2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, fall 2016
Producing revolutionary history on film:
Henri Lefebvre’s urban space and
Peter Watkins’ La Commune (Paris, 1871)
[Editors' note: Text only version is on two pages. Click here to go to page 1]
The same ambiguity and ethical question is repeated on the topic of audiovisual textuality itself, as we are never quite sure whether a sound-image is being recorded by “our” film’s camera, a “TV” network’s, or we are watching one of the latter’s broadcasts. Of the audiovisual text itself, the viewer is asked the same question as posited above in relation to the body: Can a film be reclaimed from its traditional enablers, owners, and definers as dictated by the economic, production, and ideological imperatives of the “Monoform,” but also indeed by a singular author such as Watkins himself? On both levels, human and cinematic, this is history as very much “living” performance and process, whereby different layers of the performative and filmic text, and history itself as generated thereby, emerge and merge at different moments. The film collapses linearity in a process that is both confusing and highly informative.
Such an address is both necessarily problematic and enormously generative, so that the notion of revolution emerges as both more relevant than ever while also forever mired in contradiction, myth, and perhaps impossibility. We struggle to really know what it might be beyond human and media performance. One of the film’s multiple discussions held in a small bar sees actors talking about what it has meant to participate in the film and to what extent the Commune resonates with their present-day situation, comparing inequality today to that of the 19th Century and asking whether people are prepared to revolt in a world defined by increased material comfort combined with a ubiquitous and frequently atomizing entertainment culture, notably television. Then an on-screen text screen, quoted in full at the start of this article, posits that what the people in this film experienced and express is exactly that which dominant “Monoform” media typically shuns or is “afraid of… to see the man in the little rectangle replaced by a multitude of people, the public.”
Although Watkins’ and the film’s general political allegiances remain clear enough throughout, the critique of mainstream media on screen is not simplistically “partisan” but rather more pluralist. In a late scene, an “expert” commentator suggests the Versailles TV news presenter refrain from showing semaine sanglante footage as planned, arguing that to screen such images would risk rewarding “base instincts of the viewer.” (The expert is played by a real-life Royalist historian, whom we see in The Universal Clock being told by Watkins to “speak your own mind” on the subject of the Commune.) And indeed La Commune’s viewers do not get to see any such “recreations.” Offering a reason one could easily imagine Watkins himself voicing in one of his “Monoform” critiques (despite apparently oppositional politics, and likely using less elitist language), the TV commentator concludes:
“I am afraid that in the future, things will go from bad to worse, and that whatever form it will take, the media will be a spineless affair, seeking to sell its merchandise by appealing to the lowest instincts.”
While the production budget was likely insufficient for any spectacular action scenes to be shot, Watkins surely agrees with the commentator on this basic point.
We witness Communards lined up against a wall presumably waiting for news of their execution, archive photographs of cadavers, and some brief high-contrast imagery of bodies piled up. The viewer also sees Versailles soldiers raise their guns in unison and hear shots ring out, but any falling bodies remain out of frame. We see no live-action recreations of individual or mass murder. The closest to violent action sequences are brief shots of soldiers dragging people from their hiding places into the street to face ad-hoc tribunals as anti-Commune crowds shout for their deaths. Appearing directly following the interview with the Royalist historian, it is unclear whether these images comprise select footage screened on Versailles TV or whether they are part of “our” film. The footage is also soon both intercut and combined with audio and occasional shots of Thiers announcing the Commune’s end. While Watkins retains a characteristic refusal to show actual violence, the above action-style shots have something of an “excuse” if we see them as constituting Versailles TV material.
The film seems ultimately less interested in pillorying Versailles TV than closely assessing the ramifications of Commune TV’s uncritical relation to the Commune’s more questionable developments and its own non-studio-bound yet non-self-conscious “Monoform” iteration. La Commune’s own media commentary thereby clearly operates outside a very narrow—and to contemporary viewers, highly familiar—liberal/conservative dichotomy, in fact reserving its most urgent critique for notionally “progressive” media. This comes to a head as the Commune Central Committee enacts increasingly draconian measures in the interests of “security,” including escalating censorship decrees. But this tension between the idealism of the Commune’s initial declaration and actions carried out by elected representatives in its “defense,” both internal and external, is present from very early on. “Despite the enthusiasm sparked by the election, the fear of centralized power is in the air,” a text screen informs us shortly after the Commune’s inaugural elections, with the Committee of Public Safety recalling legislation enacted in 1779 “as an infamous instrument of political terror. To talk of this Committee in 1871 revives sinister memories.” We do not get such blunt commentary from the Commune TV journalists. Their unseen bosses, further text tells us, subsequently make an editorial decision not to mention an article by a prominent left-wing newspaper about the new law and increasingly draconian aspects of this Committee, “for fear of negative reactions.”
Immediately following this we see some crucial fly-on-the-wall style footage in which no one looks into the camera, showing an argument between the Commune TV reporters and the author of the above-mentioned article. The latter—the same man we initially saw awkwardly standing alongside the Commune TV reporters in their very first broadcast—argues that the pair should adopt a more analytical and critical attitude toward unfolding events. “It’s also true that your interviews are very interesting,” he says, “since people have things to say.” But, sitting between them, the newspaper journalist adds a crucial qualifier reminiscent of Watkins’ own complaints about “Monoform” media: “But it's too short, you've got to give them more time.” The female TV reporter then offers a revealing retort familiar from a thousand mainstream media spokespeople and apologists: “But you need to have rhythm to win people's attention on television. It has to be fast paced like that for people. If we have debates go on forever, they'll just turn off the TV.”
As the film develops, it returns repeatedly to the topic of increasing media censorship. At one point, the male Commune TV journalist reports:
“[T]o counter unceasing rumors of defeat and panic, the Commune has banned Versailles-oriented newspapers advocating private property and social hierarchy.”
His female counterpart explains with even more striking propagandistic effect:
“[T]he reactionary press slanders the commune. That's why information such as ours is so important.”
They both then exhibit some possible unease with such illiberal developments while avoiding having to voice explicit critique themselves, by quoting pro-Commune newspapers that openly condemn the banning and argue the Commune's ideas should be strong enough to withstand both internal and external opposition. “On the pretext of war,” on-screen text then more frankly notes, “censorship will shut down not only 30 ‘reactionary’ newspapers, but also critical pro-Commune newspapers.”
Around four hours into La Commune, the propaganda role of Commune TV comes under growing strain when the journalists report from outside the Hôtel de Ville about the Central Committee’s increasing political infighting. The male journalist shows clear frustration at the endless restructuring and committee forming, and the constant specter of a military government with the ongoing question of the National Guard’s political role. Recounting the move towards centralized control of the Commune by the Jacobin faction, each reporter uses different expressions to describe the turn of events, now openly interrupting each other. Introducing the news that a Committee of Public Safety has been formed, the female journalist calls it a “historic event,” while her colleague instead laments: “The moment is very grave.” Of the debate over whether to establish a five-man Executive to oversee the internal and external crises engulfing the Commune, he speaks with clearly escalating anger: “The Commune members discussed at length whether or not to publish the minutes of these divisive sessions. Will we ever be allowed to see them?” Clearly annoyed, his colleague interjects by flapping her hand at the camera and insisting: “All right. Cut!” The camera, be it Commune TV’s or La Commune’s, does not “cut,” but the reporter’s instruction, referring to either the camera operator or the producer about later editing of the footage for transmission, makes it clear that this is likely not a live broadcast. Turning to him, she cries: “What's the matter? You're at it again?... Giving negative information isn’t your job.” [open endnotes in new window] At the end of their argument, following the customary few seconds of black screen we read: “The next day, the reporter resigns, saying that this Committee betrays Commune principles, and that he can no longer act non-critically in his work.”
Trans-historical, multi-vocal discourse
Beyond the specifics of its filmmaker and the historical event referenced on screen, La Commune insists on the lived nature of historical reality in the most immediate, performative, and reflexive sense. There is no simple production of revolutionary space, and no simple textual-artistic articulation thereof. Far from being of one mind about the Commune’s purpose, outcome, worth, and what can be learnt from it today, participants in the filmmaking process are visibly engaged in being asked to bring, and develop, their own opinions to the roles and scenarios on screen. This results in the rather messy, heteroglossia-style voicing of debate about a contested history in its vital, although often disavowed, connection to contemporary life and global problems. These are addressed implicitly or explicitly through a reflexive and avowedly non-realist theatricality on the intimately connected levels of human performance and audiovisual form.
