On the occasion of the 150-year anniversary of the revolutionary Paris Commune, we revisit the experimental film that Peter Watkins made to summon the spirit of the Commune, a bold challenge to the role of cinema and an example of historical memory as a weapon.
Before we present our remarks on the film, here it is for your viewing convenience:
La Commune de Paris, 1871 by Peter Watkins (1999; 5 hours 45 minutes)
The feature article in the second issue of Rolling Thunder asked whether anarchists should understand liberation as the consummation of current values and desires, or a total rejection of them. One might pose a parallel question about radical cinema: is it better to appropriate popular aesthetics and turn them against the powers that be, or to violate them in the course of rejecting the system that produced them? Would a full-length Hollywood epic complete with star actors and CGI animation seduce viewers to the other side of the barricades more effectively than Guy Debord’s famous blank screen, or would it simply utilize rebellious desires to rivet more spectators to their seats and help them get all that rebellion out of their systems?
In 1871, at the end of a disastrous war with Germany, Paris experienced a popular uprising. The rebels drove government forces from the city, convened a council of immediately recallable delegates, and attempted a variety of ambitious social experiments in women’s liberation, workers’ self-management, and public education. After two months, a reactionary counteroffensive supported by the Germans recaptured the city, though the communards fought street by street and block by block; the invaders murdered tens of thousands of Parisians outright and later executed or deported tens of thousands more. Anarchists and communists hailed the Commune as the first proletarian revolution; on the other hand, as Edmond de Goncourt wrote,
“A bleeding like that, by killing the rebellious part of a population, postpones the next revolution… The old society has twenty years of peace before it.”
In 1999, dissident television and film director Peter Watkins set out to depict the uprising in a film intended to be as horizontal and experimental as the Commune itself. Hundreds of actors were recruited according to the class and politics of the historical figures they were to portray, ranging from rough-and-ready radicals to bourgeois conservatives; the majority had no prior acting experience. They formed study groups to learn about the lives of the constituents and opponents of the Commune, and discussed the relationship between the Paris of 1871 and modern-day Europe. A set representing the working-class 11th district of Paris, one of the last to fall at the end of the uprising, was built inside a disused factory on the site of the studio of film pioneer Georges Méliès. In this setting, the cast acted out the story of the Paris Commune from beginning to end, while the camera crew dashed around filming as if they were documenting a current upheaval. You could call it historical memory as theater, but the effect is more like a séance, in which the participants invite the spirits of the martyred Communards to possess them, delivering the message of the Commune with the same urgency it had in 1871.
Today, La Commune still makes a jarring viewing experience, though not necessarily an unpleasant one. While the costumes and interiors are convincing, Watkins never hides the edge of the set, undermining the “authority” of film as representation the way Bertolt Brecht might have. Similarly, Watkins anachronistically depicts the uprising through reports from opposing television channels, the reactionary Versailles TV and the radical Commune TV, emphasizing that any portrayal of the Commune necessarily takes place through the lens of our own time. By explicitly requesting that viewers suspend their disbelief—“We ask you to imagine that it is now March 17, 1871”—the filmmakers achieve the opposite effect, denying the audience the illusion that the reenactment takes place in a world other than their own. La Commune thus avoids the catharsis Aristotle described as the purpose of tragic drama, in which people experience an emotional discharge in a controlled environment only to return to their ordinary lives: “Wasn’t that a sad story!”
Rather than focusing on the Brad Pitts and Audrey Tautous of history, Commune TV wanders the crowd in long cuts, giving equal time to scores of people the way a haphazard Indymedia video might. The apparent improvisation of the cast and film crew succeeds in evoking the tremendous chaotic energy of an insurrection: the urgency and disorder, the alternation of exultation and terror, the multiplicity of voices, desires, and activities.
As the reactionary forces of the government begin bombarding Paris from outside, power struggles develop within the Commune, opening the fault lines that divided anarchists from communists and other socialists shortly after its fall. The cast weigh the purported necessity of centralizing power to coordinate the defense of the city against the ideal of the Commune as a pure, if doomed, gesture towards liberation; as the arguments intensify, some actors depart from character to debate the Bolshevik revolution and the slaughter of the rebels at Kronstadt.
