copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Little hopes and pleasures: revisiting Tanner’s Jonah (1976)

by Joshua Sperling

“Politics are finished,” says Max, the soured historical-materialist in John Berger and Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000. As the film’s lovable grump, it is a sentiment he repeats often. “What was May ’68 to you?” he asks his new hippie girlfriend, “Cherry blossom time?” Later he reveals the source of his disillusion: he used to belong to an activist group. “In the sixties,” he clarifies, and starts to count up with his hand. “64, 65, 66, 67, 68.” At this point he stops, having reached a pinnacle, and counts back down. “69, 70, 71, 72.”

Jonah was made in 1976. Both Berger and Tanner considered themselves to be undogmatic Marxists and the film, set in French-speaking Switzerland, was about how to live in the backwash of political expectation. Once thought to be dress rehearsals for an ultimate revolutionary event, the uprisings of the late sixties, particularly the strikes and demonstrations that swept through France in May 1968, now seemed to belong to a different age. And so Jonah asks: How to live after political failure? How to live with a modicum of hope, with warmth and community—and maybe even with a little bit of fun? Aside from Max, the other seven characters, all in their twenties or thirties, are still dreamers. They are still out to salvage something of the spirit of the counterculture in a world that has moved on, and flattened back to business-as-usual. Politics are finished, Max tells them, but they go about politics by other means: as progressive teachers, organic farmers, sexual explorers. “You don’t allow for little pleasures?” one of them asks.

It has now been forty years since Jonah. The child it is named after would be entering middle age. How would he view his parents? How should we, alive in 2016, view the film? What can we learn from the collaboration that gave rise to it and the divided response it provoked?

In some ways Jonah’s politics are as outdated as its haircuts. In others ways the film was prophetic, crystallizing a mood and set of questions that are still with us, or have only grown more pressing. Variations on the same debates continue to work their way through our college campuses, street protests, music festivals, and small farms. What are politics? Where are they? How do they work in a post-utopian world?

Jonah, and the reaction it provoked, held up a mirror to these questions at a time when the answers had grown opaque. The mood on the left was grim, the marriage between the political and cultural vanguards was dissolving, and the global party-politics of revolution was giving way—arguably already had—to a more local focus on the body, the land, cultural and sexual identity, lifestyle, food and the everyday. Jonah also set off a debate about the nature of political art. Can a political film be pleasurable? Can it be consolatory? Or was Jonah, a comedy, nothing more than an exercise in cherry-blossom nostalgia and reassurance?

The Berger-Tanner collaboration

Let’s begin with where Jonah came from, and what it meant to the two men who made it: the Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner and the English writer and art-critic, John Berger. Their period of work (1971-1976) represents one of the most unique collaborations in film history. In what follows I want to develop the idea that the dialectic between play and politics found in Jonah—and that so divided the left in the mid-70s—grew out of the artistic tensions, alternately constructive and contradictory, of their partnership. Or to put it another way: the temporary coming-together and eventual parting of the Berger-Tanner collaboration symbolized, in miniature, the New Left’s broader, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempts at synthesis.

This parallel becomes clearer with some historical background.

Berger and Tanner first met in London in the mid-1950s. At that time, Berger was making a name for himself as the brash, young art-critic for the New Statesman. He was an outspoken Marxist and the figurehead for social realism in British painting. Tanner, for his part, was in his twenties, an aspiring filmmaker and boarder in Lindsay Anderson’s house, where weekly salons would bring together prominent figures of the cultural left.

It was in this milieu that Berger and Tanner crossed paths. When Tanner’s short documentary,Nice Time (1957), was included in a Free Cinema Programme, Berger praised the film. He complimented what he saw as “the possibility of protest” in its attitude toward its subject: the new nightlife of Picadilly Circus. But, he added, “the point is that the protest is not an aloof, administrative or high-minded one.”[1] [open notes in new window] In its collage of promenading couples, moviegoers, street musicians, beggars, cruisers, and police, Nice Time tacitly celebrated the innocent urge for fun while it critiqued the ways that fun could be controlled and marketed for a profit. (This double-movement would later become a trademark of Tanner’s “subversive charm.”)