More urgently than the question of revolution itself and lingering, mythic left-wing investments therein, the Commune has enjoyed some renewed sense of relevance in light of recent global events particularly due to the means by which the Communards attempted their revolution. They were, to use Lefebvre’s terms, “reappropriating” and “reclaiming” urban space with a view to its “production” anew. If the film’s own analogous fate in Watkins’ account (summarized in footnote 61 above) is anything to go by—logical enough, perhaps, in light of the Commune’s unclaimed status within official French history and politics—La Commune at the very least “updates” a story not usually heard outside radical circles. More precisely, this particular histoire (the French word invoking both “story” and “history” is very much appropriate here) is delivered via its production method and final cinematic form. The democratic, “workshop” style of the film’s manufacture, its variously reflexive elements, and long final running time, all effectively preclude any commercial release in cinemas (outside festival screenings). The film connects the immediate, fundamental concerns of the Commune very clearly to today’s unresolved global problems of increasingly gross socioeconomic inequality, most prominently apparent in our major cities—then as now.
During the quiet section starting seven minutes into the film featuring small groups speaking straight into the camera (with no “TV” reporters yet in sight), each describing their experiences of both the siege and poverty more broadly, a National Guard recruit explains that the official French Revolution of 1789 was “a bourgeois revolution,” changing nothing for working class families like his. More “recently”, he continues, harsh socioeconomic divisions have became much clearer with the just-completed rebuilding of central Paris (1853-70) by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, resulting in the glamorous avenues and shopping arcades enjoyed by tourists to this day. The young Guardsman concludes:
“Sure, we pass by shop windows with splendid suits and hams hanging from the ceiling. But for who? Three working lives couldn't buy that stuff.”
If it had been more widely released and reviewed in 2000, La Commune’s scenario, concerns, and particularly the lengthy on-camera discussions of the West’s ongoing consumerist stranglehold, would have been very much in tune with the then very active (and misnamed) “anti-globalization” activism and a new wave of protests around consumerism in North America, Europe and elsewhere. Watched fifteen years later, the film seems no less contemporary in light of the last few years’ explicit critiques of spiralling inequality, shouted across big cities’ central squares or via diverse online media dialogues, of state-enforced capitalism’s ever more extreme incarnation.
The essential problems and expression of basic ethical disgust at the status quo, leading to radical and far-reaching alternative ideas argued over throughout the film by ordinary citizens—pertaining both to 1871 and 1999—are far from completely removed from those we have seen expressed on the streets of major cities since late 2010 in the Middle East (largely excepting Israel), responding to many decades’ rule by usually Washington-backed dictators. The following year saw protests in much of the West, spurred on by the harsh effects of state responses to the 2008 global financial crisis in the form of the most hypocritical “austerity” characterized by radical cuts to spending on public services combined with massive government handouts to the very same financial institutions that caused the crisis in the first place, as discussed in Part I of this article. While basic average living standards in the West have increased in the 145 years since the Paris Commune, inequality has long been worsening once again across the developed world since the gradual dismantling during the 1970s and early 80s in the USA, UK and many other Western countries (to varying degrees) of the post-WW2 “mixed economy” or “Keynesian” model to be replaced by a much more radical version of state-enabled market capitalism. The result is that the sharp socioeconomic disparity of the 19th Century—which our contemporary “neoliberal” ideologues seem to hark back to—that motivated the Communards’ revolutionary efforts (in concert with anger at the national government’s capitulation to imperial German control at the Franco-Prussian War’s conclusion) is now truly global and thoroughly networked in scope thanks to the Internet. While basic living standards may have increased overall, with the post-WW2 welfare state today increasingly underfunded or abandoned (or in the case of the United States, never really born), socioeconomic inequality has not only drastically increased once again over recent decades. On-screen text from the film details how it is, in fact, far worse than in 1871.
In addition to class disparity, even the simple demographics of today’s cities and those of Paris during the Commune are not so different as one might assume, with an active presence in the latter of guest workers from the French provinces, the newly acquired African colonies, and other European countries. The Commune was home to about one hundred thousand immigrant workers and political refugees, the largest numbers being from Italy and Poland. Importantly, many came to Paris after being involved in uprisings elsewhere that either met with a bloody end or, as in the case of Italy’s just-completed Risorgimento, lead to another bourgeois-nationalist outcome, with the hope of helping ignite a new internationally-minded local and national-based revolutionary wave to once more try and overthrow Europe’s established political, social, economic, and religious order. The film gives explicit expression to this motivation and story, particularly in the form of lengthy Commune TV interviews with Polish soldiers observing the doomed march on Versailles by the National Guard, who later go on to take leadership roles in the organization, explaining how they have come to be in Paris after failed revolutionary activity in Poland and Siberian exile.
Meanwhile, with a great many of the Commune’s chief architects, Guard commanders, and regular citizens and supporters not being French nationals, Versailles TV reporters play up the “foreign” element. At one point the familiar studio host makes fun of what he calls “ridiculous” Polish-sounding names repeatedly heard in Paris, following which his colleague—the reporter we met earlier, who has since been “undercover” in the 11th arrondissement, until being unmasked by angry Communards—complains: “At every meeting, in all the small groups, foreigners all voted, that's all I can say.” In a later transmission, the same two figures discuss the influence of Dmitrieff, describing her as “a Russian aristocrat sent by Karl Marx from God knows where,” adding that she is supposed to be “a hot number,” before the compare asks with some astonishment: “Even Arabs in the Guard?” His reporter-colleague confirms the remarkable rumor.
While the connections between key Communards and Russia, Poland and Italy, as well as the long-exiled German Marx in London, are very briefly gestured toward in the film (the latter is barely touched on), much more time is spent in La Commune on the connections between the Commune and France’s broader colonial context. The debate between the TV reporters and the newspaper journalist about responsible pro-Commune media activity (discussed above) comes to an abrupt halt by way of a starkly different perspective when they are interrupted by a National Guardsman and a woman bringing news of an uprising in Algeria by the Pahis—a local version of the National Guard, but formed and commanded by colonial forces—upon returning home from Europe after being forced to fight for France again the Prussians. A text screen then tells us that many Algerians also remained in France to “rally to the Commune.” However, we are also informed, racism is nevertheless far from unheard of in the Commune via the example of a prominent National Guard commander well known for calling Algerian members “niggers.” In one of the bar scenes elsewhere in the film featuring Communards crammed around a large table, French nationals and North Africans tell the group about having seen and experienced at first hand the truth of France’s plundering in its new colonies. One of them switches to the present tense, noting that today the oppression is economic whereby the poor—presumably referring to the global situation, as well as inside France and its now former colonies—are disallowed access to the system. This discussion is then interrupted by a text screen detailing an occupation by 350 “illegal aliens” of a Paris church, “to denounce the state's refusal to resolve their administrative situation.” The date given for this reappropriation of space in the name of political—now “post-colonial”—insurrection is 18 March, 1996.
If the three journalists and other Communards in the film are silent at news of colonial atrocities in Algeria and elsewhere, while seeming to listen attentively, the film makes clear that the Commune itself is the product of an inherently colonial culture and far from able to escape it, irrespective of how interested these French revolutionaries may or may not be in enlarging the frame of reference to incorporate such a dimension. Throughout scenes directly addressing the question of colonialism, the Commune’s progressive and variously leftist nationals are faced with the difficult truth that their experiment in radical democracy essentially relies upon colonial exploitation. The bread eaten by poor citizens, one man tells the group, is made from wheat involuntarily grown and harvested for the French regime in Algeria. Here again the film prompts another striking resonance with the era of globalized capitalism in which its viewers live, such that even if someone wants to be an “ethical consumer” (however that may be defined) it is very hard to spend money outside an inherently exploitative and now technically post-colonial yet Western authored, and largely still Western dominated, economic system. In these and other respects, the diverse microcosm of 1871 has in the intervening century and a half only enlarged to become the global norm.
The most immediately obvious and “novel” way in which the film constitutes a trans-historical address remains Watkins’ trademark inclusion of a modern audiovisual mediascape within La Commune, which both encourages such time travelling and the opening up of political debate per se and the media’s role within it. This is both a provocative act of translation familiar from the director’s earlier historical films—such as The Battle of Culloden and Edvard Munch, each with loose settings predating the advent of film, yet featuring straight-to-camera documentary style interviews—and an entirely proper invocation of what reality means for a contemporary audience increasingly inter-connected via televisual and online networks. Will viewers—generally speaking, or more specifically when it comes to those who see this film—attain a sufficient state of ethical disgust at the status quo to “turn off the TV,” get off social media, and “do something”? The critique of key aspects of the bourgeois capitalist state and how it functions that motivates the Commune and much of its population, and the messy, often conflicted alternative vision thereby forged, are in the film both performed thanks to the presence in the cast of people with different political views and understandings of this radical democratic experiment. When it comes to elected representatives and regular citizens of the Commune, we hear a broad array of opinions, ranging from advocating the capitalist system’s outright abolition in favor of a communist or anarchist model (or a fusion thereof) through to more liberal-progressive Republican politics, with substantial sequences also devoted to those Paris residents maintaining a thoroughly anti-Commune, usually class-based position. Meanwhile, the more overtly present-day discussions by the film’s participants on screen range from radical left-wing critiques of the now far more globalized “neo-liberal” U.S.-authored order, through to speakers encouraging more moderate “reformist” and human rights-based positions, encouraging support of charities and non-government organizations such as Amnesty International or Médecins Sans Frontières.
