The Eighteenth Brumaire
of Patricio Guzmán: lessons from The Battle of Chile (1975-9)
A few years ago, I attended a public screening and discussion of a program of four works of leftist U.S. community media. The works varied in length and commitment. They spanned about 50 years of media-making from across the country, with the earliest film from 1970—the incredible film, Finally Got the News (Bird, Gessner, Lichtman, Louis, Jr., Morrison, League of Revolutionary Black Workers) about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers which led a multiracial, militant labor organization in Detroit.
The screening, which was held at my university at the time, was well attended with a mix of university-affiliated spectators and an unaffiliated public. The post screening q&a with the program’s organizers was polite and orderly. The standard process questions were posed (by me; I was the moderator): how did the project start? Who was involved? How did you find the material? How did you research it? The standard congratulations were issued. The program was unquestionably an achievement, though the programmer directed the attention away from their own labor and that of their collaborator, and instead emphasized the utility of the media; their context within particular labor struggles; and the importance of the ethnographic and archival labor of excavating networks of relations, biographies of producers, funding models, etc. This labor was contrasted to the dominant form of academic film scholarship, comparatively uncomplicated—namely, textual approaches—readings, analyses, armchair opining, etc. Her gentle critique resonated; and it may be an important corrective.
But, the room—the theater where the screening was held—told a parallel story. Despite almost obligatory protestations of relevance and timeliness, the room was strikingly placid. A great work of radical filmmaking—Finally Got the News—emerged as a relic; interesting only for asking historical questions about political organizing of the past or for sharing stories of the days when another world seemed possible. Far from seeming vital, the films seemed like finished business, even if they were objects of resigned admiration.
Although I had done my part to contribute to the staid, reserved atmosphere, I wondered whether this room—its feel, its vibe—provided the best justification for a textual approach. What if someone in the audienc,e rather than nostalgically praising Finally Got the News, had argued with it? What if someone had raised the question clearly posed by the film—of whether race-based organizing is good political strategy and under what circumstances?
In my imagination I had unfolded an alternative scenario: one in which there was an actual debate, in which people disagreed, in which some argued that the film—paradoxically—made the best case for Bernie Sanders’ leadership while others argued that it clearly showed that people of color cannot organize with whites. Of course such a debate would have been a debate about how to interpret the film, about its meaning—and not about its place in a carefully and responsibly plotted historical mediascape.
After the event I began to wonder—at a more meta level—whether political works belonging to a distant historical moment can be enlivened in the present and under what circumstances? Is re-enlivening even a desired mode of engagement with historical works? Is it desirable for political ends (clearly part of the interest of the organizers of the program) and/or for scholarly ends? Are only certain works at certain times available for re-enlivening? Are some political works unavailable for re-enlivening because their time has actually passed and thus they are only available for scholastic and historical excavations? What method(s) are most conducive to re-enlivening?
What follows here is an experiment in re-enlivening an eclipsed work of socialist cinema. My approach is surely some variety of formalism, though not the usual kind of theoretical formalism associated with Marxist film theories, the sort associated with symptomatic or ideological critique. Rather, this will be an experiment in a film criticism—albeit a theoretically-interested film criticism. Film criticism—as I will practice it here (there are surely several varieties of it)—begins with an object (a particular film in this case) and tries, through a close and precise attention to its particularities, to reveal–not for an especially specialist or insider readership—how it works, how it is structured. In practicing this inductive approach, my hope is, first, to better understand a difficult film; second, to broach larger questions about film form certainly; but, perhaps more importantly for a Marxist practice, I hope this approach, this work of film criticism, inspires a debate about political organizing and strategy in general (the subject of the film, in my reading), one that would not have been likely without the work of interpretation.
