British filmmaker Peter Watkins’ nearly six-hour film, La Commune (Paris, 1871), made in the year 2000, is without a doubt one of the best and most important films of the decade, and it was just released this week on DVD by First Run Features. Count yourselves lucky–the film, which commemorates the short-lived working class attempt to turn France into a socialist republic following its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, has rarely been screened in France or elsewhere, although I’ve had the French DVD on hand ever since I first saw the film at a special screening in Los Angeles last year. (Arte TV in France, who financed the film, has apparently chosen to bury it, giving it as little exposure as possible.) Filled with wall-to-wall political debate, pleas for social equality and critiques of power, the film is a furious, provocative, and rousing experimental documentary that reenacts the Commune’s historical moment.
After the Revolution of 1789, France went through a series of empires, monarchies, and republics. By 1871, Napolean III had been defeated by the Franco-Prussian War, prompting a six-month Prussian siege of Paris. The workers and poor of the city were suffering extremes of poverty and starvation; many were feeding on rats. A provisional government, led by Adolphe Thiers, signed a treaty that would include the ceremonial German occupation of Paris. But the French National Guard–a large network of citizens’ militias who had served during the war–had no intention of opening their city to the Germans, and seized and hid cannons under the auspices of their newly-formed Central Committee. The Germans came and went without incident, but Thiers soon realized that a rival authority had risen in Paris, and ordered his army to repossess the cannons. Citizens (mostly women) in Montmarte, however, would not relinquish their weaponry; when troops were subsequently ordered to fire on them, the soldiers rebelled and a popular insurrection ensued.
Thiers immediately evacuated to Versailles (where the monarchist National Assembly resided), taking his administration, his police, most of his troops, and a lot of bourgeoisie and business owners with him; the National Guard’s Central Committee promptly elected a Commune to govern Paris and implemented socialist reforms that would improve the livelihood of the poor and working classes.
Watkins begins with the Prussian siege and follows the Commune through its short existence to its brutal suppression a few months later. But his film starts with a documentary preamble filmed on the last day of the production’s chronological, 13-day shoot; actors introduce themselves and the characters they play, and the camera roves around the film’s labyrinthine set, a collection of rooms and alleys poised between realism and artifice. Although there are many props and period textures, the studio’s concrete floor and ceiling lights are plainly visible, and continue to be throughout the film.
Thus begins the film’s formal strategy to provoke active viewing; Watkins–a longtime critic of standard, “monoform” media conventions–juxtaposes period drama with filmmaking artifice in a way that tells the story, critiques the story, and challenges the way it’s being told all at the same time. Dramatic reenactments are punctuated with reams of text that question and clarify the drama, offer commentary, and draw parallels to current events. Interviews with many of the film’s 200-plus actors (the majority of whom are nonprofessionals recruited from Paris and surrounding suburbs, including undocumented workers from North Africa) occur throughout the shooting, which allow the participants to offer their thoughts regarding the characters and events in medias res. Finally, Watkins offers a bracing critique of mass media by imagining how Commune life would have been represented by competing modern news sources, the National TV Versailles and the independent Commune TV. The result is a multilayered and thoroughly absorbing work that is as informative and thought-provoking as it is feverishly dramatic, suspenseful, and surprisingly brisk despite its length.
La Commune is shot with striking, black-and-white digital video, often in ten-minute takes. The wide-angled footage would seem slower if the action wasn’t occurring simultaneously in the foreground, midground, and background–usually in the form of public masses in “streets” or long, crowded rooms–and if the handheld camera didn’t move through the crowds as often as it does, pushing from one conversation to the next. Dramatic momentum is comprised of a multitude of small conflicts, all coexisting and colliding with one another through protests, arguments, and ongoing discussions.