The texture of different political positions voiced in La Commune are, according to a late text screen and Watkins’ website, broadly shared by the actor-participants themselves. As with his earlier Punishment Park, the largely non-professional actors were partially selected in accordance with their approximate political views, with the aim being to match as closely as possible the articulated ideological positions of on-screen characters with those of the real-life people playing them. Figures playing Communards thereby display diverse left-wing rhetoric ranging from revolutionary to moderate in such a way that we are never quite sure who is speaking—“character” or actor. Meanwhile, those playing Versailles TV reporters and various bourgeois and upper-class figures are apparently played by real-life conservatives and right-wingers of different kinds. With such a focus on argument and discussion, the film’s multi-vocal presentation of in-process, palimpsestic history spanning 1871 and 1999 means that the stories and experience of the Commune are told through and debated via “ordinary people” both then and now who hold diverse, often fluid views on the topic at hand and enthusiastically want to argue them through. That most of the participants knew little or nothing about the Commune beforehand means that each person’s thinking about its significance and meaning was very much developed throughout the film’s production, as influenced by a general political or ideological predisposition. Beyond the question of what exactly is said, this chorus of mixed, in-process political positions on the topic of the Commune and its meaning features a highly intimate and unconscious texture at the very point of each individual performative moment. La Commune is, importantly, overflowing with an instructive variety of voices when it comes to accent, language, and vocal timbre.
The majority of the film is spoken in French, but an array of accents and linguistic styles are heard throughout, from the well-educated diction of Thiers, the Versailles TV journalists, and the various business owners and other bourgeois figures, and more rarefied speech patterns of the upper-class characters, through to the contrasting majority working-class, regional, and “foreign” accents displayed by Commune citizens from elsewhere in Europe and North Africa. In addition to this instructively diverse, accented French, we also hear Polish, German, and Arabic in the film. The translation of these languages into French does not occur via subtitles (as with the French spoken by most of the actors and all the on-screen text in the U.S. DVD version) but rather “live” on screen, by one of the many people standing nearby—someone who could be another character/actor within the loose diegetic scenario but might also easily be, and on one level certainly is, a translator specially employed by the film for such a purpose, wearing period clothing due to being on screen. The Polish officers again provide a good example, one of them asking to speak to Commune TV in Polish while his comrade translates.
In addition to different accents and languages, we also hear a significant diversity of vocal timbres when it comes to age range, from children to elderly people. And as I have already suggested, female voices have a very prominent role throughout—singularly and in both mixed gender and women-only groups—as well as the voices of men of various on-screen occupations, from shopkeepers and employees to soldiers, journalists, and the unemployed. Meanwhile, the film deftly sidesteps the question of privileging one spoken accent and timbre to narrate or relay the historical context and comment on its events. Watkins replaces what would have been a very powerful off-screen “void-of-God” narration with French text screens. The lengthy tale is thereby told in the form of what remains a privileged but also contextually appropriate written language, drawing attention to the fact that this is both a very “French” story but also one in many respects disowned by “official” France, while also being of significant international importance. Combined with the regular few seconds of black usually highlighting edits between scenes and text screens, the use of copious written instead of audio narration also means that the film offers a stark set of audio oppositions strongly felt by the audience. Viewers are frequently lurched from absolute silence (sometimes, although not always, accompanying black and text screens) to the very diverse vocal mix, ranging from quiet individual expression and more intimate discussion scenes, to dense and often chaotic crowd sequences and boisterous singing, and back again.
Partly by way of its reporters’ consistently accented speaking voices and overall comportment, the national government’s Versailles TV unambiguously extols the power of imperial nation-state aristocracy and powerfully “rational” recounting of contemporary/distant history, portraying the Communards as dangerously amoral “anti-French” troublemakers, “criminals,” “foreigners,” and “prostitutes.” But beyond the addition of loosely binary TV networks and the inclusion in La Commune of anti- as well as different pro-Commune perspectives, even within the latter it becomes increasingly clear that this is not just Watkins’ or anyone else’s film when it comes to articulating a single view of the events and ideas at hand. Instead, a mass of multiple opinions is repeatedly given literal, variously accented voice. More than a simple mournful work about an event much mythologized by the now long-disenfranchised global radical left, the film illustrates in great detail, and again across time periods, how difficult revolutionary change really is. This remains the case even just considering the differences of opinion amongst the ostensibly progressive internal forces amassed under the banner of the Commune, let alone taking into account the seemingly insurmountable enemy beyond (the national government, particularly its military force). Through portraying the political and tactical challenges and contradictions of forging a coherent, unified political program, the film thereby once more points to closer connections between the Commune and recent events than might initially seem obvious.
Benjamin points out that the Communards themselves were never anything like “pure” revolutionaries, but rather comprised a large assortment of political positions and beliefs. This was starkly the case when it came to elected representatives. He quotes Delescluze, the prominent journalist and military officer of the Commune who was killed right near its end. The Commune “was formed of a coalition of revolutionaries without a common program,” writes Delescluze.
“Of the seventy-eight members, only a score were intent on projects of social reform; the majority were Jacobin democrats in the tradition of 1793.”
The Commune presented itself as seeking to continue, complete, or finally “correct” the official Revolution of the previous century and its aftermath by providing a more properly revolutionary conclusion. “The Commune felt itself to be, in all respects, the heir of 1793,” writes Benjamin. But what this means was very much in the eye of the beholder. The familiar point of revolutionary disagreement concerned how total such transformation would be, and the nature of its ultimate political tenor following the successful overthrow of the old order.
With the previous century’s revolutionary violence and subsequent repressions providing a sobering tale, from a leftist point of view the risks inherent in such a revolutionary experiment as the Commune were enormous. In fact, they are always far greater for the left than for conservative and right-wing forces, who despite their professed horror at radical change (of the left-wing kind at least) are virtually guaranteed to benefit from any attempted overthrow of the status quo following a brief moment of instability or chaos. Lefebvre writes of how the French Revolution provides the clearest of instructive history lessons on this question. The cautionary (and here pessimistic) but vital “Nietzschean” strain of his thinking coming through once again, Lefebvre lists the results of this seminal event—all of which contradict revolutionary left-wing principles. He writes:
“Even if one takes a pro-revolutionary stance, it is no longer easy to look upon all results of the great revolutions as ‘beneficial.’ The French Revolution, for example, gave birth (contradictorily) to the nation, the state, law, (modern law, i.e. Roman law revised and ‘appropriate’), rationality, compulsory military service, the unpaid solider, and permanent war. To this list may be added the disappearance of forms of community control over political authorities that had been enjoyed since antiquity. To say nothing of the bourgeoisie, capitalism—in short, the advent of generalised violence.”
Interestingly, this litany seems to apply to both the short and medium term aftermath of unsuccessful revolutionary action and “successful” revolutions, especially in light of the latter tending almost universally to be dominated by a single political party claiming to embody the revolution even as it immediately moves to establish a regime in many respects antithetical to the principles originally inspiring such radical change. That there was no “vanguard party” motivating or dominating the Paris Commune accounts for a large part of its historical importance and ongoing fascination—including, many scholars argue, causing significant re-thinking by Marx himself (marked by and extending beyond a reference to the Commune included in the 1872 edition Communist Manifesto preface). 
While in recent times we have not yet seen the full establishment of an equivalent to the Paris Commune, none of the diversity of views within it and lack of “coherence” when it comes to an overall ideology more typically associated with a dominant organized party would be especially unfamiliar to activists involved in the various occupations, uprisings, and left-wing political developments since 2010 that I discussed in Part I. More specifically still, the central causes driving the Commune’s ultimate downfall remain again perhaps surprisingly relevant today. Most obviously and problematically, as Marx pointed out at the time in “The Civil War in France,” the ambitions of the Communards, but also in part of our own various present-day would-be revolutionaries across the capitalist world, will be inevitably blocked without the insurrection’s gaining total control of the national bank (in the EU’s case today the European Central Bank) and, as 1871 suggests, the military. The Commune was choked economically from the outside, just as its severely under-resourced defense force (the National Guard) was ultimately unable to fend off the ever-growing reconstituted French Army. Second, an internal democratic openness and lack of hierarchical party-driven “program” marked both the Commune and the last five years’ urban-based activist surges to varying degrees. In many respects, this would also be played out by events in Paris and elsewhere that became known as “May 68” (for which Lefebvre was a prominent intellectual ally and inspiration).