In 1960, Berger left England for Geneva. He had reached an impasse with regular art criticism and moved to the continent in the hope of becoming a more imaginative, and European, writer. This meant, alongside essays and novels, an openness to collaboration and an interest in new visual media. He began regularly appearing on British television and worked with a friend of Tanner’s, the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr, on the first of several documentary photo-texts that explore the relationship between words and images.

During this same period—the mid 1960s—Tanner spent several years in Paris where he met many of the leading figures of the Nouvelle Vague. By the end of the decade he had returned to Geneva and was working for Swiss television. The first direct collaboration between the two men occurred in 1966 when Tanner asked Berger to write the narration for a television documentary about Chandigarh and Le Corbusier. But it wasn’t until the early 70s, and Tanner’s turn to fiction, that the collaboration began in earnest.

Charles mort ou vif and La Salamandre

Tanner’s first feature, Charles mort ou vif (1969), grew partly out of conversations with Berger. The film was a gleefully insolent critique of conformity. In a mixture of aphorisms and wild skits, reminiscent of Godard, it follows a middle-aged businessman’s self-repudiation and rebirth as a bohemian. The film ends as Charles is taken to a mental institution. He reads a philosophical passage to the ambulance drivers:

“Saint-Just said that the concept of happiness was new in France and in the world. And we might say the same of unhappiness. The awareness of unhappiness presupposes the possibility of something different. Maybe today the conflict happiness-unhappiness, or the awareness of a possible happiness and of a real unhappiness, has replaced the old concept of destiny. Is that not the secret of our generalized malaise?”

The two drivers put on the siren, shut him up, and speed off. That was Tanner’s style: abrasive and energetic, philosophical but never too serious.

The same verve and irreverence characterized his second film, La Salamandre (1971), about a fickle, ungovernable young woman and two middle-class intellectuals fascinated by her disregard for social norms. The film, for which Berger received a screenwriting credit, played at Cannes and was a festival success. It introduced the world to the New Swiss Cinema and was praised for its coarse and energetic freedom.

But while Charles fit neatly into a Situationist line of protest, the politics of La Salamandre were harder to pin down. The English critic George Melly expressed this ambiguity. Speaking of Rosemonde, whose nickname gives the film its title, he wrote:

“How would she, with her flashes of insight and obstinate exercise of whim, her flirtation with criminality, her neurotic messiness, get by under the more rigid bureaucracies of the Left? Has Marxism room in its tidy bed for randy little anarchists? There’s never been any indication of it in practice.”[2]

The contradiction belonged to the 1960s counter-culture in general. The youth movement, as is often said, contained both LSD and SDS: both rock concerts and Marxist pamphlets. In 1971, when La Salamandre was released, the marriage between these two poles remained more or less intact. Though the film rejected any neatly ideological happy ending, such as the birth in Rosemonde of a political consciousness, it was released at a cultural moment when personal rebellion, no matter how unfocused or adolescent, could still be subsumed under the broader tide of emancipation.

Le milieu du monde

Both Charles and La Salamandre bear the unmistakable stamp of Tanner’s formative years in London and Paris. Both breathe with the youthful, unyielding exuberance of the British Free Cinema movement and the French New Wave. And though both received pseudo-political readings in the press—and were seen as bellwethers of the zeitgeist—neither was an exercise in pamphleteering. The same was more or less true, despite its coda of community activism, for Tanner’s third and hard-to-see film, Return from Africa (1973), about a couple’s extended staycation in a Geneva apartment. All of Tanner’s first three films were expressions of intensely personal, unruly and often anti-social desires rather than ideological tracts. They were political in the same way that Rimbaud’s early poetry, or a Jimi Hendrix solo, was political.

During this period, Berger’s interest in the-personal-and-the-political came from a much more philosophical place. It grew out of a larger project that aimed to theorize the connections between Marxism, Modernism and phenomenology. This more abstract undertaking expressed itself in Berger and Tanner’s second collaboration, Le milieu du monde (1974). In my view, this is the film of Tanner’s that owes the most to Berger–in both theme and tone. (Ironically, although perhaps understandably, Berger later expressed a certain disappointment with the finished product.)

