Americans are notoriously dense when it comes to history. But if all history lessons were as compelling as English writer/director Peter Watkins’ docudrama about the Paris Commune, then maybe that wouldn’t be the case. Shot on digital video and in black and white for French television, La Commune (Paris 1871) is history depicted at white-heat level, with an engrossing sense of immediacy that keeps the viewer hooked even when the arcane details start to pile up. As events rush by faster than many of the participants can comprehend, the audience is caught up in the emotional high of spontaneous rebellion and the fearsome danger of utopian dreams.
Watkins’ film is six hours long and the DFT is, wisely, showing it in two three-hour installments on two consecutive Mondays. Shot entirely in an abandoned factory and using more than 200 mostly nonprofessional actors, the film’s depiction of the rise and fall of the Commune is chronological, with title cards appearing every few minutes to fill us in on necessary background information.
Part One tells the story of the creation of the Commune, a coalition of working-class poor and radical intellectuals who came to rule the city after an invasion by Prussia created a governmental vacuum. The “you are there” sense of being caught up in the middle of a genuine groundswell of revolutionary euphoria is increased by Watkins’ riskiest conceit, that of having television reporters present on the scene. This could have been a bit too fanciful, but then Watkins is a master at creating convincing counter-realities, having won a best documentary Oscar for his post-nuclear holocaust fantasy The War Game (1967). His interpolation into a historic event of two rival TV stations — one representing the Commune, the other the exiled government — allows for a running commentary on how the media interpret events according to their agendas.
As for Watkins’ agenda, he’s obviously sympathetic to the Communards (who wouldn’t be?) but also shows how revolutionary fervor can morph into a more-radical-than-thou self-cannibalization and free-ranging paranoia. Part One ends just as the Communards’ utopian dream is about to turn into a nightmare of wanton slaughter, and it’s a testament to Watkins’ achievement, to the intelligence and sheer originality that he’s brought to the project, that — even knowing the awful conclusion — one still wants to see it through.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Feb. 9. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].