At the same time as offering a primary reason for the Commune’s dissolution, its lack of centralized control or “vanguard” leadership by a single party in favor of loose notions of consensus politics and participatory democracy is also frequently considered a crucial bulwark against the drift towards potentially totalitarian control. Long plaguing radical activists and theorists, this problem is dramatized within the film as the Commune faces escalating interior threats—real or perceived—as well as external ones, resulting in significant contradictions. The development of a powerful Central Committee within the Commune divides supporters between those who feel their revolution slipping away and others who argue that the desperate situation calls for such measures, as seen in many discussions amongst both National Guardsmen and regular citizens. Elsewhere, with the present tense perhaps more ambiguous—appearing to speak with the hindsight not only of the French Revolution but also the Soviet Union and other modern revolutionary outcomes—a young woman suggests to reporters: “Events show what happens when power is centralized.” Finally, as Lefebvre would put it, re-claiming the right to the city—or in more moderate terms, as Chomsky has characterized the global occupation of parks and city squares since 2010, “defending the global commons”—today remains a crucial act, if in itself inherently rearguard or even technically conservative, which plays out like a performative ritual echoing across history, marking such unresolved problems.
Meanwhile, no matter the historical period, critics of revolutionary fervour within the film play an important role in voicing scepticism and concern over the chaotic and increasingly violent nature of events. The bourgeois and upper-class figures in La Commune act like uncharacteristically disempowered “witnesses to history”—a role to which they are more starkly unaccustomed than the film’s majority working- and under-class protagonists, and deeply shocked to experience. They are not, however, just one-dimensional figures of ridicule. In scenes where privileged women (and sometimes men) are interviewed in groups by Versailles or Commune TV journalists in Paris or at Satory, they often comment very aggressively on the Commune, coming across as archetypical reactionaries if to differing degrees. The film spends more time presenting these characters in other contexts, with quite different results. One example is the owner of the dressmaking business, shown in conversation with her would-be workers across a series of scenes throughout the film. More precisely, each party addresses the other but almost entirely through the “medium” of the Commune TV interviewers and their invisible camera, in their first scene together each party situated on opposite sides of the shop’s exterior door. The business owner can’t understand what has happened, why Paris’ workers are in revolt and two Versailles generals have been killed, hoping things can return to normal. While trying to keep in their boss’ good books enough to enable future employment upon any return to normalcy, standing on the other side of the doorway the would-be workers offer a different view of events, clearly desiring to speak their minds by supporting the Commune and its ideals of transcending such an exploitative socioeconomic system—presenting the distinct possibility, in other words, that the normal state of affairs should not in fact be restored.
While working-class characters such as the above women get the most inspiring lines and are treated with the most obvious sympathy by the film overall, their somewhat representative petit-bourgeois boss plays an importantly informative and critical function across the scenes in which she appears—even while saying comparably very little here and throughout, mainly looking on at the escalating events with increasing worry. In her eyes she is just trying to make a living and also, in the way the economy still loosely functions, provide work for others. She illustrates in the film how small business is assaulted by such a revolutionary moment, but less due to leftist attacks on capitalism itself and more because Paris has been put in an economic stranglehold by the national government trying to crush the radical experiment going on inside the capital. On one important level she represents a “middle-of-the-road” voice whose would-be “apolitical” arguments clearly ring hollow with self-interest. But at the same time, such an archetypal petit-bourgeois figure also effectively points out, irrespective of intention, that without a fundamental socioeconomic reordering that effectively abolishes free enterprise, people like her will remain vital to the everyday viability of a society when it comes to the basics of work and provision of goods.
Another example of La Commune’s important treatment of class-based anti-Commune citizens is strikingly different to anything else in the film. A handful of scenes return us to what a text screen introduces as an “upper-class” apartment relatively cut off from the chaos, in which a matriarch writes letters to her daughter in Versailles about the situation in Paris. “I loathe the Parisians being in constant revolt,” she writes when we first meet her—a meeting made explicit by her occasional gaze straight to camera. She sharply criticizes the government for delaying taking the cannon from the National Guard and botching the operation. In later scenes we also see her watching Versailles TV transmissions and hosting a dinner party. The film’s anti-Commune story is in many respects most thoroughly and interestingly played out in this quiet, heavily codified hermetic space. At the dinner party scene following the Committee of Public Safety announcement, the matriarch and her guests offer critiques of the Commune that often quite closely chime with those of the pro-Commune left-wing newspaper report mentioned above, the Commune TV journalist who resigned over no longer being able to uncritically report regressive measures, and many everyday pro-revolutionary working-class people on the street whom we hear expressing increasingly critical views of the Central Committee’s exponentially regressive decrees.
As with the pro-Commune working-class characters, the dinner party guests also exhibit a diversity of views in response to recent events. After they have all agreed on the excellence of the dinner, especially in light of food shortages in Paris, one of them goes so far as to quote from and then criticize a threatening proclamation by Thiers to the Commune leadership that was printed in the newspaper. The guest describes the language of France’s national leader as “quite menacing” and “an incitement to civil war.” This, he says, is what worries him the most (by implication, more than the actions of the Communards). Later, during semaine sanglante we hear in voice-over (accompanied by shots of the empty apartment sitting room and writing materials) the contents of another letter written by the matriarch describing the hope and joy of expecting Government troops to arrive in central Paris. She then expresses her dismay at the paranoid depths to which the army seems to have fallen. “But what despair and horror,” she says in voice-over, “when we saw regular army soldiers bringing back a Battalion officer who had spent two days among us, to shoot him.”
Soon after the Commune’s violent destruction, on the street another upper-class figure standing in a small group of similarly attired women begins to criticize the massacres, saying she just can’t believe Thiers has ordered such an atrocity. This confession works to encourage her friends to reveal gradually how ashamed they are of the army. “During 5 days, we witnessed human butchery,” says one woman who we saw hours earlier expressing utter horror at the Commune and its supporters. Describing how they played women in the film who were predisposed to reject the revolutionary events on class grounds, the actors then proceed to comment on how important the Commune has proved to be when it comes to fundamental democratic principles and forward-thinking policy. The upper-class and bourgeois characters at times offer surprising critiques of their “own side” of this Civil War, eventually painting the Commune in a much less negative light than earlier suggested by some of the same figures’ vitriolic interviews in which they come across as violently reactionary. Following the Commune’s initial declaration four-and-a-half hours earlier, while a more moderate upper-class woman admits the working class have reason to revolt but that she doesn’t want “things to get out of hand,” her friends are rather more blunt. One describes the insurrection and subsequent Commune as “grotesque and illegitimate,” while an especially outraged man asks: “What do they want? They’re being lead by foreigners.” While this initial response is important to articulate, for much of the film’s latter half La Commune presents a much more complex, not always predictable portrayal of its anti-Commune class-based antagonists. Thanks in part to the significant and increasingly nuanced role played by bourgeois and upper-class figures, in addition to “internal” left-wing and working-class critiques, we are forced to face up to the Commune’s—and any revolutionary period’s—darker side.
In addition to the colonial question being presented as an interesting but ultimately peripheral side issue for most Communards even among the theoretically sympathetic ones, and the presence of racism within the Commune, evidence of persistent sexism is also repeatedly apparent, especially as expressed by the National Guard. This is highlighted when the Montmartre women suggest they join the Guard’s doomed march on Versailles to help, including serving as medics—an idea treated as reasonable by one uniformed man holding a young girl, but risible by others. Everyday racism and sexism, then draconian law and order decrees, censorship, and regular interrogation of suspected spies by officers of the Commune (including the case of a drunk man arrested and accused of making “defeatist remarks” in a bar whereupon he is suspected of being “in contact with Versailles”) are all soberly recounted by the film as regressive aspects of revolutionary history it is important to confront. Also made clear is the fact that life was often much harder during the period of the Commune for the very people it purported to be serving. In one of the later scenes featuring discussion at the dressmaker and washhouse business, we see the women finally back at work. However, the telling cost of this is soon revealed when we learn they are only working thanks to a major contract between their employer and the Commune itself based on severely reduced wages. One of the women comments: “It’s all topsy-turvy: The Commune is in power. And the boss says they're only paying half.” A text screen then informs us that a subsequent investigation into the clothing trade finds that the Commune has been signing cut-price contracts with employers offering lower wage costs.
La Commune tells viewers at the start of its end credits that the film “has been made with the collaboration of 220 citizens of Paris and its banlieues, plus a group of ‘illegal aliens’ from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.” In addition to the collaborative and personal research involved in the film’s preparation, we are informed that participants were free to develop characters “according to their own experience and motivations. What they say is largely based on their personal beliefs and feelings.” If this information had been provided near the start of the film, the important but often ambiguous slippage felt by the viewer when it comes to deciding who is speaking in a given moment—character or actor—would be more clearly foregrounded. But it would also make this performative question far less generative, taking away one of the central means by which La Commune insists on viewers’ active engagement with what we see and hear. To learn of this production context at the end of the film ensures the viewer is finally made aware of the inherently trans-historical nature of its multi-vocal discourse. The on-screen discussions and arguments throughout, either directly or across intercut scenes, constitute a key driver of La Commune’s complex, paradoxical sense of a time-travelling “presentness”—its virtual staging of a purportedly dead, “failed” and long forgotten or repressed moment of revolutionary possibility for on- and off-screen audiences and participants circa 1999 and subsequently.
