When I spoke to Peter at the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä for what would be the last time, he confided that here was something especially close to his heart. Perhaps for that very reason Socialism was no easy film to make and much postponed. He worked on it in virtual secrecy until its largely unexpected premiere at the Midnight Sun Film Festival this June. We can be grateful for the timely completion of the film even as we grieve the loss of the man. Author, critic, filmmaker and, above all, game-changer, Peter von Bagh is a unique and irreplaceable figure in modern cinema. His final film is a fitting memorial.
The ambivalent legacy of socialism seems doomed to elude the contemporary attention-span. Hence its progressive aspirations are all too easily dismissed or even demonised. Does cinema provide the best hope of salvaging the 20th Century’s greatest emancipatory project, by distilling through visual imagery the underrated marvel of the socialist imagination? Von Bagh at any rate put cinema to work to this end. The result is another in a long line of affecting documentaries. It is also his last: he died last Wednesday, 17th September, after a long illness.
Is there a more touching opening for a documentary film than this: the human vitality tinged with pathos of all those workers leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon, captured in Louis Lumière’s pioneering clip from 1895? Chances are you’ve seen it before. Heralded as the first ‘proper’ movie, it seems to stumble with beginner’s luck upon the true magic of cinema. To watch is to be transported to a singular moment so astonishingly long ago and, more than this, to feel you have even glimpsed the world beyond the factory gates, that strange foreign country we call ‘the past.’
We have somehow shared a taste of their working day and especially their palpable relief that it’s finally over. Our ‘Vulcan mind melt’ with these ghosts is at once melancholy, moving and even chilling. So begins another classic von-Bagh collage, simply and heroically titled Socialism. I was lucky enough to see the premiere in Sodankylä in the famous Big Tent and even, a little later, to discuss the film with the director himself.
If a picture’s worth a thousand words, imagine what we might say with a moving picture! And yet, generally speaking, the answer seems to be precious little – at least in the Hollywood lexicon. Its flickering monotony is rarely disturbed by cinema’s true potential: to reveal the unseen, the magical world otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Case in point: ‘the magical world of socialism.’ Hardly a big priority for Hollywood, of course, whatever Senator McCarthy may have imagined!
It gets worse. Being invisible to the naked eye, who believes in the existence or even possibility of a socialist world anyway? We’re bound to be blinded by the dazzling yet dreary pop-culture caricature of socialism. You know what they say: It’s the worn-out aspiration of yesteryear, guilty by association with the Soviet Communist project, tainted beyond redemption by the stamp of the gulag, and rightly condemned to the scrapheap of history. But in the land of the blind…etc. Film at its best can scratch beneath the surface of the most hard-baked cant, and Peter von Bagh’s documentary has done just that.
History – and Stalin – may well have buried socialism but they only buried it alive. The living body is there to be discovered if we dig deep enough beneath the tragic weight of all the compromises and betrayals, but who has the stomach for the task? It will take a proper lantern-bearer, a crusader for the ideals of a thoroughgoing human emancipation, not just for the chosen few but for everyone. Socialism lives and breathes with such lantern-bearers. One of them was Peter von Bagh and he packed the most powerful lantern of them all: the magic lantern we call film.
Von Bagh faced a problem in trying to do justice to his subject, however. The trouble with socialism is it’s too easy to dismiss and too hard to live up to. It will take an elaborate and painstaking historical argument to convince anyone that the oppression and genocide of the likes of Mao and Stalin were not the product of progressive human ideals but rather the way those ideals have been assiduously opposed and thwarted by the lust for power. In the age of the postmodern attention-span such an argument will scarcely see the light of day. Neither is it the raw material for an effective documentary film.
So von Bagh had to try something else. The result is a mesmerising rollercoaster-ride through a century or more of human history. His method is deceptively simple. A litany of clips is woven together by a sparing, almost lyrical commentary, and clothed in the atmosphere of unrequited yearning evoked by some of the most piquant music of the 20th Century – from Louis Armstrong to Mario Lanza. Where film is concerned less is often more, and this modest bricolage is the vehicle of something truly remarkable. Von Bagh managed to capture in moving pictures something of the essence of the socialist imagination and its unquenchable spirit. He made himself a proper movie.