Le milieu du monde charts the 112-day rise and fall of a disruptive, potentially liberatory, affair between a provincial Swiss politician and a migrant Italian waitress. Gone is the bohemian milieu of Tanner’s first three films. And whereas both Charles and La Salamandre had been loud, rambunctious and often ironic, the emotional palette of Le milieu du monde is somber. The long landscape shots of snow; the muted blacks and grays of the color scheme; a slow-moving and seemingly autonomous camera; the uninflected, theoretical voiceover. All of these elements, contrasting sharply with the on-screen romance, elicited references to Brecht and point to Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), as well as Antonioni’s trilogy with Monica Vitti, L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962).

The high-minded modernism of Le milieu du monde also grew out of Berger’s own literary work from the previous years, particularly his Booker-winning novel, G. In its combination of meta-fiction, historical analysis and romance, the film transposes the aesthetic strategy of Berger’s novel to the medium of film. Just as G. begins by asserting both the independent reality and the fictionality of its historical characters, Le milieu du monde begins with a shot of a film crew at work, followed by self-reflexive narration about the historical nature of cinema and the moment of the film’s making.

The film, we are told, takes place during a period of “normalization,” defined as a time that allows for the free exchange of goods and ideas so long as nothing fundamentally is changed. (Anyone familiar with Berger’s essays will immediately recognize this kind of sentence and sentiment.) “Hopes remain,” the female narrator says, “but they are normalized into old, stereotyped attitudes… Only words, dates and seasons change.” The film’s anatomy of the frustrated affair between the politician and waitress transposes this theory of political stasis to the realm of sexual intimacy.

Sexuality and politics

Le milieu du monde was part of a broader intellectual project of Berger’s to account for the relation of sexuality and politics. In the 1950s, when Berger was practicing as an art-critic, he had been criticized for his “boy-scout” puritanism. This was a common charge leveled by postwar liberal and existentialist critics against Communists and social realists, whom they parodied as neo-Victorian in their prudishness.

With the rise of the New Left and Second-Wave Feminism, the division between pleasure and politics fell away. During this time Berger pursued his own intellectual investigations into their connection. His 1972 novel, G., which dealt directly with Don Juanism and revolution, implied that in non-revolutionary periods, utopian impulses were redirected into sex. (The book was dedicated to his then-wife Anya Bostock, “and her sisters in Women’s Liberation.”) Meanwhile, Berger’s pioneering television broadcast, Ways of Seeing, also from 1972, connected the pictorial tradition of the female nude to objectification and presented a provocative, and in many ways groundbreaking, decoding of the new visual language of consumerism, glamour and sexuality.

Berger’s attempt to locate a political content in the personal experience of desire and sexuality was no doubt influenced by theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich. (Berger’s wife from this period translated many Western Marxist authors, including Reich.) He also worked for a time with Dusan Makavejev on an aborted film script that allegorized, as with the Yugoslav director’s earlier W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), an inter-cultural and cross-class sexual encounter.[3] If we return to Le milieu du monde, the Swiss politician’s failure to take full ownership of his passion—his psychic need to compartmentalize it and reduce it to the level of obsession and infantile symptomology—reflects the historical self-denial of the managerial-political class. The filmasserts that the technocratic impulse, whether political or sexual, will necessarily thwart any true renewal.

A cinema of ideas

Among the first things Berger wrote for Le milieu du monde were two long letters—essays, really—meant for the principal actors. In these, Berger theorized the personality of the character the actor was to play. But he did so not by providing a personal history or backstory, but by describing an existential outlook. Each character epitomized a philosophical and psychological stance before the film’s central theme: the nature of sexual passion.

Berger’s letter to Phillipe Leótard, for example, who plays the Swiss politician, reads less like dramatic directions and more like a structuralist treatise. Berger writes,

“There is no simple analogy to make the relation between the ‘lovers’ totality’ and the world clear. Perhaps the nearest is the relation between an ideal language and the universe. The state of being in lovesignifies the universe: the universe is its ‘signified.’”[4]

These letters, excerpts of which were published separately, are evidence of the unique nature of the Berger-Tanner collaboration. Berger was not simply a co-screenwriter; he was the film’s in-house philosopher. His primary work was to help theorize the film’s central philosophical question. And then, to investigate this question through the device of character.

