Little hopes and pleasures: revisiting Tanner’s Jonah (1976)

by Joshua Sperling

“Politics are finished,” says Max, the soured historical-materialist in John Berger and Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000. As the film’s lovable grump, it is a sentiment he repeats often. “What was May ’68 to you?” he asks his new hippie girlfriend, “Cherry blossom time?" Later he reveals the source of his disillusion: he used to belong to an activist group. “In the sixties,” he clarifies, and starts to count up with his hand. “64, 65, 66, 67, 68.” At this point he stops, having reached a pinnacle, and counts back down. “69, 70, 71, 72.”

Jonah was made in 1976. Both Berger and Tanner considered themselves to be undogmatic Marxists and the film, set in French-speaking Switzerland, was about how to live in the backwash of political expectation. Once thought to be dress rehearsals for an ultimate revolutionary event, the uprisings of the late sixties, particularly the strikes and demonstrations that swept through France in May 1968, now seemed to belong to a different age. And so Jonah asks: How to live after political failure? How to live with a modicum of hope, with warmth and community—and maybe even with a little bit of fun? Aside from Max, the other seven characters, all in their twenties or thirties, are still dreamers. They are still out to salvage something of the spirit of the counterculture in a world that has moved on, and flattened back to business-as-usual. Politics are finished, Max tells them, but they go about politics by other means: as progressive teachers, organic farmers, sexual explorers. “You don’t allow for little pleasures?” one of them asks.

Max, the ex-revolutionary, and Madeleine, the sexual explorer, at an arcade. While Max fulminates against the trivial pleasures of the present, Madeline sings Le temps des cerises. Le temps de cerise was a revolutionary song of the Paris Commune. Later in the film, Marco leads a choir at an old-age home. “We will all be celebrating / pretty girls will have foolish ideas in their heads / and lovers sunshine in their hearts.” But the song also acknowledges that utopia can be temporary, and can leave, “an open wound in the heart.”

It has now been forty years since Jonah. The child it is named after would be entering middle age. How would he view his parents? How should we, alive in 2016, view the film? What can we learn from the collaboration that gave rise to it and the divided response it provoked?

In some ways Jonah’s politics are as outdated as its haircuts. In others ways the film was prophetic, crystallizing a mood and set of questions that are still with us, or have only grown more pressing. Variations on the same debates continue to work their way through our college campuses, street protests, political rallies, music festivals, and small farms. What are politics? Where are they? How do they work in a post-utopian world?

Jonah, and the reaction it provoked, held up a mirror to these questions at a time when the answers had grown opaque. The mood on the left was grim, the marriage between the political and cultural vanguards was dissolving, and the global party-politics of revolution was giving way—arguably already had—to a more local focus on the body, the land, cultural and sexual identity, lifestyle, food and the everyday. Jonah also set off a debate about the nature of political art. Can a political film be pleasurable? Can it be consolatory? Or was Jonah, a comedy, nothing more than an exercise in cherry-blossom nostalgia and reassurance?

Jonah explores the small hopes and “little pleasures” of a group of friends in Geneva and a nearby organic farm.

The Berger-Tanner collaboration

Let’s begin with where Jonah came from, and what it meant to the two men who made it: the Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner and the English writer and art-critic, John Berger. Their period of work (1971-1976) represents one of the most unique collaborations in film history. In what follows I want to develop the idea that the dialectic between play and politics found in Jonah—and that so divided the left in the mid-70s—grew out of the artistic tensions of their partnership. Or to put it another way: the temporary coming-together of the Berger-Tanner collaboration symbolized, in miniature, the New Left’s broader, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempts at synthesis.

This parallel becomes clearer with some historical background.

Berger and Tanner first met in London in the mid-1950s. At that time, Berger was making a name for himself as the brash, young art-critic for the New Statesman. He was an outspoken Marxist and the figurehead for social realism in British painting. Tanner, for his part, was in his twenties, an aspiring filmmaker and boarder in Lindsay Anderson’s house, where weekly salons would bring together prominent figures of the cultural left.

It was in this milieu that Berger and Tanner crossed paths. When Tanner’s short documentary, Nice Time (1957), was included in a Free Cinema Programme, Berger praised the film. He complimented what he saw as “the possibility of protest” in its attitude toward its subject: the new nightlife of Picadilly Circus. But, he added, “the point is that the protest is not an aloof, administrative or high-minded one.”[1] [open notes in new window] In its collage of promenading couples, moviegoers, street musicians, beggars, cruisers, and police, Nice Time tacitly celebrated the innocent urge for fun while it critiqued the ways that fun could be controlled and marketed for a profit. (This double-movement would later become a trademark of Tanner’s “subversive charm.”)

