Truth, memory and distortion

Ben Lewis reviews Peter Watkins's (director) 'La Commune' 2000, DVD

Sitting through this film in its 345-minute entirety requires much coffee and many breaks. You will be thrust into the world of the 11th arrondissement in Paris 1871, to a world where seemingly eternal values are being turned on their head, and where society as a whole is engaged in feverish debate. Emerging the other end of this cinematic odyssey, with La Marseillaise ringing in your ears and your mind buzzing with questions, you might not be quite the same person as when you started.

Those expecting some sort of triumphalist, breast-beating ode to revolutionary action of the Paris Commune overlaid with a nice love story will be disappointed. Watkins’ work consciously eschews such an approach. Where the film could proclaim, rejoice and celebrate, it probes and provokes. It challenges head-on contemporary conceptions of documentary production and entertainment more generally. If one of the slogans of the Great Revolution was ‘War on the palaces - peace to the huts’, then La Commune primarily declares war on the mansions of the media moguls.

How are events reported? And how is this reportage transmitted or remembered? In order to expose the stupefying and duplicitous mass media, Watkins employs a cunning narrative device. His documentary takes the form of two fictional television stations covering the 1871 events ‘live’ in Paris. In the blue corner we have ‘National TV Versailles’, predominantly consisting of studio reportage from a dapper, moustachioed presenter, alongside a historical ‘expert’. In the red corner there is ‘Commune TV’, whose footage consists of live interviews with the people on the ground conducted by two assiduous reporters.

Thus in a series of long shots and intermittent inter-titles, Watkins seeks to reconstruct the experience of all the people living through those times - members of the national guard loyal to the Commune, the umbrella-waving bourgeois women decrying the “yobbos”, the politicians who come to the fore in the movement, and - of course - the women of the Union des Femmes.

This is history ‘from below’ - long, unscripted scenes recompose the raw nature of the discussions raging at the time about more or less every practical issue of the day. Do we need bosses? What about the Committee for Public Safety? What to do about Versailles? What about the banks? One is thrust into the tos and fros of the activity of les citoyens et citoyennes - an active political mass shaping its future. The voiceless have got their voices back. And as the film’s length alone testifies, they have a lot to say. The sense of energy and vigour is reinforced by the fact that Watkins completely junks a formal narrative structure in favour of raw, spontaneous dialogue in the form of Commune TV interviews.

Following 16 months of arduous historical research and pre-production, he went around looking for ordinary people to act in the film - mainly Parisians, but also other from regions of France, including many migrant workers living in France. They in turn were told to research their roles, discuss their particular points of view with the other actors and thus participate in the film’s creativity as much as possible. Watkins contrasts this “experiential” approach with the “hierarchical” structure of conventional film production.

So it is that we see opinions clash: between the central committee and the Commune, between women of different classes, between revolutionary journalists on how to report events. Watkins then distinguishes the public accounts with the reportage on National TV Versailles, where events are often distorted beyond recognition. This interplay between competing ideas on the ground and conflicting reportage provides sinister insight into the power of the media, leading us to further question many of the ‘facts’ we often take for granted.

This emphasis on the dialectical process of contending ideas has implications for the relations not only between the historical actors, but also between the audience and the film. The influence of Brecht is unmistakable. Opening with a Brechtian-style chorus, the two reporters for Commune TV show the viewer around the film’s set in a disused Parisian factory. They tell of the events about to unfold, and show just where the firing squads will line the communards up for execution. This forces viewers to focus not so much on the plot and passively be in thrall to the scenes unfolding before them, but to question and reflect.

This is just one of several ways in which the distinction between actors and viewers is blurred, underlining the film’s transformative emphasis. If revolution is as much a process of changing the people themselves as the society they live in, then it is a thrill to see how people are transformed in the course of the film. The school girls, for example, are initially taught by the nuns, inculcated with the ABCs of being good religious housewives. Yet, as events unfold, they begin to ask their religious governesses what god thinks of state schools and are soon singing revolutionary songs. These make you want to jump out of your seat - even after four hours of viewing.

The plot unhurriedly traces the Commune’s brief, three-month existence. Yet in doing so it junks all notions of linear temporality and causality. This interlocking of past, present and future is a kind of historical materialism for the big screen, allowing Watkins to use the events of 1871 as a foil through which to develop a critique of contemporary society. Some scenes spliced into the plot look almost exactly the same as the others. The same actors. The same clothes. The same background. Yet it soon becomes apparent that the scenes are actually recordings of the actors engaging in discussion of contemporary issues as part of the preparation for filming particular scenes.

This is initially quite confusing. But it works a treat, allowing you to see how producing the film has changed the actors’ conceptions. Thus, in one of the many scenes based on discussions of today’s circumstances spliced into the general plot, some national guard soldiers debate how the Commune’s principle of recallability is absolutely indispensable in today’s conditions, where a “political caste” of well-heeled professional politicians inhabit their own little bubble. “Foreigners” and “immigrants”, castigated by well-to-do bourgeois women for inciting “foreign” revolution, are referred to ironically as sans-papiers - a reference to the ongoing struggle for migrants’ rights in France.

If all this historical shifting and impassioned argument sounds slightly chaotic and unstructured, well, that is because it is! You sometimes wonder in which particular period you are at a given moment, not to mention whether you will actually survive the rest of the film!

But at the back of your mind you know that you are being tested, challenged. So you keep going. You soon appreciate Watkins’ mission of confronting the “mind-numbing conformity and standardisation caused by the systematic audio-visualisation of the planet”, ensuring a “synergistically created world where ethics, morality, human collectivity and commitment (except to opportunism) are considered oldfashioned.”[1]

Most of the Union des Femmes women had to face untimely deaths. As the credits roll, the love song adopted by the communards, Le temps des cerises (the time of the cherries), can be heard once again. The basic message of the 1866 song is that love may have led to heartbreak and ruin, but ‘I will love again and again’. Better to die on your feet than on your knees. Seeing the firing squads shoot down the Commune’s best fighters we have accompanied through the film, the masses of people buried alive in open graves and the others humiliatingly sent into exile, you seethe with anger. You repeat the words of one of the communards: “They can’t always hide what they have done.”

Right from the outset, ‘National TV Versailles’ had been looking to belittle the crimes of the government soldiers, concentrating its focus on the couple of hundred killed by the communards in the war instead. If the Commune’s martyrs are, as Karl Marx once wrote, to be “enshrined forever in the great heart of the working class”, then this cannot but mean a forthright struggle against the institutions which rewrite history in their own image. No easy task. But it is this commitment to historical memory and, of course, the fact this memory helps to inform and shape the present which leap out from Watkins’ efforts.

The film might not be easy going. But then again, nor will be completing the emancipatory tasks of our fallen Parisian comrades.


  1. For an excellent description of Watkins’ experiences in making the film, see his notes at pwatkins.mnsi.net/commune.htm