Character, for the Berger-Tanner collaboration, serves less as an agent for drama than as a vessel for philosophical speculation. As in the sketches of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, or the essayistic fiction of Robert Musil, each character typifies anattitude: a possible stance, vis-à-vis a pressing historical or philosophical question. In so far as Le milieu du monde and Berger and Tanner’s next collaboration, Jonah, were constructed from this philosophical—rather than dramatic—architecture, they are the cinematic equivalents of the “novel of ideas.”

Jonah and the failure of ‘68

In the case of Jonah, the pressing philosophical question is: how to go on living in the face of political defeat. How to live after the failure of what Berger called “the Great synthetic prophecy of '68”? How to live during a period of normalization? All of the film’s characters, with the exception of Max, are aging idealists. They are still seeking utopia within the contours of their own life and actions. The group includes two organic farmers; a secretary into Tantric sex; a teacher with a penchant for outlandish pedagogy; a cashier who undercharges the elderly; a former union-leader turned progressive educator; and Max, the disillusioned ex-activist, who now fears he is political history and seeks escape in gambling. The characters are not meant to be fully formed, as in a realist film, but rather embodied variations on a theme. Their inner life—the content of their hopes and daydreams—defines them as much as their social position.

The film switches between color and black-and-white to suggest this duality. One black-and-white scene shows the fantasies of a character wholongs to be pregnant; another imagines a real estate speculator turned into a pig; yet another shows Max aiming a gun at himself in the mirror only to fire it at the ticking clock instead. Interspersed with these oneiric segments are quotations from a diverse set of intellectuals and writers; black-and-white archival footage (visual quotations) showing moments of overt turmoil and conflict; songs sung by the characters; and several mini-lectures, given to a high-school class, on the nature of historical time and capitalism.

Jonah thus works both as a group portrait of post-Utopian consciousness and as a Lehrstruk of interwoven leitmotifs: food, animals, sexuality, time, and childhood. The dance between these many registers—from black-and-white to color, play to work, hopes to reality—moves in a spirited, sweet-and-sour mélange that connects the disparate elements.

The desire to connect, not contrast, is most evident in the film’s egalitarian dramatic structure. None of the actors was a star in the conventional sense. None possesses model-like looks. And while Max, Marco (the teacher), and Matthieu (the union organizer) are perhaps the most developed and present to the audience, the film distributes emphasis more or less equally to all eight characters. Whereas modern equivalents of the so-called “network narrative” usually seek a splintered, postmodern connection, Jonah’s canvas is local, not global. It strives for communion. The climactic scene of the film is a festive meal and song on the farm. Its closing image is of a mural drawn by schoolchildren of the adults. The Jonah of the title represents the collective prophecy of the eight friends and lovers.

From society to the group

The utopian interest in community was a shift for both Berger and Tanner. Their prior works (both alone and together) had explored the question of the individual-in-society more than the group. But here again, the meaning of that transposition was complex. On the one hand, it emphasized the power of communion at a time of disintegration. On the other hand, it contracted the scale of utopian longings from total social transformation to the texture of the everyday and the community. The film’s ambivalence on this point signaled a watershed moment on the left: while many former activists drew inspiration from its vision of hope in the dark, other hardliners criticized Jonah as indulgent.

The division was exacerbated by the film’s popularity. Released in 1976, it had a surprisingly long and successful run throughout Europe and North America. It demonstrably had tapped into a cultural mood. The renowned critic for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael, as well as the iconic French critic, Serge Daney, both praised the film’s vigor and freedom. A young David Denby, who later succeeded Kael at the New Yorker, called Tanner, once thought of as a lesser Godard, “the Renoir of the 70s.”[5]

Jonah turned the residual melancholy and regret of a generation into a powerful sense of affirmation and resolve. One of the last shots of the film follows Matthieu, the father of Jonah, singing on his motorbike. The song is an elegiac ballad he has made up about his friends. On the voice-over we hear him talk softly to his future child. “I’ll try to keep your hopes together,” he says, “so they don’t disappear.”

Perhaps the most telling proof of what the film meant to its audience was the number of future parents, including the filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron and Fernando Trueba, who named their children, born in the late 70s, Jonah. For an aging generation needing badly to recuperate some sense of hope, the film provided that in a very profound, personal way to many people.