In 1960, Berger left England for Geneva. He had reached an impasse with regular art criticism and moved to the continent in the hope of becoming a more imaginative, and European, writer. This meant, alongside essays and novels, an openness to collaboration and an interest in new visual media. He began regularly appearing on British television and worked with a friend of Tanner’s, the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr, on the first of several documentary photo-texts that explore the relationship between words and images.

During this same period—the mid 1960s—Tanner spent several years in Paris where he met many of the leading figures of the Nouvelle Vague. By the end of the decade he had returned to Geneva and was working for Swiss television. The first direct collaboration between the two men occurred in 1966 when Tanner asked Berger to write the narration for a television documentary about Chandigarh and Le Corbusier. But it wasn’t until the early 70s, and Tanner’s turn to fiction, that the collaboration began in earnest.

Charles mort ou vif and La Salamandre

Tanner’s first feature, Charles mort ou vif (1969), grew partly out of conversations with Berger. The film was a gleefully insolent critique of conformity. In a mixture of aphorisms and wild skits reminiscent of Godard, it follows a middle-aged businessman’s self-repudiation and rebirth as a bohemian. The film ends as Charles is taken to a mental institution. He reads a philosophical passage to the ambulance drivers:

“Saint-Just said that the concept of happiness was new in France and in the world. And we might say the same of unhappiness. The awareness of unhappiness presupposes the possibility of something different. Maybe today the conflict happiness-unhappiness, or the awareness of a possible happiness and of a real unhappiness, has replaced the old concept of destiny. Is that not the secret of our generalized malaise?”

The two drivers put on the siren, shut him up, and speed off. That was Tanner’s style: abrasive and energetic, philosophical but never too serious.

The same verve and irreverence characterized his second film, La Salamandre (1971), about a fickle, ungovernable young woman and two middle-class intellectuals fascinated by her disregard for social norms. The film, for which Berger received a screenwriting credit, played at Cannes and was a festival success. It introduced the world to the New Swiss Cinema and was praised for its coarse and energetic freedom.

Tanner’s first feature film, Charles mort ou vif, follows the radical awakening and self-transformation of a middle-aged businessman (far left), and his friendship with a bohemian couple. In the last scene of the film, Charles, on his way to a mental institution, reads from a treatise on the revolutionary content of happiness.
La Salamandre was the first film of Tanner’s for which Berger received a screenwriting credit. It is a study of the youthful recalcitrance and caprices of a young woman, Rosemonde.  Two middle-class intellectuals (and men) become fascinated by Rosemonde. One is a journalist and the other a writer. Each tries to explain the meaning of her rebellion according to the tools of his métier. But ultimately, the film suggests, her recalcitrance exists even on the level of interpretation: her rebellion cannot be reduced to ideology.

But while Charles fit neatly into a Situationist line of protest, the politics of La Salamandre were harder to pin down. The English critic George Melly expressed this ambiguity. Speaking of Rosemonde, whose nickname gives the film its title, he wrote:

“How would she, with her flashes of insight and obstinate exercise of whim, her flirtation with criminality, her neurotic messiness, get by under the more rigid bureaucracies of the Left? Has Marxism room in its tidy bed for randy little anarchists? There’s never been any indication of it in practice.”[2]

The contradiction belonged to the 1960s counter-culture in general. The youth movement, as is often said, contained both LSD and SDS: rock concerts and Marxist pamphlets. In 1971, when La Salamandre was released, the marriage between these two poles remained more or less intact. Though the film rejected any neatly ideological happy ending, such as the birth in Rosemonde of a political consciousness, it was released at a cultural moment when personal rebellion, no matter how unfocused or adolescent, could still be subsumed under the broader tide of emancipation.

Le milieu du monde

Both Charles and La Salamandre bear the unmistakable stamp of Tanner’s formative years in London and Paris. Both breathe with the youthful, unyielding exuberance of the British Free Cinema movement and the French New Wave. And though both received pseudo-political readings in the press—and were seen as bellwethers of the zeitgeist—neither was an exercise in pamphleteering. The same was more or less true, despite its coda of community activism, for Tanner’s third and hard-to-see film, Return from Africa (1973), about a couple’s extended staycation in a Geneva apartment. All of Tanner’s first three films were expressions of intensely personal, unruly and often anti-social desires rather than ideological tracts. They were political in the same way that Rimbaud’s early poetry or a Jimi Hendrix solo was political.

