Against the rules: anarchist cinema then and now

For Hollywood ‘anarchist’ is often shorthand for violent agitator. But leave L.A. and there’s a rich strain of aesthetically audacious anti-authoritarian cinema.

27 May 2021

By Richard Porton

La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000)
Sight and Sound

▶ Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) is streaming from 28 to 30 May via ALT/KINO.

While anarchism is notoriously difficult to define, it is, broadly speaking, a leftist orientation that rejects the hierarchical impulses of both capitalism and Soviet-style communism in favour of a decentralised form of direct action and mutual aid.

Many viewers no doubt associate ‘anarchist cinema’ with well-meaning if stodgy biopics of anarchist heroes and martyrs (such as Giuliano Montaldo’s Sacco & Vanzetti, 1971); but it’s arguable that the aesthetically audacious films of non-anarchist directors such as Luis Buñuel and Elio Petri are actually more effective tributes to anarchism’s rebellious spirit.

For those attuned to the vagaries of history, the Trump administration’s recent denunciations of “violent anarchists” sound eerily familiar. Once D.W. Griffith had caricatured the allure of anarchism for a German immigrant musician in The Voice of the Violin (1909), the image of the anarchist in film became inextricable from the ravings of bloodthirsty bomb-throwers.

Nada (1974)

Just as liberal American broadcasters defending the civil rights of protesters in the streets of Portland and Seattle argue that Black Lives Matter supporters are ‘defamed’ by being labelled anarchists, even left-leaning directors such as Claude Chabrol depicted anarchists as humourless zealots consumed by a passion for destruction. Chabrol’s Nada (1974) is preoccupied with a ragtag group of rebels who seem more like comic-opera versions of Leninist terrorists than bona fide anarchists.

Hollywood’s more recent attempts to engage with the anti-authoritarian left have yielded similarly ludicrous results. Christopher Nolan’s characteristically self-important The Dark Knight Rises (2012) included a grotesque parody of an anarchist-inspired movement resembling elements of Occupy Wall Street: in an insidious twist on standard comic-book tropes, Batman’s nemesis, Bane, is a villain who impersonates a guerrilla leader dripping with contempt for the one per cent.

The film precipitated an orgy of critical commentary; in grandstanding op-ed pieces, commentators representing antithetical positions – ranging from Ross Douthat in the New York Times on the right to Slavoj Zizek on the left – attempted to unravel its incoherent strands.

Born in Flames (1983)

Women filmmakers such as Yvonne Rainer and Lizzie Borden have proved more successful in confronting the challenges of anti-authoritarian revolutionary violence. Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) seems like a harbinger of what is now called ‘intersectional feminism’.

Starting from a sci-fi premise, Borden imagines a future United States where a Bernie Sanders-type social democrat who advocates wages for housework is assailed from the left by a coalition of Black and white feminists who do not hesitate to endorse strategic acts of violence. The grassroots tactics of the Women’s Army in Born in Flames correspond to what the ‘anarcha-feminist’ American writer Peggy Kornegger described as the “spontaneous, direct reaction to patriarchal forms” that have long inspired anarchists, whether during the Paris Commune or the Spanish Civil War.

One of the most influential anarchist currents, anarcho-syndicalism, is less preoccupied with violent provocations and more invested in other forms of direct action that involve factory occupations and workers’ self-management. During the 1970s this strand of resistance was discernible in films made by non-anarchists, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Tout va bien (1972) – which revolves around a strike in a sausage factory – and Elio Petri’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971), about an obedient factory worker shocked into radicalism when he loses a finger in an accident.

The Nothing Factory (2017)

More recently, films decrying the ravages of European austerity have synthesised elements of Petri and Gorin/Godard’s rage with a cooler, postmodern sensibility. Pedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory (2017), both a salvo against austerity and an exuberant musical, is one of the most ambitious examples. Taking off from an actual incident at a Portuguese branch of Otis Elevator, Pinho charts the workers’ anxieties as machinery removed from the factory appears to presage its closing. The film splinters into mini-narratives; the workers’ seizure of the factory is tempered by an account of the impact of this upheaval on a militant named Zé and his partner. Another layer of self-interrogation is unveiled when a filmmaker, Danièle Incalcaterra, arrives on the scene and attempts to place the ferment within some tangible sociopolitical framework.

Another 21st-century documentary/fiction hybrid, Serbian director Zelimir Zilnik’s The Old School of Capitalism (2009) chronicles the resurgence of anarcho-syndicalist zeal in the former Yugoslavia, against the background of a state visit by the then vice-president of the US, Joe Biden.

An emphasis on anti-authoritarian modes of education has always been a cornerstone of the anarchist ethos and no film embodies the essence of anarchist pedagogy more succinctly than Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933). The film melds lyrical whimsy with snippets of autobiography (the son of Miguel Almereyda, a well-known French anarchist who died in prison, Vigo also draws upon his own experiences in a hellish boarding school). Despite having inspired Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) and countless other tales of schoolyard rebellion, Zéro de conduite is still unsurpassed as a radical film that combines a poetic sensibility with insurrectionary fervour.

Zéro de conduite (1933)

As many social commentators have observed, schools are often designed to resemble prisons. The genius of Vigo’s film resides in the ability of its young protagonists to transform the carceral realm of the classroom into a liberatory zone more reminiscent of a playground. This deployment of play is especially apparent in a scene in which one of the more sympathetic teachers impersonates Chaplin – a heroic figure for anarchist cinephiles. The dreamy slow-motion pillow fight in the students’ dormitory, the movie’s most famous set piece, is a utopian affirmation of possibilities beyond the parameters of a repressive institution.

The noted Canadian LGBT provocateur Bruce LaBruce pays homage to that pillow fight in The Misandrists (2017), an affectionate satire of feminist separatism, showing how Vigo’s imagery can enliven contemporary films with novel anti-authoritarian agendas.

La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000)

While the history film often exemplifies the film industry’s tame efforts to fuse education and entertainment, Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871) (2000) is the most far-reaching attempt to show how revolutionary change is created not by an elite cadre of revolutionaries, but from the grassroots efforts of ‘ordinary people’. The historian David Armitage has called Watkins’s nearly six-hour epic – about the Commune that ruled Paris for 72 days after the Franco-Prussian war had led to the collapse of the Second Republic – “an anarchist masterpiece”. But Watkins never explicitly references anarchism in his voluminous annotations on the film that can be consulted on his website.

Watkins, moreover, is compelled to assess the contradictory strands of the Paris Commune’s legacy. On the one hand, it was a triumphant experiment in self-governance that proved inspirational to both Marx and Bakunin. On the other hand, the Commune ended with summary executions, massive deportations, and estimates of 20,000 to 30,000 participants murdered.

Despite the bloody aftermath, Watkins derives hope from his protagonists’ embrace of self-emancipation. In a similar vein, his actors, primarily non-professionals, were not passive cogs in the production process, but active participants who researched their own roles and, during the film, often formulate self-referential links between their characters’ plights and their own lives.

‘Passivity’ is perhaps the dirtiest word in Watkins’s lexicon. He hopes that audience members, as well as actors, will shun indolence – that they will become what the philosopher Jacques Rancière terms “emancipated spectators”.

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