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Review: "La Commune"

Soren Whited

Platypus Review 1 | November 2007


In 1871 the Paris Commune, a revolutionary body formed during the deep unrest following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, rose against the post-war provisional government of Adolphe Thiers and briefly held power in France. Two months after it took power, the Commune was brutally suppressed by the French army. In his film "La Commune," released in 2002, director Peter Watkins orchestrated and documented a theatrical re-enactment of the Commune. At nearly six hours, the film explores the events of the Commune as well as its relevance for the present, and in so doing it is compelled to negotiate the myriad ways in which history bears on the present. It is through its investigation of the relation between past and present that the film arrives at its most insightful as well as its most shortsighted conclusions.

“La Commune” was filmed over a 13-day period on a soundstage in Paris. The filmmakers conducted historical research for two years prior to filming. The cast included more than 200 people, many of whom were not actors by trade. Many of these participants were respondents to ads placed in newspapers by Watkins. Each one of them did his or her own historical research prior to filming. It is of note that these participants played characters to which they were politically sympathetic. A set was designed and built to suggest the 11th district of Paris in 1871, the poorest area at the time and the epicenter of the Commune.

Why make a film about “La Commune?” And why now? It becomes evident early in the film that Watkins revisits this failed but highly charged revolutionary moment because the present is completely lacking in even the potential for such a moment. Watkins clearly hopes that by exploring the history of the Commune – which is rarely studied in depth, or at all, even in France – he might entice his audience to question the nature of the present and search for ways in which anti-capitalist politics might be forged in it.

Watkins’ key insight is that the communards (and the world population at large) were subject to the same form of social organization – capitalism – that we are today. More importantly, he recognizes that despite differences in the form it takes, the nature of capitalism is today the same as it was in 1871 and, furthermore, that this form cannot change other than to be overcome entirely.

However, in recognizing this sameness Watkins often conflates the past and the present. He fails to recognize that any particular moment in history has its own particular manifestations and that this specificity must be accounted for in the analysis of the moment. In other words, one must recognize and take into account the differences between the respective historical moments in order to be able to identify that which is fundamentally the same. Only then can one form an adequate analysis of the unchanged factor and from it derive a truly revolutionary politics. By neglecting this crucial aspect of any consequential historical critique Watkins is unable to take his film beyond an under-specified and flat-footed opposition to capitalism.

But the film does demonstrate the importance – the necessity – of interrogating history, as well as the inherent obstacles and dangers in doing so. While it may not, in the final analysis, offer a completely satisfying critique of the Paris Commune, of the present, or of the relation of the one to the other, it succeeds in stressing the importance of critically appropriating history, and specifically those moments in history when possibilities of social emancipation opened only to be slammed shut again. |P