Today is the day of the midterm elections, a day which will mark the stark transition from functionaries on the center who can’t accomplish anything holding office to functionaries on the right who are too busy yelling in every direction to accomplish anything holding office.
Under that grand political tradition whose unwavering slogan is “Losing = Tyranny,” much has been made from candidates on the far right (who will become mainstream right if elected or exponentially grating windbags if not) about staging an armed revolution if, y’know, that whole democracy thing doesn’t work out for them.
Well, before the pasty and overweight turn off the Fox News echo chamber and actually embody the daunting degree at which human action can precede human thought by taking arms against an administration that has done nothing to challenge their 2nd Amendment rights, I’d like to use the history of cinema to illustrate what true revolt against actual political oppression looks like.
Keep in mind that while you may disagree with any one of these movie politically (and keep in mind that most of these are works of historical fiction), each of them contains a political philosophy that possesses actual cogency which can be articulated in words that are historically informed, consistent, and make grammatical sense.
Also, Friday is Guy Fawkes Day, so there’s that, too.
October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)
Sure, this film doesn’t have quite the influential legacy of Potemkin or the director’s later sound films, but Sergei Eisenstein’s meditation-via-montage of the 1917 October Revolution remains one of the director’s most powerful and challenging works. In venerating the proletariat through an epic and abstract representation of the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government, Eisenstein employs his signature collision montage style in a way that privileges no individual point-of-view, but rather illustrates the revolution as collective effort.
Thus, Eisenstein connects film form with political ideology, rejecting the narrative of the individual hero so intrinsically connected to the value structures the revolution was reacting against. The hero here is the people.
The Battle of Algiers (1965)
Gillo Pontecorvo’s verite-realist and canonical exploration of guerrilla warfare should be (and often is) required viewing for anybody who takes either politics or cinema seriously. Taking place in French Algeria between 1954 and 1960 during Algeria’s War for Independence, the film has an immediacy in both its cinematic presentation and construction of recent history that rivals the work of Eisenstein.
As the film is a subversive political act in an of itself, it likely marks the first time that such a tale has been told from the guerrilla warriors’ point-of-view. This does not mean, of course, that that the film doesn’t engage in the problematics of such warfare, as in the iconic scene where a woman bombs a French diner and kills many “innocents” (or, probably, complicit masses from the perspective of the urban guerrilla warrior), including children.
In 2003, the Pentagon screened Battle of Algiers to illustrate the problems American soldiers would face in Iraq. In a truly astounding act of cognitive dissonance, the 2003 evidences the film’s enduring relevance by showing that the imperialist mind can still only manage to identify with the occupiers rather than the occupied.
Army of Shadows (1969)
Jean-Pierre Melville’s story of the French Resistance fighting against Nazi rule is no doubt the least controversial film on this list, but that doesn’t mean Melville paints a picture of resistance as heroic and triumphant. Instead, Melville’s incredibly bleak film shows the tension that occurs when an ideology of resistance is met with the futility of its realization when one messes with forces so comprehensively powerful and imposing.
Like Munich later on, Army of Shadows shows the process of resistance as achieving nothing from the perspective of the resistance fighter beyond its initial rush, and its protagonists quickly lose their sense of purpose once the killing of several individual men doesn’t automatically lead to systematic liberation. The result is dissolution and infighting, and Melville shows us the instability of resistance and its potential to implode from within rather than be squelched by the powers being resisted against.
Costa Gavras’ masterpiece is not a true story, but it sure wouldn’t mind if you thought so. It opens with the following text on screen: “Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.”
It’s an incredibly audacious way to start a film, and Z doesn’t slow down from there, painting a (perhaps wish-fulfillment) portrait of a darkly humorous disorganized overthrow of a right-wing military commander who strangely resembled the functionaries of Greece’s military government at the time. The film then details with incredible precision – that is both confusing and exhilarating – the lengths that those in power go to dominate the narrative, and the inevitable pushbacks against that power by a revolutionary culture created by oppression.
The film shows acts of revolt engaged in complex and overt forms, displaying the power of both the club and the pen in staging revolutionary acts. As is inevitable with such an intelligent narrative, however, the revolutionaries are not ultimately the victors and, as the film’s end credits tell us, everything from pop culture to modern philosophy is continually at risk.