Among the films about large-scale social change, there are few more significant than Patricio Guzmán’s three-part documentary, La Batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas/ The Battle of Chile: The Struggle of a People Without Arms. This essay is about that film on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the coup that first brought General Pinochet to power. It is particularly fitting that it is appearing in Jump Cut considering the journal’s long history of publishing on The Battle of Chile, beginning with Julianne Burton’s first preview of the film in her 1975 dispatch from the Pesaro festival of International New Cinema. Jump Cut went on to publish the first serious political treatment of the film in English by Victor Wallis in the November 1979 issue, which also featured a contextualization of the film by the Angry Arts Collective. Zuzana Pick has written about the film in the pages of Jump Cut, and recently, in 2010, Victor Wallis returned to The Battle of Chile on the occasion of Icarus Films’ release, on DVD, of a special 4-disc edition that includes all three parts of the film. [open endnotes in new window]
Culled from approximately twenty hours of verité footage of mass street demonstrations and so-called man-on-the-street interviews, and overlaid with a retrospective authoritative voice-of-god narration, The Battle of Chile chronicles—over its 262 minutes—the unfolding of the 1973 coup that overthrew the democratically-elected socialist President of Chile, Salvador Allende, and installed General Augusto Pinochet at the helm of a military government that would rule Chile for over 20 years. The film was put together—from exile in Cuba between 1975 and 1979—by Guzmán collaborating with some key intellectuals including the Chilean filmmaker associated with Chilean New Cinema, Pedro Chaskel; the Spanish economist, José Bartolomé; the Cuban filmmaker and theorist, Julio García Espinosa; the Chilean filmmaker, Federico Elton; Chilean political theorist Marta Harnecker; and the French filmmaker, Chris Marker.
The first part, “The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie” (1975), and the second part, “The Coup d’Etat” (1976), track the events from about March 1973 to the coup, which took place on September 11, 1973. Part I covers the period just before the parliamentary elections of March 4th and leading up to an aborted coup, called the “tanquetazo,” on June 29, 1973. The tanquetazo killed 22 people, including an Argentine cameraman, Leonard Hendrickson, whose footage, which captures his own death, both ends Part I and begins Part II. The attempted coup of June—which was authored by the fascist, CIA-backed “Fatherland and Freedom” movement—fails when most of the military refuses to go along. Part II takes the viewer from the failed attempt in June 1973 to the bombing of La Moneda palace in September and the death of Allende inside. Part III, “The Power of the People” (1979), takes up a thread introduced in Parts I and II and amplifies it, focusing on the attempts of ordinary people—workers, peasants, housewives, etc.—to organize themselves against the coordinated efforts of Allende’s enemies to reverse the course of the revolution.
Over the years, this long-recognized masterwork of political filmmaking has been eclipsed—in public and academic spheres—by Guzmán’s recent poetic-philosophical memory films such as Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button (2015), The Cordillera of Dreams (2019). The consensus seems to be that, whereas the later films stand as genuine works of art, “La Batalla de Chile is very much a film of its time,” as the scholar María Luisa Ortega recently put it. Several ideas are at work in this assessment:
- first, that The Battle of Chile belongs to a tradition of dated leftist agitational filmmaking—which includes paradigmatically the 1968 Peronist film La hora de los hornos (Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino)—whose politics and polemical methods today appear crude and even naïve;
- second, that it employs what Bill Nichols has called a “historical rhetoric” that “examines the past and asks what really happened” as opposed to, say, a “deliberative rhetoric” that “proposes what to do”; and
- third, that the purported objectivity of its cinema verité techniques have been superseded by explicitly subjective techniques like first-person narration, stylized re-enactments, and enigmatic narrative foci.
While it is surely true that The Battle of Chile tries to establish what really happened in one of the major episodes of twentieth-century socialism, the film is more than just an archival document or a memory film, an agitational spark or a landmark in the history of the development of documentary forms like cinema verité. It is the formal originality of The Battle of Chile that I want to explore here.
Despite the specificity of its subject matter (the 1973 coup), despite the partisanship of its crew (they were staunchly on the side of Allende), despite even the seeming straightforwardness of its cinematic tools (the voice-of-god narration and verité camerawork), the film is as much about a method of analyzing contemporary events as it is about a particular time, place, or politics. Unlike other leftist films of the period, it does not make a case for socialism against capitalism and imperialism; it functions, rather, as a kind of training film, apt for cultivating strategic thinking about where political power resides and how to exercise it. In other words, The Battle of Chile is best understood as a primer on how to make change happen, a way of modeling how to act in times of social and political transformation.