The Jump Cut debate

But Jonah was also a comedy made at a time when the left wasn’t supposed to be smiling. It became at once a touchstone of post-68 consolation and a target for attack. While articles in the mainstream press fawned over Tanner’s “Merry Marxist Guerillas,” a 1977 issue of this journal published a debate under the tagline “Tanner’s Jonah: Subversive Charm or Reactionary Nostalgia.” [URL hyperlink]

Robert Stam defended the film in what remains one of the best analyses of Tanner’s aesthetics. He called Jonah “a dialectical music of ideas” and compared it to Vigo’s Zero de conduite, as well as to Godard and Brecht. His basic point was that Tanner politicized the natural desires of a mainstream audience. The film was not, Stam argued, like many other leftist films: a bitter pill, however sugarcoated, appealing to the viewer’s intellect and guilt. Instead, Jonah celebrated fun, play, warmth, community, freedom—all impulses that, among other things, bring people to the movies. The film meant to free those impulses from the oppressive contortions of market-based social manipulation, and reveal their revolutionary potential. Stam wrote,

Jonah was not made for leftists, it was made for a mass audience. It tries to appeal to what is revolutionary in most people: in all those, at least, who have no direct stake in oppression.”[6]

A rebuttal essay, co-authored by Linda Green, John Hess and Robin Lakes, lambasted the film under the acerbic title, “Subversive Charm Indeed.” They saw the film as politically retrograde, accused it of dismissing Marx in favor of Rousseau, and said it offered up the assurance that it was "all right to drop out and put your hope in your children.”[7] The authors understood the reasons for the film’s appeal, but compared the nature of that appeal to an opiate. “It’s damned hard to feel very good about anything when decaying capitalism seems so very bent on destroying as much human life as possible,” they wrote. And so the film’s optimism, they argued, masked an insidious bargain: it flattered the self-satisfaction of a disillusioned liberal audience through the smug, if discrete, disavowal of class politics.

“Basically we think Jonah is a light-weight, slightly progressive, warm and charming film in which petty bourgeois actors and actresses pretend to be workers and peasants but fail because neither they nor Tanner knows much about the daily lives of Swiss workers.”

A second, and in my view fairer, criticism they leveled against the film pertained to what they saw as its “blatant, inexcusable sexism.” The female characters, they argued, “have no interests beyond their own reproductive organs,” and were constructed based on conservative notions of womanhood. There are many conspicuous examples in the film to support this: Marguerite’s liaisons with migrant workers; Mathilde’s obsession with fertility; Madeleine’s pursuit of tantric adventures. “Tanner can claim any excuse he wants,” they wrote, “but he has made a movie that shows complete ignorance of women’s struggles over the last 10 to 15 years.” Stam also expressed dismay at the film’s blind spot in this regard, and there is no doubt that the film’s sexual politics have aged badly. (As I will return to shortly, this was perhaps the criticism Tanner took most to heart.)

Locating the film’s politics

In interviews, Tanner took an agnostic stance in relation to the film’s politics. "There is no real message here,” he said.

“I'm not trying to tell people what to do or think. I'm not a priest or a politician. Jonah is just about what happened to people after 1968. There are some hopes in the film, because the characters are not just sitting back and wanting to belong to the silent majority. They want to move forward, in some small way. They all have some kind of movement, whether it be about kids, or salads, or what to do with one's body, or the problems of work. These characters are all minor prophets and they're headed toward the year 2000."[8]

The language Tanner used to explicate, and justify, the film emerged from the philosophical blueprint he had worked on with Berger. In his highly theoretical and speculative notes for Jonah, Berger called it, “A comedy, sometimes in color and sometimes in black-and-white, about preparing to leave the 20th century.” His analysis of Jonah’s “eight ancestors” demonstrates a lucid awareness of their flaws and contradictions. They are meant to be emblems of personal, post-Utopian possibility, but they are not paragons of the left.