During this period, Berger’s interest in the-personal-and-the-political came from a much more philosophical place. It grew out of a larger project that aimed to theorize the connections between Marxism, Modernism and phenomenology. This more abstract undertaking expressed itself in Berger and Tanner’s second collaboration, Le milieu du monde (1974). In my view, this is the film of Tanner’s that owes the most to Berger—in both theme and tone. (Ironically, although perhaps understandably, Berger later expressed a certain disappointment with the finished product.)

Le milieu du monde charts the 112-day rise and fall of a disruptive, potentially liberatory, affair between a provincial Swiss politician and a migrant Italian waitress. Gone is the bohemian milieu of Tanner’s first three films. And whereas both Charles and La Salamandre had been loud, rambunctious and often ironic, the emotional palette of Le milieu du monde is somber. The long landscape shots of snow; the muted blacks and grays of the color scheme; a slow-moving and seemingly autonomous camera; the uninflected, theoretical voiceover. All of these elements, contrasting sharply with the on-screen romance, elicited references to Brecht and point to Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) as well as Antonioni’s trilogy with Monica Vitti: L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962).

The high-minded modernism of Le milieu du monde also grew out of Berger’s own literary work from the previous years, particularly his Booker-winning novel, G. In its combination of meta-fiction, historical analysis and romance, the film transposes the aesthetic strategy of Berger’s novel to the medium of film. Just as G. begins by asserting both the independent reality and the fictionality of its historical characters, Le milieu du mond ebegins with a shot of a film crew at work, followed by self-reflexive narration about the historical nature of cinema and the moment of the film’s making.

Le milieu du monde was a stylistic departure for Tanner, who had previously been a chronicler of bohemian energy and dreams. Austere shots of the Swiss landscape and the passing seasons punctuate the story of the affair.
An early self-reflexive shot of the crew coincides with voice-over narration about cinema and history. Tanner’s discrete and distant camera frames the characters as lone figures in a provincial landscape.

The film, we are told, takes place during a period of “normalization,” defined as a time that allows for the free exchange of goods and ideas so long as nothing fundamentally is changed. (Anyone familiar with Berger’s essays will immediately recognize this kind of sentence and sentiment.) “Hopes remain,” the female narrator says, “but they are normalized into old, stereotyped attitudes… Only words, dates and seasons change.” The film’s anatomy of the frustrated affair between the politician and waitress transposes this theory of political stasis to the realm of sexual intimacy.

Le milieu du monde investigates the connection between the personal and the political through the allegory of sexual passion. Passion represents the awakening of utopian consciousness in the individual.
But in a time of “normalized” hopes, utopian desire is compartmentalized ... ... and betrayed rather than fulfilled.

Sexuality and politics

Le milieu du monde was part of a broader intellectual project of Berger’s to account for the relation of sexuality and politics. In the 1950s, when Berger was practicing as an art-critic, he had been criticized for his “boy-scout” puritanism. This was a common charge leveled by postwar liberal and existentialist critics against Communists and social realists, whom they parodied as neo-Victorian in their prudishness.

With the rise of the New Left and Second-Wave Feminism, the division between pleasure and politics fell away. During this time Berger pursued his own intellectual investigations into their connection. His 1972 novel G., which dealt directly with Don Juanism and revolution, implied that in non-revolutionary periods, utopian impulses were redirected into sex. (The book was dedicated to his then-wife Anya Bostock, “and her sisters in Women’s Liberation.”) Meanwhile, Berger’s pioneering television broadcast, Ways of Seeing, also from 1972, connected the pictorial tradition of the female nude to objectification and presented a provocative, and in many ways groundbreaking, decoding of the new visual language of consumerism, glamour and sexuality.

Berger’s attempt to locate a political content in the personal experience of desire and sexuality was no doubt influenced by theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich. (Berger’s wife from this period translated many Western Marxist authors, including Reich.) He also worked for a time with Dusan Makavejev on an aborted film script that allegorized, as with the Yugoslav director’s earlier W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), an inter-cultural and cross-class sexual encounter.[3] If we return to Le milieu du monde, the Swiss politician’s failure to take full ownership of his passion—his psychic need to compartmentalize it and reduce it to the level of obsession and infantile symptomology—reflects the historical self-denial of the managerial-political class. The film asserts that the technocratic impulse, whether political or sexual, will necessarily thwart any true renewal.

A cinema of ideas

Among the first things Berger wrote for Le milieu du monde were two long letters—essays, really—meant for the principal actors. In these, Berger theorized the personality of the character the actor was to play. But he did so not by providing a personal history or backstory, but by describing an existential outlook. Each character epitomized a philosophical and psychological stance before the film’s central theme: the nature of sexual passion.