The key to the film, in so many ways, remains its palimpsestic style of history telling, featuring a constantly fluid and ambiguous present tense yet all the while insisting on a sense of literal presentness. That this evocation of grassroots democratic discourse occurs thanks to an audiovisual medium so often employed to pacify viewer-consumers is made clear throughout. At a work cooperative meeting, one man says: “It’s not only a question of work equality and profit sharing. It’s also equality of speech. Everyone has the right of say. And then everyone discusses it. That’s real citizenship. That's what strikes me during the Commune. People experienced citizenship all the way.” Another responds: “Do people have the right of speech today?” A third replies: “TV talks to you but you can't answer.”
Ramifications of multi-temporal space
The time travelling brought about by La Commune between 1871, 1999, and whenever the viewer subsequently watches it, opens up a multi-temporal space. In his use of cinematic time, including but not limited to the preference for lengthy takes plus the film’s overall duration, and a focus on historical themes, Watkins remains a modernist in the familiar sense as outlined in Part I above. Critic Chris Fujiwara writes that the particular temporality of La Commune, as enforcing critical engagement, thereby becomes spatial:
“Time, then, becomes the most critical boundary. In La Commune, when a character onscreen suddenly starts talking about the Commune in the past tense and from the perspective of today, the slippage reveals time to be not a fiction, but a variable space for a kind of structured free play in which the consciousness that it is play (that this is 1999, that we are actors playing the people of 1871) is not suppressed but allowed open expression. … This passage across what would, in ‘real life,’ be an insurmountable time barrier, constitutes a radical step towards the decolonization of interior space.”
Here lies the effectiveness of the virtual space opened up by the film for the viewer, which Fujiwara suggests is forged by its particular temporal processes in the form of “structured free play.” This can be strongly sensed throughout the film as a record of its own production, one that was clearly quite transformative for many participants, as well as a customized process ignited in partnership with each subsequent viewer. Time in La Commune, Fujiwara continues,
“is like the time that Water Benjamin, in the fourteenth of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ qualified as ‘not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now.”’
This “now” serves to invoke the past and future concurrently. But through stressing a paradoxical palimpsestic version of contemporaneity, it insists on the present-day subject (be they on- or off-screen) taking responsibility for her role in history, as history gains material form or vertiginous “ground” via a highly theatricalized space and multiplicitous filmic and human performance.
What makes the intra- and inter-scene debates across La Commune’s long duration interesting and informative is that the political positions we see and hear expressed, be they relatively clear or confused, are also connected to the 220 on-screen participants’ diverse backgrounds. Even where many of them had no real prior knowledge or views about the Commune itself, the broader issues raised by the event (and in part fought over) are familiar enough to seem ongoing, hence a cause of genuine present-day debate is sustained. The cast’s active involvement in researching this history prior to filming resulted in a communal auto-didactic process, the freshness and creativity of which is palpable on screen through appropriately messy, fragmentary articulation of unresolvable arguments and challenges escalating in substance through the film. Upon the Commune’s initial proclamation, the people onscreen are seen experiencing a truly euphoric moment, exhibiting palpable and seemingly genuine excitement as they dance, sing La Marseillais, and shout their mutual joy to comrades, Commune TV reporters, and La Commune’s camera. Over four hours of screen time later, the anger and determination seen in the barricades sequence, even as the fight now appears hopeless, comes across with visceral intensity. While viewers are never fooled into believing we are watching a would-be transparent represention of events in 1871, neither do the figures on screen appear as if they are simply “acting” after being told to express a particular enthusiasm or emotion. Rather, what we witness on screen is an extended record of very real and diverse energy generated by a social but also very personal kind of autodidact history-learning, fused with creative collaboration and political radicalism.
Looking out over present-day Paris from her apartment as seen in The Universal Clock, Sara Louis reflects on how participation in La Commune has affected her view of the city, commenting on the three churches dominating the skyline at the center of which is Sacré Cœur. Perched high at Montmartre in the distance, looming over the metropolis, she now sees the massive basilica beloved of tourists as a literal icon of the Catholic Church’s triumphant reclaiming of power in the capital. At the same time, for more recent visitors with no knowledge of the Commune, it effectively both celebrates victory over and literally covers up vanquished revolutionary history. We might also recall from La Commune at this point the appropriation by “red clubs” of churches to hold nighttime political meetings, resulting in the cessation of evening mass. This is explained in one scene as due to the churches being the only spaces large enough to hold such increasingly popular gatherings after majority work hours, enabling maximum participation. But it also effectively illustrates the degree to which radical politics was literally taking over the previously “sacred” space of organized religion in the Commune’s fundamental remaking of daily life in the city. The Commune may not have eradicated the churches per se, as Lefebvre evokes in the quote at the beginning of this article, but these very particular spaces were partially—if far from entirely—re-made when it comes to at least temporary purpose. It is also important to note that a great many scenes, nearly all of them featuring women, show how the Commune unleashed long-repressed frustrations at and critiques of the Catholic Church and its priests by everyday people tired of being judged for their life circumstances, appearing exhilarated to see its power diminished.
Louis continues to describe her overall experience of La Commune:
“This is an amazing way to learn history. In the sense where history serves as a memory to understand what's going on now... I feel the experience of this film makes us take a position on, what is the role of the individual inside a collective?”
On the level of verbal discussion alone, Watkins and his collaborators’ film offers a kind of abstracted-yet-real space in the process of being produced or brought into being through the articulation and debating of serious questions about how the city, nation, and world are run and the ongoing effects of this. The results on screen, comprising the film itself, offer a democratic version of living history as textual heteroglossia, performed and framed as an ongoing and decidedly unfinished process rather than end product. This would also apply, Watkins hoped, to the film’s reception, which is why La Commune at times comes across as a very high-quality pedagogical experiment in discursive provocation. In a genuine sense, that is exactly what it is. All this is nowhere clearer than in the film’s presentation of the Commune’s final days.
The scenes mainly comprising interviews with figures at or near the barricades feature a present tense slipping constantly between May 1871 and 1999, with occasional—and sometimes humorous—references to the Commune’s final days as “now,” prompted by the former Commune TV reporter so as to “remind” interviewees-actors of their life-threatening situation. Each on-screen figure has a different response when asked if they would have gone to the barricades in 1871, or do so for the same principles today, ranging from absolute confidence through to confusion, qualification, and outright rejection. Often the answer provided depends on the level of trans-historical continuity asserted by the interviewee. Some suggest that no matter the period, one must always “go to the barricades” to fight for a better world, citing subsequent struggles and wars, including WW2, in which there was no choice but to “choose sides,” as seen in the first interview with an old man who says he was “at the barricades in 1944” and is “ready to go again for my children’s freedom.” Others say they would perhaps have supported the Commune at the time but today do not believe any such action is possible, or that the struggle must play out on a different, less material plane. Meanwhile, a third category says they would never put their lives on the line for such principles, then or now. We also hear from those who seem to honestly not know, confessing their fear, such as one of the more outspoken women from the dressmaker and wash-house business scenes, who now says in response to the question of whether she would defend the Commune: “I don’t know! I’m afraid of the barricades.” Another woman immediately shouts back at her, seemingly speaking in 1871: “We’ve got nothing to lose!” Meanwhile, the film also details the killing by Communards of hostages and prisoners during semaine sanglante. However, the actor playing Marguerite Lachaise, a rare female National Guard officer, notes: “Though the Commune murdered 100, the other side massacre nearly 30,000.” Over archival photographs showing rows of slain bodies, she asks: “Where does violence come from?”
In a nice metaphor for the Commune itself, the film’s last section also features a series of connected scenes showing attempts by teachers (two women we saw hours earlier speaking to the camera before the Commune’s proclamation, advocating what would become one of its signature policies, free state-run secular education) to teach their new Commune-run schoolroom class during the government troops’ military assault on Paris, discussing what is happening outside. Against the sound of war, in discussions about the Commune and its values and how the new education system they are all involved in reflects them, some of the girls argue they need go and help fight the Versailles forces to defence such principles. Meanwhile, in keeping with the film’s stress on diversity of response and opinion, other students bow their heads in horror and in one case resort to prayer (a move mocked by a neighbouring girl). Ten minutes later we see some of the same children at the barricades, nervously but determinedly preparing guns alongside adult Communards. La Commune’s barricades sequence finishes on this imagery, with one of the film’s very occasional freeze-frames showing a girl familiar from the schoolroom scenes as she looks right into the camera. After a few seconds, this image cuts to our first smoke-filled sight of government troops arriving after their military victory, shouting for the last “stinking reds” to come out of their “holes.”