It is aided in this modeling project by the unusual historical circumstances in which an avowed socialist like Allende, who was explicitly planning a “democratic road to socialism,” holds the Executive. It is fair to say that most filmic representations of mass street-based movements pit the “unwashed,” exploited masses—the people, characteristically pictured as crowds of demonstrators—against the repressive state (either unpictured or figured as a male tyrant). Sergei Eisenstein is famous for this, as is Gillo Pontecorvo. So, too, in different ways, are the films of the Workers Film and Photo League from the 1930s.
The archive of images of street protest largely belongs to the iconography of the left. That is, moving images of protesting crowds have generally functioned as the visual synecdoche for “the people”; and it is thought that “the people”—as a notion, as an expression of popular sovereignty—only makes sense, in Judith Butler’s formulation, in its “perpetual act of separating [itself] from state sovereignty.” In The Battle of Chile, by contrast, the state and the people (a phrase present in the film’s subtitle—“la lucha de un pueblo [a people] sin armas”) are on the same side, and they are, moreover, opposed by other people, who are also assembling in the street as protesting crowds.
This means that there are street crowds comprised of ordinary people on both sides of the political divide; and both groups are claiming the mantle of “the people.” That it is the right—the Opposition, which is a substantial and a somewhat diverse coalition—occupying the more standard position of opposing state power creates a recurring sense of disorientation in the film as the familiar coordinates (e.g. left=the people/the protesters/the aggrieved/the righteous and right = the state)—and familiar largely thanks to media—are jumbled. Indeed, Guzmán’s great challenge is to chronicle a confusing political landscape where a battle is waged between different social forces—parties, unions, boss’s organizations, neighborhood associations, student groups, etc.—a battle that divides people politically but not, or at least not self-evidently, in social or class terms.
To meet this challenge, or so I will argue, Guzmán’s film conjures a paradigm of the historical materialist method as applied to a prior revolution, with its own famous “June Days,” Karl Marx’s 1852 The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The Eighteenth Brumaire is about the failure of revolution and the rise of a single figure in charge of the state. Perhaps the most famous line in Marx’s text is about historical repetition. Marx acknowledges the truth of the old adage that history repeats itself, but insists that the adage fails to register a crucially important dimension of this phenomenon: that in repeating itself history changes modes or genres. The first time as tragedy, he famously wrote; the second time as farce. On this basis, Marx develops a method that relates the phases of the 1848 revolution to the phases of the 1789 revolution (itself an event in which performers wore the garb of the Roman republic).
The Battle of Chile is another repetition of this cycle, but in its adaptation of Marx’s method to the medium of cinema, the film raises basic formal questions specific to the problem of the representation of social change on film. Most notably: how does film, and this film in particular, visualize—or concretize or materialize—the abstract notion of a social force? This question has, of course, been broached in other films—including Sergei Eisenstein’s fictionalized historical films such as Battleship Potemkin (1925), Strike (1925), and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928). But the problem of filming a social force takes on a peculiar shape in a cinema verité documentary mode where the “raw material” is footage of actual events. It takes on a peculiar shape where the allegorization—achieved by Eisenstein partly through his deployment of typage in which he casts certain non-actors in particular roles based on the extent to which their physical attributes conform to widely-held, pre-existing stereotypes of the social identity they are representing (the anti-realist idea being that one’s physical characteristics and one’s social identity are not naturally correlated)—must therefore contend with the specificity of each and every person-on-the-street who is interviewed.
