by Linda Greene, John Hess, and Robin Lakes
Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 8-9
Alain Tanner’s JONAH, in spite of fairly short runs in art houses and in university towns, has had a marked impact on radical intellectuals. Bob Stam, in this issue of JUMP CUT and Todd Gitlin in Film Quarterly (30:3, Spring, 1977) celebrate the film’s warmth, charm, optimism, and intelligence, seeing it as a valuable contribution to radical film and politics.
It seems to us that both of them miss or choose to ignore how bad the film’s politics really are. Because we enjoyed the film and agree with some of their positive assessments, we see this essay so a corrective, not as a complete review of the film. But before we begin to polemicize, we want to try to get at why so many people liked the file so uncritically.
To begin with, the film really does have charm. The kind of warm commonality that gathers around the farmhouse strikes a responsive chord in all of us isolated and alienated intellectuals. At various tines we have all lived is houses with other people and know how great making and eating the evening meal can be.
Tanner’s characters are irrepressible, energetic, playful, and fanny. In the grim mid-70s, when many people have begun to wonder about the possibility of human exuberance and creativity, Tanner’s faith understandably makes us feel good. It’s damned hard to feel very good about much of anything when decaying capitalism seems so very bent on destroying as much human life as possible before it goes under. Or when we are surrounded by hypocritical and vicious politicians, businessman, and administrators ,talking human freedom out of one side of their mealy mouths and ordering the destruction of life and dreams out of the other. No wonder Tanner’s joy and optimism pleases us.
But let’s go a little further. During the 1960s many intellectuals and artists were drawn into the various mass movements against racism, sexism, and the war. As that movement receded, it left many participants, who had neither deep roots in the working class nor ties to the organized left, high and dry. Many former activists became disenchanted observers and dropouts who looked nostalgically on the 60s as the good old days. It’s so accident that recent years have produced films such as TOUT VA BIEN (Gorin/ Godard, 1972), MILESTONES (Kramer/Douglas, 1975; see Jump Cut No. 10/1l) and JONAH. Political work often seems dull and routine (and often is), especially when non-movement surrounds it. We think JONAH speaks to that nostalgia, telling people who are honestly confused that it is all right to drop out and put your hope is your children, and that you can stay away from the left, the working class, and routine work and still feel good about yourself.
So while we see perfectly legitimate reasons why radicals today like this film, we think too many of the film’s admirers have closed their eyes to other aspects of it. We think the intensity of Stam’s and Gitlin’s justifications of the film arises out a feeling that the film needs it.
Basically, we think JONAH is a light-weight, slightly progressive, warm, and charming film in which petty bourgeois actors and actresses pretend to be workers and peasants, but fail because neither they nor Tanner knows much about the daily liven of Swiss workers. The file shows nothing of the Swiss working class extended families, their hard day’s work, their concern for craft and for doing the job well, their weekend outings, the housewives’ oppressed conditions, working class fraternal organizations, workers’ concern for regularity and respectability, their insecurity about money and jots, their racism and their militancy, their ubiquitous TV sets. The characters Tanner puts on the screen, whether intended as mythic, symbolic, poetic, realistic, or ironic images, bear little or no resemblance to the European working class. Of you want to see what Tanner thinks of them, look at “The Two Zeros.”
Tanner’s isolated, alienated, disenchanted, but somehow optimistic characters flounder around in search of some sort of personally liberating lifestyle. That search distinguishes then even further from the European working class and peasantry. Tanner’s film is radical in the sane sense that taking off your clothes is public is radical. It bothers people’s conventional values, and they will react against it, but it does not threaten capitalism at all. In fact, if capitalists think they can make money from it, they will step down out of their offices and invest.
The political frenzy of the late 60s has burned out the film’s main characters and, despairing of political activity, they have retreated to the country for rejuvenation. Uncommitted to ongoing political struggle, they have turned to the future (children) as the only hope, cut adrift from the organized left end the working class, with which some of them have at least nominal ties. They seek some small, personal way to do something political for their one moral self-satisfaction—to make them better people.
But this is a politics of, by, and for those people who wistfully regret the wonderful days of their youth. They may fail or refuse to grasp that left politics is hard, day-to-day, routine work with groups of people, work one expects to last a long time. Doing political work is very different from indulging in faintly political sentiments and lots of wishful thinking.
