Monday, January 30, 2012

The Freethinker

By the time Peter Watkins made his massive, four-and-a-half hour 1994 video project The Freethinker, he was thoroughly outside of most conventional media structures. Watkins originally planned to make The Freethinker in 1979, as a companion piece to his 1974 masterwork Edvard Munch, but after working on the project for over two years, his funding was cancelled and filming never commenced. As a result, the film was only made many years later, as a collaborative experiment conducted with the assistance of a video production class made up of Swedish high schoolers. The students, all inexperienced with film and video before the class began, handled nearly every aspect of the production: set design, costumes, acting, camerawork, lighting, even at times writing and directing. This behind-the-scenes history informs the resulting film in very deep ways, feeding into the themes about mass media, art and social reform that Watkins' script explores.

The film is nominally a biography of the Swedish playwright and author August Strindberg (Anders Mattsson), who Watkins sees as a non-conformist thinker whose radical ideas about history, religion and class caused his work to be suppressed and critiqued by the conservative institutions of his time. Watkins explicitly compares this treatment with the marginalization of his own work. It's very apparent that this examination of Strindberg's life and the conditions of late 1800s Stockholm is meant to parallel Watkins' own life and art, and what he sees as the suppression of his ideas by a mass media that has little patience for this kind of intellectual engagement.

The film is thus about its own conditions of production as much as it is about Strindberg's life and work. This is obviously a work made on a shoestring budget, in amateurish conditions. It was shot on video rather than film, and the imagery is often rough as a result, the colors muted, a long way from the grainy beauty of Edvard Munch. The sets are sparse and minimal, often looking like a bare theater stage with a few props scattered around the empty space. The dramatic scenes, both those taken from Strindberg's life and those enacted from his plays, are stagey and claustrophobic, with the camera hovering close to the actors, utilizing simple compositions that place the emphasis on the raw, heartfelt performances. This parsimonious style belies the structural and ideological complexity of the film, which is, typically for Watkins, a clear-eyed and intelligent examination of the intersections between art, life and society. As in Edvard Munch, Watkins applies a non-chronological, associative editing style that juxtaposes scenes from Strindberg's life with excerpts from his plays as well as contextual material involving contemporary political and social affairs in the world around him.

At several points, Watkins diverts from Strindberg's story to focus on the testimonies of Swedish working class people. A man working on a construction site complains that there's housing only for the rich, while the women working beside him note that they don't earn as much as the men even though they do the same work. In another scene, a family waits for a ship that will take them away from the poverty and lack of opportunities they find in Sweden, to the United States, where they hope to do better. One young woman turns towards the camera, sobbing, her face red, already regretting the necessity of leaving behind her homeland and some of her family and friends.

Such interludes help to ground Strindberg's story within the larger societal context of poverty, inequality, and unfairness, conditions that much of his work polemically rails against. Watkins adopts, as he often does, a pseudo-documentary style that speculates on what it might have been like if documentary camera crews had been on hand to question Strindberg about his ideas, to document his life and his relationships, to interview young radicals and grizzled workers in the streets about their complaints and their hopes.

At one point, Strindberg returns from exile to Sweden, facing criminal charges of blasphemy, and finds the streets full of exuberant young people celebrating his return and the boldness of his anti-orthodox ideas about religion and government. Watkins stages the scene so that it looks like a modern protest, like any number of post-1960s student movements that have taken to the streets in a celebratory mood to declare resistance. The only difference is the way the protestors are dressed. To underscore the point, Watkins inserts a title that reads, "On the same day that we filmed these scenes in 1993, the Danish police in Copenhagen opened fire on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators." The film is continually drawing such connections between past and present, suggesting that the upheavals and social changes that have taken place in the intervening years have been largely cosmetic, doing little to truly disrupt an underlying dynamic of power and control that remains solidly in place.

In one of the most remarkable sequences, a group of radical Swedish writers discuss the problems of their time and try to come up with a plan to address gender and income inequalities, both in their writing, and as a broad social reform program. They debate methods and priorities, trying to decide how best to excite public interest in child labor, women's suffrage and the plight of the poor. During this scene, Watkins inserts shots that pull back from the table around which the young writers are gathered to show the cameras, microphones and film crew clustered around them in the room, revealing the cinematic context of this discussion. Soon Watkins goes even further by shattering the film's reality entirely, placing himself onscreen in a discussion with the actors playing the Swedish writers. The actors remain in costume, but now instead of debating conditions in late 1800s Stockholm, they're addressing the modern world, the problems of the mass media, the apathy and lack of belief in progress that prevents modern reformers from having a real voice with which to reach people.