"In the whale, which is history, there are 8 characters like 8 Jonahs. All of them are ridiculous. We must never forget this. They are ridiculous, sometimes stupid, sometimes blind, often dishonest and petty in their obsessions. We must allow that aspect of them which is immediately dismissible by the bourgeois to be fully presented. Yet it is in their ridiculousness that their little prophesies lie. And their prophesies save them from some of the self-destructions and murderous guilt of the society to which they belong. Yet they are not comrades together. They are too individualistic. They bicker and disagree. All that they recognize that they have in common is a certain aberrance."[9]

What is ironic is that the very same characteristics Berger anticipates as being “immediately dismissible” by the bourgeois (e.g. that a boss would object to) were the same which unsettled the critics to the film’s left. They are too indulgent! Too irresponsible! To use Berger’s own phrase, they are ridiculous!

This is a contradiction the film turns over again and again. Consider the following exchange between Max, Marco and Matthieu, while they chop vegetables for dinner.

Max: “Because it’s a time of disillusion you go back. Everyone is looking for an escape: the body, nature, sex, onions, lotus flowers. Small consolations in a world which is said to be unchangeable.” 
Marco: “You don't allow for little pleasures?”
Max: “Little pleasures? Everything's little. Little gimmicks. Little tricks.” 
Marco: “We have to sacrifice for the future. Shit! It's the old trick of revolutions. It's what capitalism has always preached. It's you who is living in the past. You want a new 1905, or 1917, or 1968.”

Shortly after Matthieu, who has been listening while kneading dough, pipes up:

“You make me sick with all your talking. It's so simple. We work to earn a living. With our work, they make a profit. And with the energy left over we try to fight the system.”

Jonah thus leaves the intellectual aporia of commitment unresolved even while it sides with humble optimism, and the consolations of play, on the level of emotion and tone. A joke or a song is as much the terminus of contradiction as any intellectual synthesis.

The effect can be heartening or off-putting depending on the temperament of the viewer. For the hardliners who believed political cinema meant a realist depiction of the working class or a theorization of revolutionary activity, the effect betrayed naiveté and privilege. For others, it was a healthy sign of youth: the refusal to capitulate to an over-intellectualized bitterness. In a review in Film Quarterly, the social critic Todd Gitlin eulogized precisely this aspect of the work.

“The open secret of the films that Alain Tanner and John Berger have made is that the characters are innocent: without either sin or guile. Their innocence, and the nothing-up-the-sleeves style that attends it, might explain the singular appeal of these films. Although the main characters definitely have histories, they are not encased in them. They tilt toward the future… Unlike other survivors of political failure—Yves Montand’s exiled Spanish revolutionary in Resnais’s La Guerre est finie, for example—they are not toughly stoical, nor are they fixed in their ways: indeed, they hardly have ways to be set in. They are always underway…

Therefore these films are challenging to an intelligent and literate audience in the way few contemporary films even try to be. They pose the issue: suppose you really decided to live decently, and deliberately, and with a radical freedom, after 68, after Vietnam, after Nixon—then what?”[10]

The point is that Jonah left this question unresolved, and suggested possible avenues (“the body, nature, sex, onions, lotus flowers”) that appeared dubious, if not downright offensive, to labor activists who had spent years, sometimes decades, in the trenches of political struggle.

Personal vs. political solutions

What Jonah revealed, then, was an historical moment when the boundaries between the political and the personal were in flux. As the traditional class (and party) politics of the left were giving way to a new politics of the body, the land, cultural and sexual identity, lifestyle and the everyday, it was no longer so easy to apply a Manichean moral dualism to political intentions. The hard and fast distinctions between bourgeois culture and progressive culture—at least in the first world—were becoming porous and disorienting. As Madeleine tells Max: “You complicate things, dividing everything in two: the good, the bad, the useful and harmful. You think like a court of law, always judges and lawyers.”

Jonah sits, historically, on the fulcrum of political epochs. It crystallized the internal contradictions of the left at a moment when the present day fault-lines were being drawn. And while the macrobiotic, tend-your-own-garden side of the film drew predictable scorn from hard liners, it did touch a prophetic nerve. If hopes for a global Marxist revolution now appear a distant curio of the time, the nascent lifestyle politics of Jonah have only grown in their ubiquity. “So vegetables are politics now!” Max exclaims. How prescient he was! And while the obscene economic inequality of the present stands as proof of the boomer generation’s failure, the broadening of identity and lifestyle politics can be seen to be its greatest accomplishment.

