The Pied Piper
Neo-marxist fairy tale

by Reynold Humphries

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 16-17
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

When I went to see Jacques Demy’s film (made in England in 1971) one weekday afternoon at a Paris cinema, a considerable proportion of the audience was comprised of parents and young children who were doubtless expecting a fairy story with nice songs from Donovan and pretty postcard sets. (Demy is probably best known in the U.S. for THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, made in 1964.) What they got was as far removed from expectations as one could imagine, for THE PIED PIPER is built almost exclusively on class antagonisms.

The main event in the plot is the marriage between Franz, the Baron’s son, and Lisa, the Mayor’s daughter, seen purely and simply as a marriage of convenience: she hates him and he is interested only in the dowry. Demy and his fellow scriptwriters do not waste time on this relationship, however, but concentrate on the political intrigues behind it. These are centered on the Baron and the Mayor.

The Baron is engaged in building a splendid cathedral, encouraged by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hamelin. But there’s a problem: he’s broke. How can he raise more money? He can borrow from the Pope, levy more taxes or get the men to do the work for nothing. The arrival of the Papal Nuncio allows him to broach the first possibility. Unfortunately the Nuncio has other things in mind: he has came to ask the Baron to raise an army to help the Pope fight the Emperor in Italy (the Pope wants a new Emperor as much as the Emperor wants a new Pope...). The army will be paid for, but as the workforce will be away fighting, there will be nobody left to build the cathedral, undertaken by the Baron as an act likely to enable him to buy his way out of Hell, if not actually into Heaven. Impasse.

The second and third possibilities bring in economics and the class struggle more directly: taxes on the poor to subsidize those weapons used to subjugate them (religion and war, here religious wars) and the threat of refusing to pay the workers, considered valid as times were hard and “even masons have to eat.”

The Baron tries to solve the dilemma by forcing the Mayor to advance him the money he would be getting from the dowry. But the Mayor has already advanced a considerable portion of it to enable the Baron to pay ransom money for Franz, captured after yet another of his disastrous private wars, and now has financial problems of his own. So he, too, tries to levy new taxes, only to find that everything is already taxed. When he suggests sugar, one of the members of the town council points out that they are the only ones to eat sugar. Impasse.

Franz tries to solve the problem by getting Melius the Jew to fabricate fool’s gold to pay the workers. This is a striking metaphor for the function of money in present capitalist society. Lacking any real value, its worth depends exclusively on the intervention of the capitalist. Thus paper becomes money, although its arbitrary value can vary according to circumstances, thus foregrounding its artificial nature (German inflation in the 1920’s is the best example of this). Melius, however, refuses to cooperate as he is concerned with something far more important in his eyes: the presence of rats and hence of the plague.

The plague threatens to upset the existing “delicate political situation” (the words are the Mayor’s. The townspeople demand action, but the Church sees the plague as something sent by God to punish people for their depravity, not the result of natural causes. Thus they burn Melius for insisting on the latter. He is, of course, a Jew, not a Catholic. Not only does the Mayor have the Church to contend with, but his financial problems too. He must hire men to rid the town of rats, but Lo do so would infuriate not only the Bishop, but also the Baron who needs the men to build the cathedral... Impasse.

The Pied Piper has a solution. For 1000 guilders he will rid the town of rats by playing his pipe. The Mayor agrees and the rats are duly drowned. But the Mayor refuses to pay. The job wasn't worth more than 50 guilders and anyway, if the Piper gets 1000, what about the poor and the sick? They deserve it too. Thus a favorite capitalist device of divide and rule is brought into play. The Mayor is ready to squeeze the last penny out of the people in order to live well and avoid the contradictions inherent in the problems surrounding the Baron, the Church and himself. When it actually comes to paying a man for his labor, however, he appeals to the very people he is exploiting to justify non-payment. By making the people envious and the Piper seem to be greedy, the Mayor creates a situation where two sectors of the exploited proletariat are set against each other, to the benefit of the capitalist: no money paid and the people satisfied.

The next day, as Melius is being burned, the Piper leaves town, playing his pipe, and, charms all the children away. What is crucial here is that no revenge motive is advanced in the film, as opposed to the legend. Here the Piper leads off the children, not to punish the townspeople, but to save the children (with whom, as the film has shown on more than one occasion, he has a good relationship). For the plague strikes the town after Melius is dead, the first victim being Franz. Thus the Church’s position is exposed for the lie it is. Burning Melius hasn't saved Hamelin any more than its call for prayers, processions and flagellations.

The ideological flaw of THE PIED PIPER lies in the makers’ inability to adopt a precise attitude towards the function of Christianity. On the one hand the driving force in the film is seen to be the class struggle: bourgeoisie vs. proletariat; the Baron, the Mayor and the Church vs. the people, the Pied Piper and Melius. (I list Melius as a member of the proletariat because he is not in control of the production and distribution of wealth, although, as a scientist, he is privileged, being on the “right” side of the division between manual and intellectual labor.) On the other hand, the driving force is religion. The film ends with a caption on the religious persecutions that followed the Black Death. There is a splendid moment during the wedding ceremony where the cake—ironically in the completed form of the unfinished cathedral—is discovered to be full of rats. It falls apart and they are inside, thus linking Christianity to the plague and making religion responsible for everything.

This is a common attitude in certain leftwing circles and is understandable, given the role played by Christianity through the ages. But Demy and the other scriptwriters, by giving voice to their anticlericalism, are forgetting the very lesson they are making in the film: Power politics and economics are what control and determine everything, with religion being used as a weapon to impose the control of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. Christianity is therefore a part of the ideological superstructure produced by a given economic base. Everything in THE PIED PIPER points to this and all the relationships worked out in the film are exclusively class-oriented, even if the storyline—as opposed to the network of meanings produced by the discourse itself—tends to privilege religion.

It is striking to see how personal, individual relations are underplayed in THE PIED PIPER (apart from that between Lisa and the boy she loves, Gavin, Melius’s assistant, who, significantly, is a member of the proletariat). Everything is seen in class terms: The Baron, the Mayor and the Bishop are inside, plotting behind closed doors. The people, kept in fear and ignorance, are outside (a neat metaphor for class antagonisms). The dominant discourse will probably put the film down as a barely competent followup to PEAU D'ANE (minus the pretty images). THE PIED PIPER deserves to be remembered as a very strange hybrid indeed: a neo-Marxist fairytale.