Not least for this reason, Guzmán’s person-on-the-street tends to be representative of a collective subject or subject position. That is, each particular person interviewed stands-in for a social force; and, in some sense, each interviewee’s role is to ventriloquize the self-understanding of the group to which they belong. Yet at the same time, each person also resists representativeness; each is, in some basic sense, irreducible to a broader collective. The spontaneity of cinema verité’s method (which is unlike Eisenstein’s practice of typage) and the ontology of the medium conspire to deliver singularity—that person; that voice; that syntax; those words; that way of talking and walking and head-cocking; that unique life, unlike any other. Each social actor is unavoidably singular, even if they function in the film as representatives. Of course that social actor’s singularity, uniqueness, nonfungibility—which is medium-specific—must, to some extent, pull against or unsettle the smooth unanimity of the collective voice. The reliance on person-on-the-street interviews must ultimately constrain the allegorizing impulses of a social force film like The Battle of Chile.
My re-reading of The Battle of Chile, then, will come to focus on the tension that the person-on-the-street interview generates within the project of the representation of large-scale social change. This device that is so prominent in Guzmán’s film, and which has no correlate in Marx’s written pamphlet, is both central to the film’s democratic and humanist ethos but is also a potential destabilizer for its more general and ambitious aspiration to narrate a story (without heroes) about the battle of social forces. The Battle of Chile ultimately turns this tension into its greatest achievement.
Why connect The Battle of Chile with The Eighteenth Brumaire in the first place? Part of the answer, as I have already intimated, lies in the film’s conspicuous work in staging questions of historical repetition and changing registers of performance. First published in Die Revolution, a German monthly magazine based in New York, The Eighteenth Brumaire begins in February 1848, when a bourgeois revolution unseated the then republican monarch, King Louis Phillipe, and concentrated power in a constituent assembly that drafted a new constitution. It ends in December 1851, when the freely elected president, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, dissolved the parliament and set himself up as emperor of France, in a marked repetition of the dissolution of the 1789 Revolution in the first Napoleon’s coup. The account was written retrospectively, several months after the fact, though it narrates the recent events almost exclusively in the present tense.
The Eighteenth Brumaire is not primarily a work of history, so much as it uses a historical case study as an exposé of unseen levers of power. True, the work narrates how a particular history unfolded, taking into account the actions, often inadvertent, of various groups. These groups include not merely classes or quasi-classes—the peasantry, the proletariat, large landholders, the aristocracy of finance—but also political forces that were sometimes coextensive with particular classes and sometimes divided among them. Such is the case with the bourgeoisie, on the very cusp of the coup. Parliamentary and literary representatives of this class were against Bonaparte, but its extra-parliamentary members were mostly with him. Marx writes of the
“most motley mixture of crying contradictions: constitutionalists who conspire openly against the constitution; revolutionaries who are confessedly constitutional; a national assembly which wants to be all-powerful and still remains parliamentary, etc.”
In one of his frequent recourses to poetic language and literary history, he concludes,
“Men and events appear as Schlemiels in reverse, as shadows that have lost their bodies. The revolution has paralysed its own proponents and has endowed only its enemies with passion and violence. The counter-revolutionaries continually summon, exorcise, and banish the ‘red spectre’, and when it finally appears, it is not in the phrygian cap of anarchy but in the uniform of order, in [the soldier’s] red breeches.”
The point of Marx’s description here is that things are not as they appear; classes and subclasses and various other constituencies are not behaving as one (even Marx) would expect or predict. Shadows that have lost their bodies are like effects without causes. The work of the The Eighteenth Brumaire, though, is not to give up on explanation and declare the actions of men irrational; rather, it is to investigate hidden, hard to discern causes.
Seen from a certain perspective, there are clear parallels—historical as well as methodological between Marx’s work and Guzmán’s. The Eighteenth Brumaire opens in 1848 with a revolution that creates the French Second Republic and ends with a coup d’etat three years later that installs Louis Napoléon Bonaparte as Emperor of France from 1852-1870. Similarly, in The Battle of Chile the story begins with the 1970 election of Salvador Allende, who promises a peaceful transition to socialism, and ends with a coup d’etat three years later that appoints General Augusto Pinochet first as President of the Military Junta of Chile and later as President of the Republic; he rules from 1973-1990.