In this regard, Tanner ignores the fact that most of the people involved in militant struggle today have no choice but to do so. Workers with families and debts have to fight for their jobs and more pay. It’s clear from watching films such as SALT OF THE EARTH and HARLAN COUNTY, USA that those workers didn't decide to strike for moral reasons but out of the need to survive. But the characters in JONAH do have a choice (or at least Tanner gives them that choice), because of their petty privileges.
Let’s look at the eight characters Tanner has created in terms of their class affiliations, main concerns, and past and present political activity. The main locus of the film’s action is Marguerite and Mercer’s farm. Marguerite’s primary concern is to run an efficient organic farm and have sex with the foreign workers who are housed in nearby barracks. Because Mathieu’s Rousseauesque school becomes a financial burden, she closes it down without regret. Marcel, who appears to talk more than work on the farm (no doubt because of his privileged position as co-owner), is into ecology, especially saving whales (a crucial issue in Switzerland). Although Marcel does seem politically aware in the scene with the land speculator (what European small landowner isn't in that situation?), there is not a shred of evidence that he ever participated in any progressive political activity, or ever will. He and Marguerite are small landowners, historically one of the most reactionary elements in Europe. In spite of their mod interests, whales and organic gardening, there is no reason to believe they will transcend their class interests. In fact, they pay very low wages and call their workers “animals” and “zeros”—just what one would expect.
Max is the disillusioned Trotskyist who works as a proofreader and gambles on the side. By warning the farmers about the bank’s plans to get their land, Max demonstrates that he still has a spark of revolt in him. But since he does not even attempt to organize others against the bank, his act is simply a personal, moral gesture having little or nothing to do with politics. We don't learn much about his past political work, his political ideas or how and why he became disillusioned. (There are different Trotskyists . Is he still a member of anything, was he ever?) His history is left out and he becomes in the film, as the children’s mural clearly shows, the emblematic, disabused idealist who suffers symbolic martyrdom at the hands of Mathieu’s students.
What does it mean that Tanner makes the only parson with a connection to the left into a tired, baggy, uptight gambler whom the children, who are more perceptive than adults in matters of politics in Tanner’s world, choose to crucify? This symbolic level of the film, reinforced by Marco’s natural cycles, Marcel’s animal worship, and all the woman’s overwhelming sexuality, strongly urges us to turn sway from revolutionary theory and politics toward self-development, from rational thought to sentiment and feeling. Tanner crucifies revolutionary theory on the alter of the heart, thus eliminating most political work and class struggle. Rousseau has triumphed over Marx.
This is nowhere clearer than in the Madeleine/Max relationship. As an antidote to his fast-fading Trotskyism, she offers mysticism, kicks and sex. What Max needs, she is saying, is to clear his head of all this Marxist nonsense and have a good fuck (which she willingly supplies). Tanner falsely sets up a dichotomy between thought and feeling, and he stacks the deck against thought. It’s true we think that Tanner also makes fun of Madeleine’s sexual tantraism, but only insofar as he denigrates all the women in the film.
This dichotomy returns in the Marco/Marie relationship. He is the isolated, pent-up, egotistical intellectual/teacher who is turned on by bouncy, spacey Marie. She finally fulfills his great sexual fantasy by bringing into their bed a women who was in jail with her. Marco is a well-meaning fool who spouts elitist but progressive lectures to his uncomprehending students but does not organize the teachers and students to change the institution he complains about and to protect his job.
Likewise, Merle’s “political activity” is an individualistic rebelliousness, a politics of sentiment, not of the mind. Rather than organize other workers in the supermarket, other French guest workers in Switzerland, or the old people who can't afford to eat well, she cheats the store where she works and ends up, as she must, in jail. All she seems to have learned from this experience is how better to fulfill Marco’s sexual fantasies (obviously a model for progressive women in search of political work).
Mathieu and Mathilde both work in factories at first. He is a skilled craftsperson, a typesetter, one of a group of European workers who have tended to struggle to maintain their own privileged position within the working class rather than for the working class as a whole. Clearly, this alone does not discredit Mathieu, but it does raise questions and doesn't allow us to accept his political work and union activity as automatically progressive. As with Max, Tanner denies us the information we need to assess Mathieu’s politics—past, present, and future. Tanner forces us to approve Mathieu’s political work on sentimental, moral grounds, not because we know something about it. Mathilde has also been a factory worker, but throughout the film her only spoken desire is to “fill” herself “with child.” She finally gets her wish: she gives birth to Jonah.
