La Commune (Paris, 1871)

Dir: Peter Watkins, 2000. Starring: Enthusiastic, articulate non-professional actors. French. Foreign/Documentary/Cult.
La Commune (Paris, 1871)

If there’s one thing the French government doesn’t want people to know about, it’s that for two months Paris was a Socialist state ruled independently from the rest of France. Napoleon III’s catastrophic decision in 1870 to declare war on Prussia for amorphous reasons of power and prestige precipitated France’s ruinous capitulation to the Prussian army, ultimately concluding in a Prussian assault on the capitol. During the siege, working class Parisians suffered the most, falling into destitution as prices of essential goods rose, and becoming increasingly resentful of the seemingly immune bourgeoisie. The government moved to Versailles during the war and, after Napoleon III died in battle, set up a new conservative Republic there. At the end of the siege, the army tried to re-appropriate cannons originally left behind to protect the city from the invading Prussians, which Versailles now worried would fall into the control of anarchist elements of the restless populace. However, Parisians protested the removal of the cannons because they had been paid for with public funds, and the listless soldiers, identifying more with the howling mob than with their well-bred officers, fraternized with the crowd and refused to take the cannon. Revolutionary spirit inflamed the city and La Commune was born. Without outside assistance, regular Parisians set up elections, formed a government with executive and legislative branches, and outfitted a defensive army. The citizens of the Commune created worker owned co-operatives, passed a law separating church and state, and abolished religious schools in favor of secular state education. In two months it was gone.

Director Peter Watkins takes five hours and forty-five minutes to narrate not only the rise and fall of the Commune, but also the inspiration and contradiction at the core of all its ideological rhetoric. Shot on black and white 16mm film in a warehouse in the suburbs of Paris, Watkins recruited non-professional actors to play characters that they could politically sympathize with and then asked them to research the period in detail. He also shot the scenes in chronological order for the benefit of the actors, an almost complete rarity in filmmaking. As a result, the line is blurred between fiction and documentary, and historical re-enactment is enriched by real people devoting themselves to the period doppelgängers they have created. The film is meticulously careful to be historically accurate, portraying without hesitation the shortcomings and shortsightedness of the Commune, as well as their fair-minded and progressive principles. There is, however, one intentional anachronism:  television. Commune TV is the television of “la peuple” and Versailles TV is the propagandist station of the establishment. The government station with its preening, self-serious anchors and cliché theme music intros is far and away the highlight of the film.

Watkins has been an innovating force in cinema since his anti-nuclear fake documentary(1) The War Game won an Oscar in 1965. The War Game graphically illustrated the dangerous magnitude of the Cold War superpowers’ negligence of the human cost of the nuclear arms race. In the film a scenario of a likely nuclear attack on London and its environs is played out, highlighting the barrenness of the government’s language of collateral damage, and the massive destruction and loss of life that could occur in even the most “successful” response to an atomic bomb. Although the BBC commissioned the documentary with full knowledge of its content and Watkin’s viewpoint, editors at the station were unsettled by the scale of violence and ruin that he depicted and refused to air the film. Watkins employs the fake documentary approach in other films such as Culloden (1964), Punishment Park (1971), Edvard Munch (1974), and The Freethinker (1994.) The style works best in Punishment Park, a dystopian imagining of what would have happened if hippies and radicals protesting the Vietnam War were tried by tribunals of irritated middle-class housewives and out of touch establishment intellectuals, and then given the choice of long prison terms or running a Mad Max style obstacle course in Death Valley. Like Zardoz it’s unclear how much of the comedy is intentional, but the film is powerful, unsettling, and provocative nonetheless. Culloden, a brutal reenactment of a bloody battle that occurred between the English and the Scots in 1746, shares many similarities with La Commune, except for its short running time. Edvard Munch introduces a holistic framework of intercutting contextual information relevant, but distinctly separate, to the main subject to create a plenary perspective. Munch features several digressions on child labor and poverty, significant elements of the time period that informed the painter’s work. In La Commune, Watkins uses intertitles to compare the economic and social hardships of the inhabitants of the Commune with the current challenges facing present-day France. He also features segments of the actors discussing what their actions would have been had they been involved in a similar situation to what the Commune faced, and also what they perceive to be the most significant problems affecting modern France. In the latter, one feels a certain artificiality regarding the unanimous tones of the responses, as if they were mimicking some of the more liberal ideologues on French television. (To be fair, this only enforces Watkins representations of the subversive power of mass media.)

Watkins claims to have experienced the same censorship and editorializing from the producers of La Commune as he did from the BBC making The War Game. Allegedly the French-German television consortium that provided Watkins with funds demanded as many as nine opportunities to give notes and watch new edits of the film with their suggestions implemented. Watkins said that he offered to compromise with two screenings and no promise of alterations, and as a result La Commune was only aired once from 10pm to 4am. Regardless of encomiums from The Village Voice (J. Hoberman called it a “masterpiece”), even art house viewers will be put off by its length and obscurity. But La Commune isn’t a movie for the elite; it’s a movie for anyone who thinks that the rich shouldn’t be the only people in government.


(1) A fake documentary is a genre that is to be distinguished from “mockumentary.” A fake documentary is a narrative film that is distinctive in its use of the style of documentary as a paradigm to explore its usually factual subject matter. A “mockumentary” is a humorous film in which one of the main comedic goals is to lampoon the clichés of documentary filmmaking.

Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Feb 22, 2009 11:44am
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