After the final school sequence and one last interior scene at the upper-class apartment devoid of human presence (described above), the film shows us “what is happening outside” as we travel alongside the former Commune TV reporter, whose interview technique appears unchanged. Tension between this media presence and “reality” is immediate. One woman holding a rifle at the barricades shouts into the microphone: “Stop asking questions! We need help.” Another woman even more bluntly complains: “The biggest pain in the ass is that you’re still here recording, watching everything but not giving a fuck. Whether it’s a film or reality, you just stand there.” She adds with anger: “And I’d like to kill that.” Seconds later, a man standing beside her appears to speak as much if not more to the viewers of these images we are watching as to the reporter interviewing him: “You hide behind your TV and watch us die off. TV is slavery.” He proceeds to cite the concentration of media in France today, adding: “Isn’t that censorship?” Another woman then says to the reporter: “You have to join us! Drop your microphone. Fight with us for utopias. There are still some left to defend.” At this precise moment, the woman with the rifle above pretends to “act out” her threat to “kill that,” pointing her weapon right at the camera—Commune TV’s and La Commune’s—with the gun’s barrel framed in the middle of the image.
The incredible power of any single media representation in support of the revolution is repeatedly remarked upon in different ways during the barricades sequence. One group of women proclaim defiantly to the reporter and camera: “The revolution is ours.” Once more, considering the relative obscurity of films directly seeking to “re-tell” the Paris Commune events, they might well be leveling the comment at La Commune’s own disproportionate role as perhaps the most prominent film focusing on this event, its qualities and sympathies notwithstanding. Raising some pertinent points and questions, a young woman tells the former Commune TV representative:
“We shouldn't talk to you. Your manipulation methods are those of National [Versailles] TV. We don't need to prove our ideas to you. Your role is a bit strange! Do you really broadcast what we say, what you're filming? Will people see this film?”
While essential, and very much characteristic of Watkins’ cinema and writing, such media critique—including potential commentary on the film’s own status—doesn’t, however, entirely dominate the latescenes. More precisely, rather than myopic, it works within the context of a keenly felt political urgency represented by these events and their still challenging trans-historical relevance.
As the reporter moves on through the crowd, other figures shout a series of laments into the microphone. One man cries: “Oppression for poor nations; and for the poor in rich ones. We’re human beings, shit!” Taking for granted that resistance is crucial, rather than stressing the image of the barricades (seen behind her), a woman says of our current predicament that there is no choice but to use the weapons of the media against their usual purpose: “We can no longer build barricades like this. We have to fight the media. We have to use the same weapons: computers, Internet, TV.” By saying this, she effectively speaks to La Commune itself as a gesture of revolutionary action on the virtual level of media as “reappropriated” from its more usual function. Also voicing a level of frustration and impatience reminiscent of Watkins’ own frequently expressed position, she adds: “It’s about fucking time!” Finally, after the government troops have completely taken control, as the camera whirls through corridors seeking to follow the fast-moving action while Communards are rounded up, the captured women in particular express their palpable anger. When asked her identity and former role in the Commune by an army commander at his ad-hoc desk, one of the schoolteachers—like other women—defiantly shouts her answer with furious pride. Of the broader question of semaine sanglante and its historical heritage, a man quietly lined up with others along a wall, presumably waiting to learn his fate, mutters somewhat optimistically: “They can’t always hide what they did! They can’t always lie.” Considering that the perpetrator was one of the then most powerful Western states and that its victims would become largely erased from mainstream historical portraits of France and Europe, despite the efforts of various books, articles, and films, such a hopeful cry has yet to be fully answered.
Taking in spatial and temporal factors while effectively describing the film’s palimpsestic form, perhaps reaching its clearest enunciation in the barricades scenes but really operating throughout, Fujiwara writes that Watkins and his collaborators invoke a world way beyond any completed “text.” What we see, rather, is
“penetrated and saturated by voices alien to the image, coming from other ‘scenes,’ making it impossible to identify and bracket the scene as a separate unity within the flow of displaced images and sounds. Everything is mixed, combined, juxtaposed; there is no unanimity… [H]ardly a position is ever affirmed without eliciting a counterargument, a protest, or a catcall (indeed, ‘it’s difficult to be a democrat,’ as a woman says in the film).”
Not only do we always sense the theatricality and present-day staging of the Commune—or more precisely its articulation and consideration—by intimately engaged on-screen subjects, the performative and textual layers continue to bleed into one another more fundamentally. Present-day references increasingly feature in on-screen discussions, with people talking about the Commune in the past tense. And the film itself is increasingly reflected upon near its end—both events “past” yet very much “present.” The scenes’ temporality is forever unstable and not just because of slippage between character and actor.
Even near La Commune’s end it is unclear whether people are speaking “in” the film or somehow after its completion. Sometimes this plays out like footage from a “making-of” documentary, with the actors still in costume, which has slipped into the “main feature,” such as when the group of women familiar from the dressmaker’s, Women’s Union, and other street scenes talk to the camera in a relaxed fashion about the Commune and their experience of the film, with no Commune TV microphones in sight. Such conversations come across very much like relaxing “after work” and reflecting on it. In other scenes, 1871 and the threat of Thiers’ invading forces somehow remain very much alive despite references to the film’s own era. The spaces on-screen participants occupy throughout such discussions remain both “diegetic” and always highly theatrical and unconvincing—usually just comprised of some old boxes, recycled furniture, and room dividers. The large yet subdivided and cramped environment—all of it technically interior while most often made to suggest exteriors—looks concurrently real yet highly artificial and “virtual.” For a film that may seem monotonous when it comes to setting and mise en scène, this temporally effected space is from the start treated as multiple.
In addition to the palimpsestic space that constantly slips between time periods, never resting properly in one, staging of actors and shot composition tend to further enforce perceptual and temporal instability yet a sense of performative presentness. When it comes to the framing of human bodies, La Commune has a compositional style quite familiar from Watkins’ other work. Although most of his films have relied mostly on television funding, they tend to eschew the usual tight close-ups of faces strongly associated with the medium in both its state-funded and commercial forms. But neither do the films feature distant “establishing” shots taking in the whole scene, as we get with many cinematic traditions from Hollywood and beyond. Instead, throughout the film recurs a characteristic kind of shot in terms of focal length and camera proximity to the action. Here the important human figures are positioned in a kind of middle-ground so that the viewer is able to see them clearly while also retaining a strong sense of their immediate spatial and social surroundings.Especially during quiet moments in the film, we are aware of the warehouse set as a prominent presence, while at other moments the intimately social and political nature of this film-reality is intensely cluttered and claustrophobic such that human bodies make up virtually the entire mise en scène. The more people in the frame, the more internal discord within the Commune is registered. This goes for the film’s majority, often rather chaotic scenes throughout. The middle-ground composition also applies when military commanders are addressing their forces or politicians try to speak to a restless crowd. One example of the latter instance is when Leó Frankel—one of the Commune’s key social reform architects and the main historical leader portrayed in occasional brief scenes by the film—and other prominent figures stand grouped together (with National Guardsmen behind them). While Frankel tells a crowd of people why wages have seriously eroded, a man in the left foreground seen partially from the back mutters his disapproval: “So, the rats are leaving the ship!”
That long shots, so familiar to cinema and today even sometimes occasionally television viewers, would be unlikely or impossible in this film’s warehouse set shouldn’t distract us from the fact that both such images and the more usual TV-style close-ups serve no real purpose in Watkins’ cinema. We are left instead with a kind of “in-between” medium shot-defined style featuring frames crowded with multiple bodies, a style made rather self-conscious in its ubiquity across La Commune, but also for the fact that various people dominate the image at a given moment as they frequently talk directly into the camera or at least momentarily glance at it. This aesthetic principle serves as an important nexus point whereby Watkins’ formal and political ideals are given mutual expression. With such shots the viewer can briefly ascertain individual figures—not simply characters, or actors. Again, here we have a sense of the body reclaimed, both for itself and for the communal effort in which it plays a key part. These men and women on screen are always seen in their inherently social everyday context: a world they are both a product of and very much affected by. It is also a reality that together they can potentially impact and change, depending on the behavior of those around them and others outside the frame, both immediate and far away.
The mutability of this social positioning of bodies is emphasized throughout the film. We see different people clearly affected by others in the near vicinity, developing their own arguments and responses in relation to the discussions they listen to and take part in. And the changing events of the Commune—and even the world beyond— are suggested by the colonial context crucially traced in La Commune. In addition to the multi-vocal performance of its extensive dialogue track, this bodily performance and the camera’s in-between framing of frequently crowded people as always situated within a social space, ensures a multilayered presentation of history defined as collective, collaborative process.
