watkins, however, is a filmmaker, not a historian, and his intention with La Commune, it seems, is to create a new kind of political cinema, one that brazenly flouts the reigning conventions of contemporary cinema. A peculiar feature of La Commune, which will not fail to unsettle and intrigue viewers, is its tendency to slip rather abruptly from the historical present to the actual present, without any break in the mise en scène. Characters will begin discussing the historical legacy of the Commune from the perspective of 1999 without “breaking” character, and then drop back into the historical present. Watkins makes more deliberate use of this technique – a kind of strategic anachronism – in his bold decision to organize the film around a struggle between rival television networks - “Bourgeois TV” versus “Commune TV”. By means of this device, Watkins is able to break through the historical mystique of the Commune, and resituate its revolutionary spirit on a contemporary plane. States continue to oppress and immiserate the unpropertied classes, the film suggests, but now, 130 years later, it cannot be accomplished without a compliant, retrograde media apparatus.
The genius of La Commune is that the filmmaking immanently develops a critical alternative to the problem posed by the film. If Hollywood’s colonization of world cinema markets is an integral component of the media apparatus, as the film explicitly argues in the later sections (by means of the black title screens that narrate a bulk of the action), then making a film in deliberate defiance of the standards which embody the Hollywood ethic is a step toward reappropriating cinema. Every aspect of the filmmaking serves this end: the overwhelming use of non-professional actors; the director’s deference to the actors for much of the script; the offhand shift in temporal perspectives; the constant breaking of the “fourth wall”; the exclusion of all on-screen violence; the unusual amount of reading the viewer is forced to do. None of these techniques are new in themselves, but rarely have they been fused in one film, on the scale of La Commune. As a warning, Watkins’ design to recalibrate the expectations of cinema is an inspired and admirable project, but can make for exhausting viewing over six consecutive hours. It is therefore advised, in the spirit of its original release as a multi-part TV series, that it be viewed in more digestible segments.
The techniques employed by Watkins in La Commune have their origin not only in the neo-realist cinema of Italy, but also in the political dramaturgy of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht, by means of the Verfremdungseffekt – alternatively translated as “estrangement”, “defamiliarizing”, or simply “V” effect – invited the audience to look upon a familiar image or event with fresh eyes. It was a method designed to overcome the perceptual numbness that attends the age of mass consumption, and to re-present this reality in a critical frame. Late in his career, after returning to East Germany from exile in California, Brecht wrote a play on the Paris Commune, The Days of the Commune (Die Tage der Commune). Brecht drew his inspiration from a 1936 play on the Commune, The Defeat, by Nordahl Grieg, a Marxist poet and playwright from Norway who was killed in a bombing raid over Berlin. The play was apparently written hastily at the end of 1948, and upon completion, sent to friend and theater critic Eric Bentley, who wrote back that it was a major disappointment. Brecht thereafter dropped what was to be his final full-length play, and it would be performed only in 1956 after his death.
Whereas Watkins’ film, with its enormous canvas, depicts the Communards as a collective subject, Brecht’s play follows the lives of a few characters – namely “Papa”, Coco, Babette, Geneviève, Mme Cabet and her son – against the unfolding events of the Commune. As such, Brecht is able to convey the pathos of the Commune with greater force, as the protagonists, swept up in the inexorable logic of the revolution, are confronted with difficult questions of loyalty and commitment. In this sense, Brecht stages the Commune as a kind of laboratory for testing the strength of the human character under revolutionary circumstances, much as he does in Mother Courage. This is not to say, however, that Brecht is uninterested in the revolution itself. On the contrary, Days of the Commune is clearly enamored of the Commune’s establishment of a workers’ democracy, not to mention the social reforms undertaken by it, including greater equality for women. At the same time, it’s difficult to ignore Brecht’s sense of irony as the Central Committee, with its back against the wall, takes on emergency dictatorial powers. Here, Brecht, a committed Marxist, seems to recognize in the Commune the same tendency that would lead the Soviet state under Stalin to turn its back on the Revolution. Compromised from within, and crushed from without by Thiers’ forces, the Commune, in Brecht’s hands, is a far bleaker referent than it is for Watkins.
Those interested in Brecht will need to see John Walter’s recent documentary on the playwright, Theater of War (ostensibly cribbed from Eric Bentley’s study of the same title). The film’s point of departure is The Public Theater’s 2006 production of Mother Courage and Her Children, which stars Meryl Streep as Mother Courage, and enlists Tony Kushner as the play’s translator and interpreter. Walter takes the audience through each stage of the play’s production, from read-throughs to the performance in Central Park in the scorching summer of 2006, splicing in interviews with the actors, producers, technicians, and outside of The Public Theater’s ambit, Carl Weber, a student of and expert on Brecht, and Brecht’s daughter. A later segment of the film sketches the life of the playwright with the aid of archival footage, the most exciting of which is Brecht’s comic hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The film’s animating spirit, much to its credit, is searching rather than didactic. None of the interviewees are entirely confident in their assessments of Brecht’s contemporary relevance, but as an ensemble they limn its essential contours. With a war constantly looming in the background, at the height of its unpopularity, the interviewees sense Brecht’s remarkable ability to render the processes which confine and alienate individuals in a war-driven capitalist society.