Peter Watkins: La Commune

David Riff: The Paris Commune as Seen by Nineteenth-Century Television

La Commune by Peter Watkins is probably one of the best films I have ever seen online. It is also one of the longest. In fact, its duration is five and three quarter hours long to be exact, and the film can be found on YouTube in a breathtaking total of 26 nine-minute parts that will take between two and five days to watch. This sounds daunting, but once you start watching, you’ll find you can’t stop. Here is the first installment:

(Continue watching here: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9, part 10, part 11, part 12part 13, part 14, part 15, part 16, part 17, part 18, part 19, part 20, part 21, part 22, part 23, part 24, part 25, part 26.)

Like many of Peter Watkins’s films, La Commune (1999) is a docudrama, and a restaging of a historical event. Commissioned by the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to accompany an exhibition of works by Gustave Courbet, it tells the story of the Paris Commune of 1871, a crucial event in history that is often ignored. Funded by the European culture TV channel Arte, the film was at first billed as the high point of an evening-filling special on 1871, but later marginalized for its length and its unorthodox approach (though the subject itself may have also played a role), and aired while most of the audience was asleep (from ten in the evening to four in the morning). Cinema versions are rarely screened. Watkins describes the reasons for this marginalization in a brilliant manifesto. I highly recommend reading it. Here are just a few basic facts.

Since the early 1960s, Peter Watkins has been an ardent critic of what he calls the documentary “monoform” used by the mainstream media (he began by working for the BBC). He rightly says that this monoform reduces most documentaries to an hour or less of scripted, dumbed-down, and redacted fairytales, and makes any cinematographic investigation of history impossible. Like most of Watkins’ earlier films, La Commune breaks this format completely. Aside from its length, the main difference to ordinary TV programming is that it is a unique experiment in participative cinema; rather than presenting the views of a group of executives and producers in a comfortable format, it relies upon its cast to spontaneously re-enact the events of the Paris Commune. More than half of this cast was non-professional, recruited via ads in both conservative and leftist newspapers, and was actually involved in the film during its research phase. This cast was then asked to form groups according to political sympathies, and to identify with historical or fictitious characters. The film itself was shot in historical costumes on a set at an abandoned factory in Montmartre. Weaving in and out of this labyrinthine construction, whose edge is often on camera (i.e. it is always clear that this is a stage set), it moves between portraits of participants and reenactments of key events (decrees, military actions, small scandals), which then prompt political discussion scenes somewhat reminiscent of the opening sequence of Antonioni’s classic Zabriskie Point or later films by Jean-Luc Godard.

These exchanges show political role-play at its best, totally improvised, yet with a clear goal in mind. The film highlights the intertwining struggles for the emancipation of the working class and especially of its women, who played a crucial role in the Paris Commune, against the jaded Paris bourgeoisie and the repressive state-sponsored Catholic Church. This role-play (much better than standard “acting”) is full of rising passions, anguished arguments, existential but inconsequential declarations, frustrated encounters with bureaucrats and officials, emotional attacks, and remarkable outbursts of chauvinism and brutality. All of this was recorded in long continuous takes. The film faithfully reenacted the entire revolution in chronological order over an intense thirteen days, creating an amazingly charged atmosphere. None of this emotion is scripted or imposed from above, but seems to come from the cast itself.

Obviously, the level of affect is not only about the Paris Commune and its tragic outcome: it also comes from French political culture today, after 1968, after Mitterrand and Chirac, and most importantly, after the appearance of new political passions arising as the film was being made, in Seattle and Genoa. All in all, the film is extremely moving, and if you weren’t on the side of the Communards before watching it, you will be after about ten minutes. And it only gets worse from there on. In fact, it brought tears to my eyes more than once (which never happens). I would say now, after watching most of it, that some parts were on the verge of kitsch, but not quite: the cuts are quick enough to prevent all this overflowing revolutionary sentiment from turning into sentimentality.

Also, to keep things moving, the film exploits one of Peter Watkins’s most amazing devices, namely, the insertion of camera teams and “news” correspondents in a time where there was no TV. Two fictitious channels called “Versailles TV” and “Commune TV” cover the entire insurrection, and this is actually sometimes quite funny; the former features a nineteenth-century dandy, a real Beau Brummel, hurling refined bourgeois platitudes at the rabble of foreigners and scum. Historical figures like the Versailles statesmen Adolphe Thiers look like they have been copied straight out of Marx’s hilarious descriptions of the “little man’s theatrical style” in “The Civil War in France 1871” (1872). “Commune TV” is represented by two embedded reporters, a man and a woman, who interview the Communards on the ground, leading us and the camera through the film’s action. Watkins is famous for using this device of the embedded TV journalist in historically impossible situations: it appears in his early BBC docudrama Culloden (1964), where TV reporters interview the protagonists of eighteenth-century England’s Jacobite revolt, and in The War Game (1965), where a TV crew witnesses the apocalypse of nuclear war in what has to be one of the most chilling “end of the world” films of all time, precisely because there will be no TV after the atom bomb. In La Commune, Peter Watkins responds to a popular idea by Dutch media activist Geert Lovink, namely, “the revolution will be televised.” But he projects this rather banal dictum backward onto history, creating a Brechtian estrangement, a break in what otherwise would look like a staging of a history that has already ended. (In general, the film has a Brechtian aesthetic, though this should not be confused with something like Lars Von Triers’ Dogville (2003), where the anti-illusionist stage set is little more than a stylization. Here, Brecht is put to proper use, with all his nuances.)

Putting all these references and connections aside, what inspires me about Peter Watkins is that he is a contemporary realist, and a quite radical one at that. For one, he understands realism as an evasion of both classicist formalism and overwrought romanticism. Like Gustave Courbet, the realist painter and Communard who evaded any fixed painterly style and constantly challenged formats and genres, Watkins tries to break out of the standardizing molds and meaningless devices of documentary TV, but without becoming obsessed with optical questions. Like Courbet, who served as the Paris Commune’s commissar for the arts, Watkins is accused of being “too engaged,” of going over the edge and sounding like a cranky doctrinaire. And like Courbet, he is falsely accused of artistic failure. On his website, Peter Watkins says that Arte’s executives told him outright that the film was a flop: “As the Commissioning Editor patronisingly told me, “there are certain rules of editing,” which one must follow “to help” the audience. And dismissed me with: “You do understand, don’t you, that you have failed in what you set out to achieve?” And nevertheless, La Commune will probably be remembered as one of the most important films of the late twentieth century. This is already obvious now: Watkins’s work is now often shown at exhibitions, and referenced by artists (as in a recent film by Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narvecicius). Though this brings on the danger of musealization, the availability of the film on YouTube counteracts that, and generally shows that films no longer have to conform to the readymade formats forcing the director to choose between cinema, TV, or even video art. They can invent unique, intrinsically political processes, perhaps without thinking so much of the overformatted product that is this process’s end-result. Because we, the audience, are this process’s product in the final analysis: we are the ones who steal time from corporations to watch this stuff, and we are the ones who will secretly snicker when jaded people tell us, “There will be no more revolution.”

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