In all of this, the actors maintain startling conviction, even as they oscillate in and out of character–as fine a distinction that makes in a Watkins film; many of the actors developed their own dialogue through a combination of research and personal conviction. “This film showed me the huge gap between reflection and action,” one woman playing a dissident remarks. “In a barricade situation, for example, deeply involved in a direct, strong, chemical, physical struggle, as soon as the camera comes up and we have to speak, it’s a very difficult relationship; for reflection to connect with action. Real change will come from this type of work.”
The faces are real and the emotions are palatable as the film highlights bakers, midwives, teachers, servants, mechanics, soldiers, and many other Communards who envision and attempt to forge a society founded on personal dignity, political participation, and livable wages for all members.
The Commune implements a variety of reforms and precedents: it insists on a separation of Church and State, and a free secular education for all, particularly women, who at that time were trained in religious schools only to be housewives or homemakers. (“Jesus was an anarchist, the carpenter always on strike! You have made him the God of the bourgeoisie,” one women shouts at a priest.) A system of pensions for war widows is created, late-night hours for bakers is abolished, pawnshops are forced to return tools and household items less than 20 francs in value, and stores abandoned by their owners are given over to the workers (with the owners, should they return, receiving requisite compensation).
Yet organizing a society is a complex task, particularly when the national army is bearing down with encroaching finality. Thiers eventually launches his assault on Paris, and as cannons rumble in the distance and the untrained and ill-equipped National Guard clumsily attempt to defend the city, the Commune struggles to balance its various tasks and contradictory factions. Should Versailles be met with violence or peaceful negotiations? Should women be able to serve on the battlefield or on emergency medical teams? How can traitors and conspirators be rooted out without trampling on the freedoms and civil rights of citizens? Watkins doesn’t shy away from highlighting the dark underbelly of Town Hall, with its promises of systematic surveillance, the wives of suspects being interrogated, or drunks being charged with sedition. And while the Church is seen as a potential tool of oppression, it provides genuine services and meals otherwise hard to come by.
In order to highlight the role of the press at the time, many quotes and statistics in the film are taken from progressive journals of the day, such as PËre DuchÈne and Cri du Peuple. But Watkins also focuses his aim on the modern media, and the continual spin doctoring by the national TV station in Versailles provides some welcome humor as pseudo-intellectuals pontificate on the Commune’s ineffectual idealism or provide sound bites re-articulating the party line. One talking head cites Napolean’s writing on workers’ rights, as if such concerns were addressed decades earlier. “Things would’ve worked out, but they wanted revolution instead of evolution,” he sighs. For their part, the Commune TV reporters do a serviceable job giving voice to the Commune, but they, too, struggle with finding a balance between penetrating analysis and nonpartisan coverage.
Yet for all of Watkins’ carefully conceived interruptions and proverbial mirrors highlighting his creative process, the film never substitutes irony for genuine feeling or seriousness of purpose, which may be its singular aesthetic triumph. Watkins obviously cares about the subject deeply and his many passionate actors clearly do as well; no amount of self-imposed critical distance diminishes the film’s dramatic force or real world relevancy–it only intensifies it. (Many of the film’s participants have formed Le Rebond, an association for the promotion of the film and the development of discussions and workshops that address its themes. “Le Rebond is undoubtedly the most important ongoing development in the process of any film I have made,” Watkins has written, “and shows that it is entirely possible to create processes within the audiovisual media which can move beyond the limitations of the rectangular frame.”)
As the film builds to its violent and tragic climax, its atmosphere of urgency is overwhelming. Ultimately, 20,000 to 30,000 Communards and others–men, women, and children–are executed, while many others are rounded up, arrested, and placed in exile. (Some readers may recall that the title character of Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast was a Commune survivor whose husband and son were killed during its suppression.)
Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of the worst riots in France in 40 years, and news reports are already stating that police are descending into poor neighborhoods in the hopes of warding off potential repeat events, even though little has changed in the social fabric within the past year. With those concerns and a crucial US election coming up, La Commune may not only be one of the towering achievements of cinema of the last few years, but also an electrifying examination of issues and conflicts that couldn’t be more relevant today.