Of course, the doubt–self-liberation or self-indulgence?–runs through to the present. It would be easy, for example, to deride the feel-good idealism of Jonah as an ideological precursor of the contemporary “Bobo” class, with its yoga retreats, progressive pre-schools and farm-to-table restaurants. But we must also remember that at the time the film was made, the impulses toward well-being, community and self-fulfillment had not yet been so thoroughly branded. To use the logic of Stam’s defense, the market-driven processes of commodification, status creation and social oppression had yet to so thoroughly contort and betray those desires.

Whatever its internal contradictions surrounding work and fun, the film does present an essentially anti-capitalist, or at least anti-mercantilist, worldview. Any line that speaks of the logic of the market, of financial speculation, or of game-theoretic rational-choice justifications for dubious behavior, is given to ugly, besuited fat cats. If anything, the film is simplistic in this regard, not ambivalent. The collectively-made and freely-shared are moral virtues. The rationally strategic is bad. No one is trying to impress anyone else, or have an “impact.” In this it is light-years away from the media-savvy, social entrepreneurs of the present.

But a more complex point returns us to the deeper question at the heart of the Berger-Tanner collaboration: the relation between personal experience and political action. Are Jonah’s little pleasures liberatory in a way that extends beyond the self? Can they be politicized and put in the service of a larger struggle? Are they opiates for a disillusioned political class or gateway drugs to further political and moral action?

Berger and Tanner were asking this question in their own ways, both separately and together. Tanner’s third film, Return from Africa, begins with one version of the riddle: “Speaking words can be an act in itself, it can also be a substitute for action.” Berger’s novel G. investigated the same duality through the protean nature of sexual experience. A similar wager—escape or liberation?—might apply to all utopian pockets: from communal living, psychedelic trips, and rainbow festivals to the experience of love and friendship and the decision to have children, a utopian wager on the most personal scale. Are these experiences merely refuges in a fallen world? Do they work like anodyne escape-valves, letting the present order maintain itself? Or are they the personal foundations for action and social change? Will a utopian personal experience engender a corresponding political hope?

There is almost certainly no ready-made or reliable answer to the question. I can see as many examples for the argument as against it. The outcome will vary from person to person. As Octavio Paz has said, “history is unpredictable because its agent, mankind, is the personification of indeterminism.”[11] 
That too is my argument for Jonah, a film whose indeterminacy grew out of a moment when the historical confidence of the left had evaporated. Without the assurances of ideology, individuals were placed back in their local environments to create solutions to smaller, much more delimited and personal problems. Is this localism a betrayal of politics? Or is it a sensible correction of what turned out to be a too facile understanding of progress? We still live with this uncertainty.

But I would go one step further. In our contemporary age when the logic and pressures of the market have pervaded nearly every inch of human life, the small, human gestures of Jonah provide, if not the tools for revolution, then the reasons not to submit. “What is the purpose of resisting corporate globalization,” Rebecca Solnit has asked, “if not to protect the obscure, the ineffable, the unmarketable, the unmanageable, the local, the poetic and the eccentric?” The word that unites the rest, at least in my view, is protect. We live at a time when plans for global revolution are obsolete. Austerity politics threaten livelihoods and ways of life. Accordingly, we have moved, out of necessity, to a politics of resistance: of preservation and survival.

Berger and Tanner after Jonah

It is one thing to be attacked from the right; quite another to be attacked from the left. Although Berger and Tanner have remained close friends, Jonahwas their last collaboration. It marked both the pinnacle of their partnership and its final step: an act of a synthesis that was also an impasse.

In the years that followed, Tanner entered a depression. He emerged from this with the incredibly bitter film, Messidor (1979), about two lesbian runaways. (The film served as the inspiration for Thelma and Louise.) In a sense, Tanner responded directly to the feminist criticisms of Jonah. Whether he thought about his own work this way or not, his entire subsequent trajectory might be seen as a protracted wrestling with the accusations of sexism and naiveté that Jonah provoked. In the 1980s, his films explored destructive female anti-heroes and anhedonic, disoriented men. Despair replaced gleeful irreverence. By 1985, Serge Daney, who had praised Jonah at the time of its release, could write of Tanner’s films:

"I knew the characters … having seen them come and go: they were flawed and bad in '68, then armchair idealists, then, in '85, embittered, dissatisfied hippies, that's all."[12]

The assessment is harsh, but it does speak to a dwindling in Tanner’s later work—an inability to match the energy and inspiration of his early films.  