Berger’s letter to Phillipe Leótard, for example, who plays the Swiss politician, reads less like dramatic direction and more like a structuralist treatise. Berger writes,

“There is no simple analogy to make the relation between the ‘lovers’ totality’ and the world clear. Perhaps the nearest is the relation between an ideal language and the universe. The state of being in love signifies the universe: the universe is its ‘signified.’”[4]

These letters, excerpts of which were published separately, are evidence of the unique nature of the Berger-Tanner collaboration. Berger was not simply a co-screenwriter; he was the film’s in-house philosopher. His primary work was to help theorize the film’s central philosophical question. And then, to investigate this question through the device of character.

Character, for the Berger-Tanner collaboration, serves less as an agent for drama than as a vessel for philosophical speculation. As in the sketches of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, or the essayistic fiction of Robert Musil, each character typifies an attitude: a possible stance, vis-à-vis a pressing historical or philosophical question. In so far as Le milieu du monde and Berger and Tanner’s next collaboration, Jonah, were constructed from this philosophical—rather than dramatic—architecture, they are the cinematic equivalents of the “novel of ideas.”

Jonah presents an essay-like mosaic of visual quotations and leitmotifs. Recurrent themes include: (1) animals, .... .... (2) time, ...
... (3) food, ... ... (4) children, ...
... 5) political tumult and ... ... (6) the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a native of Geneva.

Jonah and the failure of ‘68

In the case of Jonah, the pressing philosophical question is: how to go on living in the face of political defeat. How to live after the failure of what Berger called “the Great synthetic prophecy of '68”? How to live during a period of normalization? All of the film’s characters, with the exception of Max, are aging idealists. They are still seeking utopia within the contours of their own life and actions. The group includes two organic farmers; a secretary into Tantric sex; a teacher with a penchant for outlandish pedagogy; a cashier who undercharges the elderly; a former union-leader turned progressive educator; and Max, the disillusioned ex-activist, who now fears he is political history and seeks escape in gambling. The characters are not meant to be fully formed, as in a realist film, but embodied variations on a theme. Their inner life—the content of their hopes and daydreams—defines them as much as their social position.

The film switches between color and black-and-white to suggest this duality. One black-and-white scene shows the fantasies of a character who longs to be pregnant; another imagines a real estate speculator turned into a pig; yet another shows Max aiming a gun at himself in the mirror only to fire it at the ticking clock instead. Interspersed with these oneiric segments are quotations from a diverse set of intellectuals and writers; black-and-white archival footage (visual quotations) showing moments of overt turmoil and conflict; songs sung by the characters; and several mini-lectures, given to a high-school class, on the nature of historical time and capitalism.

Jonah thus works both as a group portrait of post-Utopian consciousness and as a Lehrstuk of interwoven leitmotifs: food, animals, sexuality, time, and childhood. The dance between these many registers—from black-and-white to color, play to work, hopes to reality—moves in a spirited, sweet-and-sour mélange that connects the disparate elements.

The desire to connect, not contrast, is most evident in the film’s egalitarian dramatic structure. None of the actors was a star in the conventional sense. None possesses model-like looks. And while Max, Marco (the teacher), and Matthieu (the union organizer) are perhaps the most developed and present to the audience, the film distributes emphasis more or less equally to all eight characters. Whereas modern equivalents of the so-called “network narrative” usually seek a splintered, postmodern connection, Jonah’s canvas is local, not global. It strives for communion. The climactic scene of the film is a festive meal and song. Its closing image is of a mural drawn by the commune’s schoolchildren of the adults. The Jonah of the title represents the collective prophecy of the eight friends and lovers.

Matthieu is the father of Jonah. He embodies humble optimism and a willingness to try new things. Having been laid off from a factory job, where he was a union organizer, he begins working as a farmer and then finds his vocation teaching young children. Marco is a history teacher who is fired from his job at a high-school and takes a job working with pensioners. His fantasy, in a likely bid to diffuse the seriousness of his character, is to sleep with two women.
Madelaine is a secretary who earns quick money to travel to exotic places. She is a devotee of Tantrism. When Max learns that her boss is speculating on land-deals, she aids him in his efforts to inform the farmers. Marie works at a supermarket where she undercharges her customers. She has a playful, tender friendship with Charles, a pensioner, whom she brings groceries to. Pauline Kael remarked on the fresh magnetism of the actress, Miou-Miou.