Stressing memory, reclaiming subjectivity
Within, across, and beyond its temporal layers, La Commune’s mounting of a democratic performance in living history as textual heteroglossia, expressed, performed and framed as multiple processes, calls all its participants inside and outside the frame to a subjective responsibility. In this sense, as opposed to a more official historical accounting, the film’s temporality invites the viewer to participate in a customized procedure that, I suggest, resonates with an idea explored by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis in her analysis of Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard/Night and Fog (1955).
Addressing the audiovisual technique and ethico-philosophical address of Resnais’ canonical short film about the Nazi death camps, Flitterman-Lewis stresses “memory” over “remembering.” She defines the latter as “tied to a specific event,” an “objective” monument that exists outside of individual involvement. Memory, on the other hand, is positioned as relying on subjective engagement and the contemporary playing out of history, only sustained through creative, individually reliant acts of dialogue and representation. The result, Flitterman-Lewis suggests, is that
“presence, responsibility, and active engagement make both viewer and filmmaker witnesses to history (and to historical representation), projecting the film’s implications beyond the theatre and into the future, binding them in the social processes and moral obligations of human culture.”
With its layered reflexivity and blockage to any kind of “suspension of disbelief,” using the events and tragic conclusion of the Paris Commune as a launching pad, La Commune asks us to bring our memory to bear upon history in its most alive sense, invoking past, present and future. While we may be impressed or even overwhelmed by the information, activity, and arguments filling the frame over its many hours, La Commune remains decidedly incomplete or even unconvincing if judged as an act of historical recreation or memorialising that asks us simply to “remember.”
Flitterman-Lewis writes of the real ongoing importance of Night and Fog as a film as much about the present and the future as the past event it essays, filtered through the viewer’s hopefully active engagement: “Recognizing that the 'truth' of an event always exceeds the documentary fact.” With Watkins’ unique pseudo- and speculative-documentary form, we are asked to engage with the reality of ideas, debates, problems and historical narratives, while also acknowledging they cannot be transparently rendered to us. There must always be a messy process of constructed textuality and articulation that is inherently “subjective” both in its representational address (the filmmaker and his colleagues’ views on the material) and reception. We are presented with a very possible real: an historical event that “did happen.” Yet it is a highly theatricalized and multiply reflexive recreation of this past, “liberated” from the notion of history’s memorializing narratives that inevitably ascribe clear winners and losers. While often a tragic history in the real world—here a “failed” revolution murderously quelled, later inspiring (along with the Russian Revolution) a key modernist opera by Marxist Italian composer Luigi Nono, Al gran sole carico d'amore (In the Bright Sunshine Heavy with Love, 1975), and much other committed leftist art—the virtual rendering of key moments thereby gives them enormous virtual power beyond the familiar revolutionary lament for lost opportunities and idealism.
With memory thus conceived, the often contested concept of subjectivity becomes crucial as voiced both by the filmmaker in his refusal of the illusion (and ideological "trick") of an objective documentary address, but also beyond any singular authorial expression or that of the 220 actor-participants, and ultimately of the film itself, as a called-upon quality in urgent need of re-engagement. The unrepentantly subjectivist voice/s or “noise” characterizing the film renders historical reality in the form of a provocation. Rather than being forced to accept Watkins’ or the film’s understanding of what we see on screen, this cinema calls us into subjective accounting and responsibility in bringing to bear the lived history of film as an actively engaged event on both sides of the screen. “What do you think?” viewers are repeatedly asked.
Linda Williams writes of Errol Morris’ celebrated documentary work featuring extensive, TV-style “recreation” sequences:
“Some form of truth is the always receding goal of documentary film. But the truth figured by documentary cannot be a simple unmasking or reflection. It is a careful construction, an intervention in the politics and semiotics of representation.”
Peter Watkins’ cinema is driven by the determination to express, explore and extol a sense of often bitter yet ultimately inspiring historical truth. He does this by presenting, generating, and engaging living history as textual process rather than mimetic representation. Critic Jared Rapfogel describes the director’s style as akin to a complex enactment of the “newsreel” approach, which becomes “a way of making history come alive again.” This aesthetic “both creates distance and collapses it.” We are given a possible real yet a sightly exaggerated reality either set just in the future or, as with La Commune, a highly theatricalized and variously reflexive recreation of an important past event. Such inherently “virtual” reality is brought to life by being liberated both from ultimately regressive regimes of “objective” or transparent textuality and the (frequently connected) ideologically closed, linear historical narratives of winners and losers. While the film often charts a loss in real-world history, the virtual rendering of key moments thereby gives it enormous power beyond the familiar leftist elegy for lost opportunities that effectively affirm history as a tragically closed book.
La Commune’s unrepentantly subjectivist but importantly multiple voice mounts a resolutely contemporary provocation. This is not a cinema of revolutionary prompting through faithfully charting the historical and spatial reality of a sacred and mourned event, seeking to “remember” it, as so much “serious” narrative and documentary cinema and television continues to promote. Instead, the film achieves a multilayered, intensely active reflection on and engagement with history by bringing its challenge into the present through self-consciously artificial means—those of audiovisual form. Rather than the “dead” mise en scène of the period film, or expensive popular recreation-adorned documentary form, here a shoestring set and majority non-professional cast make for a cinematic and historical space perennially alive in its process of production. La Commune’s multi-vocal engagement and diverse articulation offer an uncommon but strikingly effective way to make serious films about history. It suggests that a lingering, tantalizing potential for reappropriation and production of revolutionary space remains, a space rendered as concurrently theatricalized and virtual. This is the inherent reflexivity, fragmentation and violence of space constructed and re-imagined through the moving image across time—both La Commune’s sheer duration and, more crucially, for its complicated time travelling between 1871, 1999-2000, and since. Here cinema calls us into creative and subjective accounting and responsibility, bringing to bear the lived history of film as a fully activated event on both sides of the screen, with multiple unresolved implications for contemporary life.
Everyday life meets virtual space,
a conjurer’s journey
“The diversion and reappropriation of space are of great significance,” writes Lefebvre in The Production of Space. But, he adds:
“Diversion is in itself merely appropriation, not creation—a reappropriation which can call but a temporary halt to domination.”
The Paris Commune was indeed a relatively brief and intensely localized, yet variously creative and enormously significant, “halt to domination” brought about by the attempted reappropriation of space but forcibly stopped short of its more complete revolutionary “production.” La Commune portrays this event almost entirely “from below” at the level of everyday life, with extensive detailed and big-picture narration and analysis offered by both copious text screens and extensive human discussion throughout the film, no matter whether the text or human figures appear to be speaking in 1871 or 1999-2000.
This film is about, offers, creates, and produces, revolutionary history. It is a palimpsestic history taking in its setting, period of production (including extensive preparation, brief shoot, and subsequent editing into a “finished” film), and beyond. It is articulated by everyday people (both the characters and largely non-professional actors on screen, most of whom knew little or nothing about the Commune but possessed distinct political opinions) who seek to transform everyday life and who support a revolution purporting to enable just this. While far from consistent or devoid of internal contradictions and significant ongoing problems—many of which have continued to challenge the thinking of radical activists, would-be revolutionaries, and diverse fellow travellers ever since—the Commune itself as an overall project was based on the general principle of enabling people to experience and create life anew at the most basic grassroots level in the form of a different social order than the one that had been long enforced by powerful class, state, gender, and religious elites and was violently re-established following the Commune’s murderous cessation in late May of 1871. This historical event’s radical experiment in democracy is taken up by a film primarily concerned with illustrating such an everyday process through its highly reflexive “reimagining” within a suburban warehouse for just three weeks in 1999—less than a quarter of the Commune’s own short duration.
Such a unique, generative film-history is addressed, co-authored, and displayed throughout La Commune by on-screen participants and Watkins’ multiply reflexive filmmaking choices with striking trans-historical force via multiple discussions, comparisons, and analyses interconnected through a forever unstable present tense, yet always based in a sense of the everyday. Following Nietzsche, Lefebvre argued that radical change can only conceivably occur at this quotidian level, unless we are to accept an always “top-down,” inevitably repressive version of historical development. Daily life, Lefebvre writes in Critique of Everyday Life, Volume III,
“is the ‘base’ from which the mode of production endeavours to constitute itself as a system, by programming this base. Thus, we are not dealing with the self-regulation of a closed society. The programming of daily life has powerful means at its disposal: it contains an element of luck, but it also holds the initiative, has the impetus, at the ‘base’ that makes the edifice totter. Whatever happens, alternations in daily life will remain the criterion of change.”
The fact of the Commune even having occurred, this microcosm of a would-be or not-quite revolution entirely played out within urban space, is ever more important to acknowledge and spotlight in light of our own recent history. It has much to teach us about the potential within this very prosaic sphere of daily life, wherein lies the “criterion of change”—the volatile “base” capable of making “the edifice totter.” The space and time evoked by La Commune works to produce a very singular cinematic rendering of revolutionary history, with a crucial stress on present-day, everyday experience and use.