This transition neatly displays the parallels and differences between the two times, suggesting that today's problems are extensions of those of the past, part of the same struggle for equality and justice that has gone on in so many forms over the decade without the need for the struggle ever going away. The issues of the present — class inequality and control over the media — are the same ones that the radicals of Strindberg's time were interested in. In Strindberg's time, the newspapers were battlegrounds for ideas about social reform, with certain papers being sponsored by the rich and the monarchy to attack the ideas of those papers on the left. Even history itself was a site of struggle, as Strindberg's The Swedish People, which for the first time focused on the lives of common people in different eras, represented a challenge to traditional histories which focused on successions of monarchies and governments, wars and treaties, big events and big men. Predictably, Strindberg's history received almost unanimous bad reviews, because the newspapers were largely controlled by precisely the entrenched conservative interests who were threatened by a book that refocused the eye of history so radically and dramatically.

Much of the second half of the film is concerned with the contradictions of Strindberg's life and personality, particularly his late-in-life repudiation of his earlier support for feminism, and his increasingly bitter and contemptuous feelings for his first wife, Siri (Lena Settervall). One of the central questions of The Freethinker is the relationship between life and art, including the paradox that Strindberg often expressed ideas of freedom and equality in his writing that he seldom put into practice in his angry, troubled personal life. Watkins' associative editing style creates linkages between childhood incidents — particularly the cruel punishments of Strindberg's stern, overbearing father — scenes from Strindberg's dramas, and incidents from his long relationship with Siri, with whom he stayed for 15 years. During the second half of the film, Watkins also explores Strindberg's private life through confrontational staged interviews with the playwright, in which a modern interviewer, a member of the crew, hounds Strindberg about his treatment of his wife and children, provoking the writer while Strindberg repeatedly protests that there's more to it, that no one understands.

Indeed, this is a project about understanding, but Watkins grasps that it is impossible to fully comprehend a subject so remote from our own time. The film's analysis of Strindberg can only be built on the writings he and others around him left behind, the incomplete records of their thoughts and feelings and the events that shaped them. Watkins stages a group discussion of Strindberg and Siri in which an audience of men and women of all ages talk about the relationship between the playwright and his wife, grappling with the questions about feminism, creativity, gender and psychology brought up by this story. As one older man says, as a postscript to his own personal take on Strindberg, "there must be many views of Strindberg," many ways of understanding him and his work, many perspectives on the ideas he explored and the kind of man he was during his life.

This is the essence of Watkins' multifaceted approach to his subject, dealing with the complexities of Strindberg's persona and art, and the many possible ways of thinking about his life. The filmed discussion sessions represent an attempt to contextualize Strindberg in a modern setting, and to suggest the kind of active engagement that Watkins desires for his films: the in-film discussion is a model for the kinds of discussions that the film as a whole might prompt in its viewers, so that the discourse and analysis started by the film might continue afterwards.

That spirit of discussion goes hand in hand with the intensely collaborative nature of the film. Watkins worked closely with the students from his class, and credits a few of them with writing and directing certain sequences of the film. The production process recalls the utopian collaborative spirit of 1960s radicalism, the student protests and communes, the attempts at creating art communally rather than individually. Those projects, like Godard's Dziga-Vertov Group, rarely lived up to the promise of true cooperation and communal creation that they espoused. But Watkins' work here is no mere leftist dream, he's actually putting into practice these ideals of collaboration, and the result is remarkable. The film employs a mix of amateur and professional actors, though most of the leads, notably Mattsson and Settervall, were not experienced actors; Mattsson was ordained as a priest after the film was finished. The performances are almost uniformly exceptional, especially since Watkins asks the actors to do more than simply play a role, but also to be present as themselves, commenting on the roles they're playing and the historical figures they represent. Mattsson and Settervall in particular often face the camera in intimate closeups, speaking about Strindberg and Siri in the third person, which makes it clear than in these sequences they are not "in character."