Steven Spielberg’s episodic deliberation on the Israeli retaliation attacks after the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics is an exploration of terror as an industry: something utilized to control media perception and inspire fear rather than seek to claim victory in a war effort. While terror does indeed destroy lives, it doesn’t function as conventional warfare in its means or its ends.
The war between competing acts of terror are not for a victory of rule, but a dominance over the narrative in which events are recounted. Its industry is predicated upon the value seen in the unwinnable war, a military industrial complex in which there is no linear narrative and no end in sight, and the currency lies in the shifting definition of victim and victimizer. This lack of linearity or closure in modern warfare thus makes Munich’s redundant structure quite appropriate, for as the film’s protagonists realize, there will always be another target depending on the needs of those doing the dictation.
In the case of Munich, it is the warfare itself, not the government or ideological complex behind it, that is both instrument and institution of oppression, and the most subversive act of revolt is ultimately a refusal to engage in it.
The Lives of Others (2006)
Much of the films written about here are works that engage in a revolution of volume – volume that is mastered and controlled, but volume that is imposing nonetheless, for decibels are often necessary in order to be heard. The Lives of Others presents a counterpoint, a story of an act of revolution that must be quiet and calculated in order to find any resolution. The object of this film, uniquely, is the oppressed, while its subject is the oppressor, a surveillance monitor for the East German secret police.
As the “protagonist” is assigned to monitor a “cultural scene” in East Berlin, the film shows the necessity of art and storytelling as progressive and liberatory political tool in times of oppression. It also shows how the calm and unreactive oppressor is often the more dangerous one, as shown in the film’s opening interrogation scene. But it is the human factor here, especially the humanities, which defeats the enemy, and this is where the quietude and subtlety of The Lives of Others becomes significant and powerful.
Steven Soderbergh’s Rossellini-esque, epic-in-length-only revolutionary procedural was released at a time when a movie about a security guard who protects a mall dominated the box office several weeks in a row. Divided into two sections – the first about his victorious Cuban Revolution, the second looking at Che’s unsuccessful attempt at making lightning strike twice in Bolivia – the film examines first the poetics of the revolutionary, showing his words simultaneous to their applied action, while the second shows how the means of achieving such ideological goals are challenged.
The film gives us an initially disappointing but ultimately appropriate Che free of the charisma associated with his iconography, instead bestowing onto us a Che who is, as is anybody who is politically ambitious in senses both revolutionary or conventional, human to a fault. In the end, the West conquers Che, both in Bolivia and in the later commodification of his image, but Che stands as its corrective, attempting to exhibit the revolutionary icon free of his legacy, or the man before the t-shirt.
The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)
Like The Lives of Others, Baader Meinhof is an example of German cinema reflecting on recent political history, but the similarities stop there. Unlike the quietude of the 2006 Oscar winner, Uli Edel’s Baader Meinhof is a sprawling firecracker of a film that nearly drowns in its own magnetic kineticism, but doesn’t.
Chronicling the rise and fall of the West German militant group the Red Army Faction in the 1970s and 80s, the brilliance that the film unexpectedly achieves is its ability to make this organized revolt seem simultaneously alluring and justified while also rooted in narcissism and ideological incoherence. Their failure being both a tragedy and an inevitability, the film catalogues a cacophony of personalities within the RAF whose political perspectives both differ and overlap in theory and intent.
Baader Meinhof shows how it is possible to be politically enabled and informed, using one’s knowledge for appropriate application in terms of revolutionary idea(l)s, yet at the same time be tragically, chaotically misguided in articulation.
As something of a middle ground between Baader Meinhof and The Lives of Others, Steve McQueen’s haunting and astonishing portrayal of the IRA’s no-wash protest and Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in the Maze prison in 1981 is something of a negotiation between quietude and loudness, showing the use of both as revolutionary political tools.
Loudness is necessary when being abused by prison guards, quietude when passing along information and tools during prison visits or having theological discussions over the implications of a political action. But where Hunger is most striking is in its unrelenting portrayal of the human body as political device when stripped of all other means, showing with grotesque beauty how urine, feces, the naked self, and one’s capacity to consume food can calculate numerous acts of organized protest and revolt. To appall is exactly the point.