La Commune (2001) – a self-reflective film about the short-lived commune that arose out of social tension and upheaval in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. This is a groundbreaking film that did not show up on too many radar screens.
The film asks you to imagine you’re walking in the shoes of Paris communards during a massive revolt, and reflect on your own experiences and what it means to live a revolutionary life. And over the course of six hours, you are invited to share the experience of filmmaking with cast members themselves. At times they wonder out loud why they couldn’t get support for this film by any television channel or media business. They also wonder what the role of humanitarian organizations should be in relation to revolutionary organizations.
Karl Marx wrote a tract on the Paris Commune, called Civil War in France. Lenin wrote a tract, The Paris Commune. Kropotkin also wrote a tract, The Commune of Paris. Bakunin has one, The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State. As well as many others.
How did the 1871 Commune start?
After Napoleon III declared war on Prussia, Otto von Bismarck drove the French forces back, and would eventually siege and destroy Paris. Bismarck and the Prussian army figured the “soft and decadent” French workers would be easily overcome. After the occupation, Prussia allowed Parisians to hold onto their weapons because of their persisting autonomist spirit. They installed a conservative pro-Prussian and monarchist French assembly, located at Versailles, with the repressive Adolphe Thiers as the chief executive.
On March 18th, 1871, when Thiers tries to regain power over the Paris workers violently, the soldiers were overcome by the women of the working class, and refused to fire on the Parisians. Soldiers and workers fraternized. When popular resistance broke out and spread among the working classes all over Paris, class war took place. This is where the film La Commune begins.
In the film, the story is told by two television reporters for “Commune TV”. The reporters tell us that this anachronistic narrative is actually a critique of the bourgeois media. Instead of showing us clips from newspapers from the time period, La Commune caricatures the media establishment by showing the bourgeois media and the Commune media on separate television channels. We watch the revolution through the television, literally. We see that the bourgeoisie watch the bourgeois news; while the proletariat watch Commune TV. Each social strata debates what they learn from the TV, and decide what needs to be done from their class perspective. Some say nothing can be done, others want to see more revolt. The bourgeoisie say the communards are severely outnumbered and stupid.
Here is an example of the bourgeois television broadcast, with a guest “expert” discussing and criticizing the statecraft schemes of the commune, in opposition to the monarchist state system. Following that is a short segment from Commune TV, discussing with workers the role of abandoned workshops.
At other parts in the film, the cast steps out of character, and ask each other if they are representing these events truthfully. They reflect on what the 1871 commune means to them and what they have learned from it for the future. The director goads the audience to action throughout the film with provocative questions and situations. After one scene emphasizing income inequalities in France, director Peter Watkins places this narrative onto the screen to sum up the impressions we have of Paris in 1871:
“In 1870, the wealthiest 20% of the world population had 7 times the income of the poorest 20%. In 1997 the difference was 74 to 1.”
In 1870, the French proletariat and Blanquists, who held that a socialist revolution must be carried out by small group of highly-organized conspirators, demanded the overthrow of the French government and the establishment of a commune beginning in Paris. In La Commune, there is an extensive bourgeois debate about the “foreigners” who have taken advantage of the revolutionary spirit in France. These Blanquists – among them are Polish and other Eastern European soldiers, generals and revolutionaries – are talked about as non-French outsiders who cannot be trusted, and must be killed because they are manipulating the French working class. The bourgeoisie becomes even more nationalistic as the film goes on.
Among the proletariat, other debates break loose. The women discuss their role in workings of a revolutionary society, and question gender hierarchies: their duties, their restrictions, the way they are treated by the men, etc. Many women question religious authority and place the Church within the context of the creation of the new social model – they call for a “separation of church and state”.
The newly-created commune bureaucrats, too, question their role in an increasingly authoritarian and uncaring state structure that neglects the needs of workers and helpless proletarians. At first this bureaucracy was merely a “sub-committee” of the commune body. It takes increasing control over the political structure until it has monopolized all power. The Jacobin vote had assumed the power over the wishes of anarchists who desired a system of de-centralized cooperatives.
One of the strongest characteristics of this film is its ability to engage the viewers and their views about their political beliefs and aspirations. At certain breaks in the narrative, the cast members get together around one of the bar tables and discuss what is happening in today. The following scene is a good example. One actor says that more people should vote, and all we need to do to help the situation in Africa is open the phone book and call an NGO. Another actor then criticizes him for this shortsighted view on international political hierarchies and how to make real change.