The Freethinker is continually working on multiple levels in this fashion, blending biography, literary criticism, sociopolitical commentary and media analysis. It's an amazing film that reflects Watkins' ideas about media hegemony and its connections to class imbalance, but most importantly its polemics are integrated into a larger whole that also wrestles with the nature of art and the relationship between the individual and his or her historical and social context. Even its cooperative production seeps into the film, providing an example of an alternative media model that skirts around the corporate mass media that currently dominates the distribution of information.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Watkins is the most important of all political filmmakers -- and filmmaker PERUID.

Next to him Godard's political films are the indulgences of a dilletante.

As to the "amateur" aspect of his work, rather it's a reconfiguration of professionalism. Watkins consistently strives to break down the walls betweteen fiction and reality, and at the same time explores the process fo filmmaking while making whatever film he's involved with. I haven't seen The Freethinker but from your description it's apparently a first draft of a style whose complete fruition can be found in La Commune (Paris 1871) -- a film of enormous import to the current "Occupy" movment as I note in this FaBlog post

Ed Howard said...

Agreed, David, he's an extraordinary political filmmaker, though I wouldn't dismiss Godard in comparison. What these 2 otherwise very different filmmakers have in common is that the personal and the political are complexly intertwined for both of them.

And yes, he's all about bringing the "process" to the surface in almost all his work, rejecting the smooth surfaces and seamless narratives of more conventional, commercial films. Here, his "amateur" cast and crew become another aspect of the ideas about media he's exploring in the film's text. The film, one imagines, winds up being very different from what it would've been if he'd been able to make it as planned in the 70s, because the production process is incorporated throughout.

I haven't seen La Commune yet, it's the last widely available Watkins I have to get to.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well I wouldn't dimiss Godard personally (Guy Debord does that quite well), but compared to Watkins he merely comments on politics in passing. Watkins strives to engage with it quite actively.

Get ahold of a copy of La Commune. It's widely available on DVD. Watch it carefully. There's npothign quite like it.

La Commune was shot, by the way, on the site of what had once been George Melies' film studio. When Melies film business went bust it was sold and converted into a factory. Watkins uses this abandoned factory to stand in for the streets of paris that The Commune took over.

I brought this up to marty when he was here for the L.A. premeir of Hugo He was most excited to hear abotu this as he's familair with the Watkins.

The DVD of La Comune also contains the documentary "The Universal Clock" which deals with both the shooting of the film and the situation all television broadcast faces worldwide when it was decided by the hgher ups that the only acceptable films will conform to either a One Hour (in actuality slightly less) or half-hour (again slightly less) standard. This is part of the reason why French televison rejected Rivette's Out 1 as it consisted of 90 minute chapters. It's alos why <i.La Commune</i. was shown once and ocne only on French TV in the wee smalls.

colinr0380 said...

Following on from Mr Ehrenstein's comments about length, I wonder if one of Watkins' last major unreleased works, The Journey, will ever see the light of day? I'd love to see that one, somehow.

Ed Howard said...

I'll definitely make La Commune a priority, David.

Colin, I hope The Journey comes out on DVD too, I haven't been able to find that anywhere.

Sam Juliano said...

"The dramatic scenes, both those taken from Strindberg's life and those enacted from his plays, are stagey and claustrophobic, with the camera hovering close to the actors, utilizing simple compositions that place the emphasis on the raw, heartfelt performances. This parsimonious style belies the structural and ideological complexity of the film, which is, typically for Watkins, a clear-eyed and intelligent examination of the intersections between art, life and society."

I have seen several several of Strindberg's plays performed on stage and would certain'y love to see this film for that reason alone. But with Peter Watkins at the helm, it makes it doubly essential. I have the highest regard for EDVARD MUNCH, and fully undestand why Watkins was forced to used a more minimalist approach here.

Apparently the second half is where teh director takes a closer look at the writer's life and work.

I do have a copy of LA COMMUNE, have seen it, and join those here who are praising it.

Spectacular review.

Ed Howard said...

Just found this old comment a little late, Sam, thanks. I'm in the opposite position, never having seen any of Strindberg's work, but certainly Watkins' film has made me very interested in him.