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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Aux armes citoyens! Formez vos bataillons!

Peter Watkins made his film, La Commune, which was a sort of recreation of the Paris Commune of 1870, with a cast of amateur actors. These were regular people, mostly unemployed, who had responded to his casting call, and they were supposed to not only play their parts in the film, but think about the action and, in a sense, re-animate the spirit of the Commune. The film shuttles back and forth between the reality of making the film, including interviews with the actors, and scenarios plucked from actual history.

At the end of the movie, as at the end of the Commune, the forces of order – the French army of the Third Republic – move into Paris, sweeping past barricades and massacring Communards, while the Communards massacre prisoners in turn. A contemporary reporter noted that the “last red flag that floated for the Commune was at a barricade at the Rue Fontaine au Roi, where, after a feeble defense it was surrendered at 11 a.m.” May 28, 1871. In a similar scene at the end of the film, the actors, who by this time seemed to be having difficulty distinguishing between their real life and their 1871 lives, are manning a barricade that is being attacked by troops, and they suddenly spontaneously start singing the Marseillais. It is an incredible moment, a moment of true terribilità – it is as though the scene in 1871 really did escape from the long chain of time to merge with the one being filmed.

Which brings me to the thread I’ve been threading re art and subversion. La Marseillaise, in 1871, had a certain dread power partly because it had been banned under Louis Napoleon. And yet, in 1870, when war was declared against Prussia – all those people streaming through the streets under Nana’s window, yelling “onto Berlin” – the song broke out spontaneously in crowds and in cafes. It was an indicator of the kind of patriotism that Napoleon III could ill afford – it pointed to a crack in the regime, which had always been dogged by an aura of illegitimacy.

So – if we are looking for the complex of art and subversion and censorship, this is one place to find it.

There’s a history of La Marseillaise by Michel Vovelle here. We are going to write more about this in our next post.

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