The journalists of Commune TV undergo a parallel schism. One—perhaps intended to represent Peter Watkins, and in any case acted by his son—is outraged at the other’s pretense of objectivity in the face of the consolidation of power by the dictatorial Committee of Public Safety: “We’ll give our opinion from now on and that’s it, or I’m going home!” Like the real-life Watkins—who made La Commune for French television only to see it suppressed—the scruples of the fictional journalist result in his departure from the television crew.
Today, when television has largely been superseded by online media platforms, it’s hard to imagine what other functions that the medium could have served. We can hardly separate the shortcomings of the technology from the ways it has taken shape in this society, and the ways it has shaped our society in turn. In robbing us of our imaginations and sense of historical contingency, capitalism renders it impossible to imagine or remember how any of the inventions of our civilization could be applied outside its logic. Luddite generalizations aside, could we produce anything along the lines of “motion pictures” without dooming millions to spectatorship, and melting the polar ice caps in the bargain? We may never find out. But it’s poignant that only two decades ago a renegade director, doomed to obscurity by corporate stonewalling, was still struggling to build signposts to the roads not taken.
The risk, of course, is that in earnestly attacking corporate media and its aesthetics, the film might legitimize itself as a medium—buying more time for a format perhaps better buried entirely. The ubiquity of onscreen entertainment today is no argument for the necessity of revolutionary entertainment—on the contrary, it seems to suggest that such a thing is impossible. Even Guy Debord’s blank screen was still a spectacle to contemplate, as its afterlife in European museums attests. Yet one can also look at Watkins’s La Commune as an effort to discover a way of recounting history that brings its unsettled debts back into play. Whether or not it accomplishes this for viewers, it seems to have served this purpose for members of the cast, some of whom went on to form a collective that continued organizing around the issues brought up by the film long after its release. One can imagine that, in attempting to incarnate revolutionaries without ceasing to be themselves, the actors were forced to engage with the injustices and possibilities of their own times as well as those of 1871.
This personal engagement is the film’s greatest strength, from a viewing standpoint as well. Though some of the earlier stretches can drag, the film builds to a stirring and unusual climax. Because the artifice of cinema has long been revealed by the final sequences, they can only derive their power from the extent to which the passions displayed in them are genuine—in other words, from the fact that the explosive charge of the Paris Commune continues to resonate in our own era, as its unsettled debts come back into play. This underlines the essential message of the film: not only does history repeat itself, but all of its unresolved conflicts continue to seethe just beneath the skin of the present day. As one communard proclaims near the conclusion, with a sincerity that provokes gooseflesh:
“If there are any barricades in Paris in the year 2000, I’ll be there fighting!”
Today, we all take for granted that the experiences of the few hundred people who make a movie are less important than those of the thousands or millions who watch it; experiments like Watkins’s La Commune are rejected out of hand as disrespectful to the audience and ineffective as vehicles for propaganda. But in a product-oriented society, in which so few experience films as invitations to action rather than consumerism, perhaps a few hundred people participating in an empowering process could be more significant than any blockbuster viewed by millions.
Moreover, if this comes across on the screen as something that really happened, perhaps it could challenge the passivity of the audience as well. In that spirit, we invite you to watch and discuss Peter Watkins’s La Commune, to reflect on the historical events of the real Paris Commune, and to participate fiercely and bravely in the struggles of our own time.
Further Reading and Viewing
In 2013, Ill Will editions prepared a zine anthology about the Paris Commune for a screening and discussion of the film.
In addition, we recommend the following historical sources:
- March 18, 1871: The Birth of the Paris Commune—A narrative recounting the first day of the Paris Commune from the perspective of the anarchist Louise Michel
- A l’Assaut du Ciel—: la Commune Racontée, Raoul Dubois
- Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune, Carolyn J. Eichner
- Unruly Women of Paris: Images of the Commune, Gay L. Gullickson
- The Paradise of Association: Political Culture and Popular Organizations in the Paris Commune of 1871, Martin Phillip Johnson
- History of the Paris Commune of 1871, Prosper Olivier Lissagaray
- La Commune, Louise Michel
- The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel
- Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris. Commune, Kristin Ross
- Louise Michel, Edith Thomas
- The Women Incendiaries, Edith Thomas