Producing revolutionary history on film:
Henri Lefebvre’s urban space and
Peter Watkins’ La Commune (Paris, 1871)

by Hamish Ford 

Visual essay: the Paris Commune on film

Following extensive on-screen text introducing viewers to the Paris Commune and its historical context, assuming little or no knowledge thereof (in reflection of this event’s relative obscurity in France and much of the world), the first moving image we see in Peter Watkins' film La Commune (Paris, 1871) is an extremely self-reflexive one. Including some key actors and even the film’s director with his crew, what will become a 6-minute hand-held travelling shot snakes through a single, subdivided set. In reality, the set is an outer Paris warehouse, within which can be seen a large TV studio-style lighting rig and other filmmaking materials. This space is presented by the off-screen voices of actors who played ‘Commune TV’ reporters in the film as post-dating both the Commune’s bloody end and the La Commune shoot itself.
The film’s first hour establishes La Commune‘s very particular mix of performative modes, most prominently via the direct-to-camera address of the pro-revolutionary “Commune TV” reporters and their various vox populi-style interviews carried out within a very loosely recreated working-class 11th Paris arrondissement, and select other locales. Equally important are lengthier discussion-based scenes featuring ordinary citizens of the Commune, or more precisely the largely non-professional actors playing them, increasingly referencing the present tense of the film’s own production, asking what can be learnt from the Commune’s history through the combined experience of collaboratively educating themselves about it and making the film.
As the Commune reaches its violent end, more and more working-class Parisians take up arms and build barracades in its defence from the increasing military assault by national government forces, including the many women portrayed by the film as together playing a crucial role within this short experiment in radical politics. During the chaotic final days, frequently armed Communards also become increasingly impatient with the TV reporter, questioning even such favourable media’s power, and asking why he doesn’t fight to save a political project he claims to support.
While the final assault on Paris is rendered by the film through evocative images but without explicit violence, the summary executions of up to 30,000 men, women, and children by troops under direct order of the national government are given extensive discussion via both on-screen text and by actor-participants speaking in the present tense. Meanwhile government leader Adolphe Thiers addresses the National Assembly at Versailles to announce the army’s successful military destruction of the Commune, with his words sometimes accompanied by images of Communards being rounded up, complimenting the army of restoring “humanity” and “civilization” before emphasizing the need for the enemy to be “legally but unrelentingly” punished. Ringing in viewers’ eyes, ears, and minds is both the atrocity of what became known as semaine sanglante (‘bloody week’) and its immediate historic ramifications in France, Europe and beyond, but also comparative statistics cited via text screens suggesting that fundamental inequalities over which the Commune was largely fought are today more extreme than ever.

Introduction: producing revolutionary history on film

“What would remain of the Church if there were no churches?...[A] revolution that does not produce a new space has not realised its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses.”
—Henri Lefebvre[1] [open notes in new window]

“In such a world as this, what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world... The notion of a film showing this commitment was thus born.”
—Peter Watkins[2]

“What the media are particularly afraid of is to see the man in the little rectangle replaced by a multitude of people, the public.”
La Commune (Paris, 1871)[3]

In this article I write about the political, conceptual, and filmic staging of revolutionary history as a consistently energizing force invoking past, present, and future, with a focus on how such a process plays out within urban space in response to recent history and my chosen filmic case study. I begin by setting up the theoretical context by way of Henri Lefebvre’s pioneering work, starting with his particular account of modernity’s philosophical tensions, before drawing on more recent scholarship on the potential revolutionary reappropriation of the city and responding to global events of the last five years. I then go on to examine in detail La Commune (Paris, 1871), a collaborative, nearly six-hour film directed by Peter Watkins in 2000, which deals with the historical and ongoing relevance of an important yet often shrouded urban uprising and brief experiment in revolutionary democracy spanning March-May 1871 known as the Commune de Paris or “Paris Commune.”[4] This film’s remarkable sound-images, I argue, play out across a mix of historical frames concurrently material, mythic, theatrical, and multiply reflexive in their presentation of space and time.

     Seen through La Commune’s prism, with its special form of time travelling, revolutionary thought and action have an increasingly trans-historical impetus in both force and meaning. La Commune allows us to perceive history as a “palimpsest.” By this I mean that here is a text of film-history invoking and frequently confusing the loose narrative’s particular period setting and associated historical context on the one hand, and the reflexively marked textual layers and aesthetic filmmaking aspects of the work’s own production period on the other, with some intervening historical details also thrown into the mix. The viewer then adds further customized layers to this already palimpsestic work, borne of her particular historical and spectatorial situation, plus any additional knowledge of developments since the film’s completion and limited reception. She thereby sees, or senses, through the historical layers concurrently, undermining any simple linearity. Such multi-temporality is implicitly present when watching any film. However, it is absolutely central to La Commune’s basic internal operation, and even viability.

     The film privileges a centrally collaborative mode of performance. This pertains both to the project’s 220 on-screen participants—largely non-professional actors who together researched and work-shopped the Commune, then largely improvised their dialogue during the shoot—but also the precise audiovisual form through which this process is rendered by the film itself, and the highly participatory relationship subsequently engendered with spectators. In this way, it provides the sound-image record of a very particular filmmaking and educational process driven by autodidactic learning, both group-based and individual, on screen and off, and the collaborative and from the start inherently self-conscious “performance” of a rather suppressed history. If La Commune can be characterized as offering a unique example of reflexive political cinema, however, it also only really comes alive with customized viewer collaboration.

     La Commune constitutes a complex fusion of cinema and history that is perennially seductive, a film forever both real and fantastical in its resonance for our still-new 21st Century. At the same time, we are reminded—by the film, subsequent history, and our own spectatorial moment therein—that viable revolutionary change constantly threatens to slip away in the face of seemingly immovable state opposition and private capital’s corporate interests, ultimately backed by military force—no matter what historical context we emphasise. The film also gives multiple voice to a very real wavering human belief not only in revolution’s very possibility but also its precise desirability and how we as individuals would likely act in the event of its occurrence. Such an experience chimes very much with what Henri Lefebvre saw as two ultimately irreconcilable energies driving 20th Century modernity, the impacts of which we continue to experience in the first two decades of the next. On the one hand, there is a radical critique of the social and political status quo that calls our urgent attention, driven by hope in the possibility of building a better future. Lefebvre suggests that such a critique is associated with the long shadow of Karl Marx’s still—and we could today say newly rejuvenated—trenchant analyses of the inherent inequities and ethical regressions of everyday life as lived within ever more extreme capitalist systems. On the other hand, we experience a seemingly contrary energy, that of an intimate, perhaps inescapable shattering of belief, which concurrently both enables and undermines the modern world’s very possibility. This kind of critique emanates from a discourse strongly indebted to Friedrich Nietzsche.[5]

     The article is divided into two parts, each with smaller sections for ease of reading navigation. Part I presents Lefebvre’s particular account of modernity’s irreconcilable character as it informs his increasingly prescient analysis of urban space and revolutionary possibility, which I follow with an updated discussion of these topics as they play out in the real world over recent years. Accompanied by select images, Part I thereby sets the theoretical and historical scene for Part II, which begins by introducing the story of the Paris Commune followed by its most substantive cinematic treatment, La Commune (Paris 1871). The remainder of the article comprises a sustained cinematic analysis of the film, accompanied by 60 stills, tracing how this remarkable, multiply-collaborative work presents, analyses, and provokes anew the above themes and ongoing questions.

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