Berger, for his part, emerged from Jonah heading in a very different direction. He moved from Geneva to a small village in the Haute Savoie, and toward a direct engagement with the day-to-day experience of French agrarian workers. In this sense, his trajectory can be seen to respond to a separate criticism leveled at Jonah: that its makers did not truly understand the lives of the working class, that they were nothing but class-imposters, “pretending to be workers and peasants.”

In fact, Berger had always been fascinated by working men and women, which likely made the accusations about the privileged consciousness of Jonah even more stinging. In conversation today, he plays down his role in the film, while holding up his collaboration with Jean Mohr from the same period, A Seventh Man, about migrant laborers, as the book of which he is proudest. In the years since the mid-1970s, the dignity of work, the importance of survival rather than progress, and the continued presence of the dead have all became central elements to his worldview, almost a theology. The title of his trilogy on peasant life, spanning two decades of writing, is taken from the Gospel of John: “Others have labored / and ye are entered into their labours.” For many contemporary readers, including myself, this is this period that signifies the Berger we most admire: an kind of honorary world elder and spiritual lodestar of the anti-globalization movement.

A fleeting marriage of contradictions

For a brief window in the 1970s, Tanner’s and Berger’s purposes overlapped. They made films that were unique in their spirit, tone, energy and ideas. They tried to encompass the theoretical complexities of commitment, rebellion and idealism in the face of political closure, while also doing justice to the lived experience of those complexities. Although certain aspects of their films have grown more awkward and problematic with time, others have become more revolutionary. Assigning a political “score” to a film, like carats to a diamond, will never be as important as taking from that work what can be of value to the present, and leaving behind what cannot.

And so what remains radical about Jonah is its sense of connection. It refused to separate feeling from thought, songs from lectures, or politics from the attendant, smaller acts of friendship and community that can both beget and cement political ideals. At a time when miserabilism has become the default manner of the avant-garde and social documentaries have fallen back on stereotyped modes of persuasion, the lessons Jonah provides, notwithstanding its flaws, are needed now more than ever. It has always been our duty to distinguish hope from fantasy. But as fear gushes out of the media like water from a tap, there is something all the more relevant about Jonah’s little pleasures. Or as Tanner put it recently in conversation, people are still searching for un peu d’espoir, un peu d’utopie—a little bit of hope, a piece of utopia.


1. John Berger, “Look at Britain!”, Sight and Sound 21:1 (1957), p. 14. [return to text]

2. George Melly, “Layers of Meaning,” The Observer, January 28, 1973, p. 33.

3. A draft of this script, along with their correspondence, can be found in the Berger Archives at the British Library.

4. I am quoting from a copy of the letters kept in the same Berger Archive.

5. David Denby, “The greening of Alain Tanner,” The Boston Phoenix, December 7, 1976. (Accessed via Cinefiles: https://cinefiles.bampfa.berkeley.edu/cinefiles/DocDetail?docId=20249)

6. Robert Stam, “The subversive charm of Alain Tanner,” Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977. http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC15folder/JonahStam.html

7. Linda Greene, John Hess, and Robin Lakes, “Subversive charm indeed!” Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977. http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC15folder/JonahAgainst.html

8. Quoted in Judy Klemesrud, “Alain Tanner: ‘Art is to Break with the Past’,” The New York Times, October 24, 1976, p. 87.

9. Here I am quoting from a dossier on Jonah kept in the Berger Archives at the British Library.

10. Todd Gitlin, “Reviews: Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000,” Film Quarterly, Spring 1977, pp. 36-37.

11. Octavio Paz, “In Search of the Present,” Nobel Lecture, December 8, 1990. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1990/paz-lecture.html

12. Serge Daney, review of No Man’s Land in Libération, August 30, 1985, quoted in Frederic Bas, “The subtle subversion of Alain Tanner,” Swiss Films Director’s Sheet. http://www.swissfilms.ch/static/files/cineportraits/44_Tanner_en.pdf