Leaving behind these fin-de-siècle workers, the film digs even deeper. With the help of some early stills, the roots of industrial social resistance are traced back to 1871, and the famous uprising – and brutal suppression – of the Paris Commune. However brief or isolated, this experiment in revolutionary socialist government, and the debates which followed, were a major source of inspiration to the most influential revolutionary of his generation, none other than Karl Marx.
Documenting key events in the story of socialism is not von Bagh’s primary goal, however. He is more interested in the radical vision itself and the cinematic imagery that has arguably become its most powerful mode of expression. We are thus blessed with some of the most striking utopian – or dystopian – words and pictures of the 20th Century, where the acutely observed horrors of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis give way to the seductive rural paradise of Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth. The latter prompted von Bagh to one more extraordinary claim: ‘There is no more beautiful film in existence.’ Beautiful it may be but a panacea it is not. In the light of the human disaster of the Soviet collectivisation of agriculture, we are bound to view Dovchenko’s work with a jaundiced, even ironical eye.
How can we observe the sublime expression of the yearning for a better world without recalling how cruelly it was betrayed by the heirs of the revolution? And yet this is really the bitter-sweet charm of von Bagh’s work. It’s both a tribute to the progressive imagination and a lament for the failings of the progressive project. As he puts it himself, in cinema ‘the most imaginative and talented people imagine moments of socialism,’ but in political practice ‘you never know if what you’re really getting is maximum lies.’
Von Bagh wanted to confront the best and the worst of socialism because – like me – he belonged to a generation profoundly affected – and even inspired – by is aspirations and possibilities. The film feels like an enquiry into the irreducible value of those possibilities, in spite of all the catastrophes of history, an effort to salvage something vitally important to all of us from the wreckage of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm famously dubbed ‘The Age of Extremes.’
An honest filmmaker takes a point of view – as the medium demands. She doesn’t hide behind a spurious objectivity. Von Bagh promises to let us see what socialism has to offer. Only the miracle of film can deliver on that promise. We can of course criticise the limits of his point of view but this, in a way, is Socialism’s beauty. The best films work as an invitation to dialogue. They encourage you to take your cinematic experience out of the theatre and give it some serious thought, or at least hash it out with a few friends in a cafe or bar.
Socialism is a little Eurocentric, for example, but then the world has been transformed by an industrial revolution that first took shape on that continent. The neglect of more contemporary political and filmic developments is a more serious weakness. After all, it is some of these – from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street – that give this film its peculiar resonance for today’s audiences.
We could demand more analysis, of course, more discursive and perhaps more nuanced interrogation of the subject. The sophistication of this work lies in its visual representation, however. Its power and coherence would suffer from the clutter of a pedantic, didactic and inherently textual A-to-Z of the issues at hand. We won’t find a definition of socialism, for example. It may be noticed that it is similarly absent from this discussion.
Socialism creates a relatively open space for thinking, not about individual self-interest or that of a specific group such as (and especially) the elite, but about the good of all considered, axiomatically, in egalitarian terms. More rigorous and authoritative delineation of precisely what socialism ought to mean tends to eradicate this conceptual and discursive space. Indeed, such authoritative delineations have been the source of some of the worst crimes against socialism – and humanity. In so far as the open-ended ‘socialist space’ is preserved, however, it offers the prospect of a genuinely collective self-determination and one emphatically above and beyond the much heralded but ultimately divisive national variety. The key is not to kill off the living project of socialism with a spurious reification of your own pragmatic and probably self-serving agenda. Rather take a leaf out of Peter von Bagh’s book, and give socialism some breathing-space.
The contemporary right wing would have us all subscribe to the ‘poisoned chalice’ model of socialism. Von Bagh helps us resist this error, as fundamental as it is commonplace. We readily identify with the workers from Lyon from so long ago because in our different ways we share a place in the same industrial society. This society remains, for us as for them, the source of all our worst miseries but also all our greatest possibilities. Socialism has given us a timely reminder of the latter. Sadly, it also turns out to be von Bagh’s last word on the subject.
Like countless others before him, Peter von Bagh will not live to see the promise of socialism fulfilled. I like to think he was at peace with that. For he had grasped that the promise in itself is a thing of beauty, and managed to capture that beauty on film. This, at least, will never die.