At the end of the film, Mathieu returns to the factory, determined to struggle so that there will be a better world for Jonah when he grows up. While probably the most positive moment in the film, because it is devoid of any intellectual framework by which we can assess it, Tanner gives us only sentiment and good intentions. We have no reason to believe that Mathieu’s concern centers on the working class and not his craft, on groups and not individuals.
No amount of celebration can cover up the blatant, inexcusable sexism of this film. Net one of the women has any political consciousness at all beyond infantile rebelliousness. All undergo negative changes personally in the film: Mathieu from factory worker to earth mother; Marie from rebellious worker to fulfiller of male sexual fantasies; Marguerite from someone willing to experiment with the school on her farm to someone who closes it down without regret when it becomes a financial burden; and Madeleine from rebellious secretary to sex goddess.
Although the men all have some interest beyond themselves that gives them some dimension as characters, the women, except perhaps for the petty capitalist Marguerite, are stereotypes and have so interests beyond their own reproductive organs. There is not a shred of feminist consciousness among these four. Switzerland may be backward and lack a women’s movement, but while Tanner was making this film, hundreds of thousands of women in Italy and Portugal were taking part in mass movements, as woman for women’s rights and as leftists for socialism. The French, English, and North American literature of women’s liberation graces the shelves of Geneva’s multilingual bookstores. Tanner can claim any excuse he wants, but he has made a movie that shows complete ignorance of women’s struggles over the last 10 to 15 years.
If possible, even more offensive is Tanner’s shabby treatment of the foreign workers from the Mediterranean countries. And damn it, John Berger, Tanner’s scriptwriter, should know better. He put out a book on these exploited and brutalized people (The Seventh Man, Viking, 1975). Berger’s title refers to the fact that every seventh man in Europe is a foreign worker, and Switzerland has its share of these 20th century slaves. They are treated like cattle, have few if any legal rights or public services, may not bring their families into or become citizens of the host countries, do all the hard and dirty work, and are sent home when business turns down.
What does Tanner do with them? While raising great sympathy for poor Marie, who must travel a few miles to and from work in Switzerland, he completely reinforces all the vicious Swiss stereotypes about foreign workers. Since none become characters who speak for themselves, they remain furtive, mysterious, inhuman figures seen from a distance. Since Marguerite slips off to have sex with them, Tanner reinforces the idea that all they want to do is fuck upright Swiss women. Imagine the effect on a white American audience if the female lead in a film slipped off to have sex with blacks in a nearby shantytown. Would that help the audience understand the lot of blacks or sympathize with black people? Or would it increase racism?
Tanner shows some stills of squalid rooms in which foreign workers live (leftover photos from Berger’s book?). Rather than bring these workers’ plight out into the open and make it a political issue, he handles it in such a way that he only reinforces Swiss ideas about how unclean and disorderly these people are. If Tanner means this as protest. which he might, then it is an utter failure, a wimpy, timid protest in line with the film’s overall politics.
Tanner’s film, according to Stam, “rigorously situates its characters within the social and economic landscape” of contemporary Switzerland. We've already shown that this is not quite true. It seems to us that because Tanner concentrates on individuals, the social and economic landscape is very pale, static, and abstract. For example, Swiss capitalism seems to roll over its individualistic opposition without a problem; it appears as an inexorable force without internal contradictions.
In fact, there is little presentation of Swiss social reality in the film, and no reason to know that the film takes place in Switzerland and not in Francs or in some ether European country. There is no mention or evidence of a Swiss labor movement (except Mathieu’s references), a women’s movement, the controversy raging in Switzerland about foreign workers (a Swiss purity movement has grown up, demanding the expulsion of all foreign workers), or the European-wide recession. Everything is localized and individualized: an anonymous city impinges on a few isolated individuals.
The film and the reviews we are commenting on here raise an important issue for the development of left film criticism—the need for a dialectical approach. It’s important to see what is progressive about a film as well as what is not. How does a particular film contribute to our understanding of the world we live in and to our understanding and fashioning of political films? And how does it distort, confuse, and mystify? How does the film break down rigid, stereotypical thinking, and how does it support tenets of bourgeois ideology such as sexism and racism?
Stam and Gitlin have seen only one side and failed to grasp sufficiently that for a film to promote sexism and racism is not merely “inadvertent,” as Stain says of the film’s sexism, or a reasonable artistic option, but actually amounts to a blow struck against all of us by bourgeois culture. If Tanner is serious about his politics, he should deal in future films with the kinds of political criticisms we're making here. If he doesn't. his position within mainstream bourgeois filmmaking will be clearer.