Kamel Ikachamene, an Algerian sans-papier resident of a Paris banlieu with a small part in La Commune, is interviewed in The Universal Clock. Offering not a single word to explain such a connection, the everyday yet magical spatio-temporal terrain traversed by those on both sides of the screen throughout Watkins’ film is nonetheless evoked at once when Ikachamene picks up a nearly disintegrating book to quote from one of his favourite poems, “The Agonized Life,” by Quebec writer Gaston Miron. He recites the lines:
“Far from myself, I took a conjurer's journey.
I hadn't seen myself for a long time.
I'm inside myself, like a man in a house built in his absence.
I greet you, Silence.
I didn't come to come back.
I come to begin again.”
On the one hand, for all those involved—both in 1999 and for subsequent viewers—La Commune amounts to a “conjurer’s journey” indeed, an experience well and truly outside familiar everyday life. Yet, the Miron passage also suggests, at the same time there is a sense of a return, looking at the reflection of a self long unseen or unacknowledged. The poem (which predates Watkins’ film and to my knowledge has no other connection to it) also invokes the spatial, resonating with the fact that this film-revolution, staged within a massive subdivided interior space, appears as a kind of proper (if intensely theatricalized) “house” that has already been constructed in our absence. It feels like a home, but appears as if built elsewhere and by others, so seemingly alien is the on-screen occupants’ dogged utopian commitment to it. And as to the quote’s invocation of sound (or lack thereof), which I briefly addressed above, while the film is for much of its running time overflowing with “noise,” it also offers regular, crucial passages of meditative silence often emphasized and accompanied by black or text screens. The whole film, perhaps, can be seen as allowing us to “greet” a figurative “Silence” that enables genuine reflection. It functions as a kind of distended mirror session with palimpsestic, hurtful yet forever inspirational history shorn of its usual centralizing, linear, and winner-defined stories. Miron’s last two sentences, meanwhile, uncannily approach the very nub of what my discussion has chiefly been concerned with: the singular ability of the Paris Commune to time travel via this special filmic treatment. We don’t come to return, to memorialize, or remember. But rather to apply ourselves, to face our intimate relationship with and responsibility to history—our very own, and that which we learn through engagement with La Commune—so as to think and “begin again.”
La Commune (Paris, 1871) produces revolutionary history on film by intimately and appropriately conflating everyday life and a virtual space that is thereby no longer temporary (unlike the production experience and process of the film itself). This virtuality remains intrinsically connected to the notion of “real” space and history as experienced by ordinary people and echoing across diverse periods. And the film’s digital-era essaying goes beyond being a record of an apparently transformative but finite collaborative filmmaking experience. The result is not exactly the same as the production of space Lefebvre envisaged, one that largely predates the transformations and unprecedented network-defined nature of our increasingly online-oriented world (even as his later work starts to address the ramifications of the information revolution). La Commune’s creative enactment, its rendering of revolution as an act of radical reappropriation—here itself of the theatricalized and virtualized space that usually constitutes the formally and ideologically conservative mediascape of film and television—now offers multiple renewed points of very real entry into and everyday resonance within our increasingly interconnected cities, concurrently real and virtual, right across the world.
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73. He shouts in response: “It IS negative information! They spent all day trying to decide what to call it.” She retorts: “That's your opinion.” He replies: “You know why? They thought it might scare people. Committee of Public Safety! Of course it scares people! That's Robespierre! Let's start recording again, maybe we can talk about what's going on now!” She insists again: “It’s not our job,” now looking completely away from her colleague with clear disdain. [return to text]
74. If I am associating the film with recent urban-based activism since 2010 in this article, in 2000-2001 it would have been related to the very large so-called anti-globalisation rallies, most notably those in London and Seattle (both 1999) and Genoa (2001), which saw much-debated destruction of property by some groups and extensive police violence.
75. The more commonly applied phrase, “neo-liberalism,” invokes a return to an earlier, often mythical law-of-the-jungle free market model. But this moniker can serve to mask the crucial ongoing role of the state in ensuring the increasingly unfettered success of corporate capital at the expense of genuine “competition”—supposedly the fundamental value of a market system—often in the form of subsidies, tax loopholes, etc. Nothing demonstrates this better than the unprecedented bailouts of the biggest banks in the United States by the taxpayer, whereby the largest transfer of capital from the state to the private sector in history was undertaken with no strings attached.
76. In its final section, La Commune explicitly compares socioeconomic conditions between the film’s setting and production era: “In 1870, the wealthiest 20 pc of the world population had 7 times the income of the poorest 20 pc. In 1997, this difference was 71 to 1. Today, the richest 20 pc share 86 pc of the world GDP, vs. barely 1 pc for the poorest. The world’s 3 richest persons own more than the total GNP of the world’s 38 least-developed nations, that is to say, 600 million people.”
77. While at first the local priest is supportive of their action, we are told, the following day, “the region’s authorities asked the Home Office to eject them. They justify lifting the inviolability of holy places, on the excuse of a foreign cult practicing in the church.” Thus was born the subsequently familiar and fraught “sans-papier” distinction in France.
78. While there is frequent slippage between 1871 and 1999 throughout the film, the only time we see anybody appear in modern-day clothing is the brief glimpse of Watkins and his crew in the first shot.
79. In many of Watkins’ previous films, his own rather upper-class “British English” speaking voice performs this role, frequently with some auto-critical reflexive function in regards to deconstructing “official” BBC-style objectivity (as happens, for example, in Punishment Park).
80. While a lot more could be said about Watkins’ use of sound in the film, I thank Helen Groth for prompting me to think more about its role through her contribution to discussion following a seminar address in which I presented some of this article’s material. (Research Seminar Series, Centre for Modernism Studies in Australia: University of NSW, 18 November 2015.)
81. Delescluze, cited in Benjamin, 2002, p. 790. Central protagonists of the previous century’s French Revolution at its more radical edge, by 1871 the Jacobins represented this tradition within the Commune, as compared to other Communards seeking more complete, explicitly socialist revolutionary change. The numerical strength of Jacobins would be important as the Commune entered its “crisis” phase, as they pressed for centralization of power in the interests of enhanced “efficiency” and “security.” In France today the term refers less to radicals than republicans in favor of strong central government control of the state (while in the UK, on the other hand, the word is often used as a derogatory term for radical leftists). A text screen from La Commune summarizes the diverse results thrown up by the Commune’s initial elections: “Different political trends try to coexist inside the Council: 1. Supporters of the revolutionary Auguste Blanqui. 2. Autocratic Jacobins, who long for a return to 1789 and centralized power in Paris. 3. Socialists trying to create a network of federated Communes.” There were also, meanwhile, somewhat “in-between” figures such as Georges Clemenceau, representing the most conservative wing of the Commune but seen as a radical by Versailles. A member of the National Assembly, Mayor of the 18th arrondissement, and future French Prime Minister, Clemenceau tried to negotiate compromises between the Commune and the Assembly.
82. Benjamin, 2002, p. 789.
83. Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 289-90.
84. Ross (2015) and Wark (2015), and many others, have charted this impact of the Commune on Marx’s later thinking.
85. Marx, 2009: online.
86. Chomsky, 2013: online.
87. Now more clearly speaking in 1999, they comment that the Commune taught France and beyond “what democracy was about, what it really meant.” According to Watkins’ claims about the film’s casting, these women were chosen due to their conservative political views. Learning about the Commune and its murderous cessation seems to have shaken them—as discovering the horrific costs others have involuntarily paid for one’s own particular, and deeply privileged, version of “civilization” should. The scene concludes with the women citing historical scholarship corroborating and detailing the government-ordered mass slaughter.
88. Fujiwara, 2008: online.
89. Fujiwara, 2008: online.
90. I refer here not to the immediate threats and problems of the Commune, such as possible Prussian occupation or the desperate need to retain the National Guard cannon, but rather to the ambitions of the Commune program itself as I described near the start of Part II.
91. Louis in Bowie, 2001.
92. Indeed some of the director’s previous films started out as educational projects undertaken within institutional contexts, such as Fritänkaren/The Freethinker, a project about August Strindberg and his historical context made with Swedish high-school students in 1994.
93. Fujiwara, 2008: online.
94. Thanks again to Chuck Kleinhans for prompting these observations.
95. Flitterman-Lewis, 1998.
96. Flitterman-Lewis, 1998, p. 215.
97. Flitterman-Lewis, 1998, p. 211.
98. Williams, 1993, p. 393.
99. Rapfogel, 2007: online.
100. Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 167-8.
101. Lefebvre, 2006, p. 41.
102. Miron, selected and spoken by Ikachamene, speaking in Bowie (2001). The English translation I provide is taken from The Universal Clock’s subtitles.
103. Lefebvre devotes some attention to the information revolution in Critique of Everyday Life, Volume III (at what was then its early 1980s peak), and then the posthumously published work, Rythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (2004), which many commentators treat as the fourth volume in the Critique of Everyday Life series.
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