'Socialism' ('Sosialismi'): Bologna Review

Il Cinema Ritrovato
A rivetting, raging but Euro-centric feast of films about 20th century revolutions and utopias.

Finnish film historian-director-festival-programmer charts the ebbs and flows of left-wing politics through a train of still and moving images running over pulled quotes and his own wry observations of history.

History, as Karl Marx wrote, repeats first as tragedy, then as farce. But what if it's to reveal itself again and again, ad nauseam, as unspooling images on screens? While some might proclaim desensitization, Finnish auteur Peter von Bagh pleads otherwise. With his latest offering, Socialism, he looked closely in the documentarian and re-enacted representations of working-class struggles and utopias, and manages to draw inspiration, invention and even flickers of hope in the "beautiful dreams" as evoked by revolutionary and progressive filmmakers down the years about how society can change for the better.

Divided into 18 chapters — all of them begun with quotes from pioneering left-wing thinkers and writers — von Bagh's 68-minute piece is an intelligent, introspective but admittedly Euro-centric collage of images of films which, in a grand statement in the fine-print of the final credits, are said to have "testified to a century of socialism". While Jean-Luc Godard (who named his previous film Film Socialism) has now mischievously reduced his cinema to just a society of images, von Bagh still presses on in looking for glimpses of just societies in those images - a honorable gesture in such trying times.

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With its compact and precise power - not to mention an appeal to usually progressively-minded festival audiences - Socialism's connection on the fest-circuit shouldn't be too much of a labor, after its well-received premieres at first the Midnight Sun Film Festival and then Bologna's rediscovered-restored film festival Il Cinema Ritrovato. It's certainly a feast for cinephiles, who could thank von Bagh (one of the best living experts of film history, and Il Cinema Ritrovato's artistic director) for putting them in touch with underrated gems worthy of more attention (Werner Hochbaum's Brother, for example, or Joris Ivens' Hemmingway-penned, Welles-voiced documentary Spanish Earth).

But what drives Socialism is von Bagh's ability to deconstruct a plethora of films from across geographical and genre barriers and note how these works — be it Alexander Dovzhenko's Soviet-style agit-prop or a fabulist drama like Vittorio di Sica's Miracle in Milan — could always offer the contemporary viewer a hint of how people lived/believed then and how we are to live/believe now. The voiceovers quoting writers and also von Bagh's own trademark wry commentaries add to the engaging nature of it all.

Socialism made its point from the very start, before it embarks on its near-chronological journey through 20th century film/social history. The film begins with the soundless, flickering image of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, the 46-second 1895 piece mostly triumphed as the first-ever motion picture in the world; its inclusion here lies beyond this very fact, as von Bagh also takes note how this premier attempt in filming the world inevitably focuses on work and workers.

Minutes later, more films which at first look rarely seem obviously political, but again with their political undertones pointed out: Charlie Chaplin's slapstick comedy of Work mines the anguish of the daily grind for bitter laughs, while sermons and self-sacrifices in Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Saint Matthew and Roberto Rosselini's Rome, Open City are represented in similar angles and movements like the missionaries and martyrs as shown in films about proletarian revolutions.

From there, the "century of socialism" — as documented on newsreel footage and of course big-screen films — is thus unfurled, after a prologue about "age-old dreams" in the form of the brutally crushed Paris Commune in 1844. Socialism then charts the ebbs and flows of the left-wing political ideal from 1917 (the October Revolution and what American journalist John Reed - whom Warren Beatty's Oscar-winning Reds is about - calls the "ten days that shook the world")  to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ideological sway over Eastern Europe and beyond in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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In between, the film stops to ponder at the many plot-points and digressions to this vast real-life historical epic. While Sergei Eisenstein's October provides the official Soviet take of the Bolshevik revolution, von Bagh also notes how social discontent was palpable in US cinema in the first few decades of the 20th century, as D.W. Griffith's A Corner in Wheat,Chaplin's The Immigrant, King Vidor's Our Daily Bread and John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath punctures the American dream. While Metropolis condemns inhumanity of capitalism, the "utopias of fear and hope" in propaganda films is also shown as sowing seeds of a meltdown ahead: over the people-of-will sequences of Dovzhenko's Ivan, a narrator notes how "real socialism is true - only in pictures."

As more of these state-endorsed propaganda appears, von Bagh's skepticism sets in. Heroic images belie the horrible consequences of the failures of collectivization of agriculture and five-year plans, or the purges and persecution played out in real life. Vsevolod Pudovkin's Storm over Asia was supposed to praise uprising on Central Asian steppes against feudalism; again, the official "state socialism" policies is another thing, with Stalin employing the region as either a dumping ground for "undesirable" groups (the Volga Germans, the Crimean Tatars). And then the working class (and the ideals they represent) ascends to heaven, as the Soviet Union's post-WWII clampdown of dissent in its satellite states (East Berlin 1953, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968) finally heralds the beginning of the "long goodbye" of Soviet-style state socialism.

It's amidst all this that von Bagh also dedicates to a short chapter on "Small Finnish stories" in this grand narrative: the failed attempt of a group of Finnish settlers to establish a socialist commune in a far-flung village in British Columbia, and the Tampere Lenin Museum, the first of its kind outside Russia and a shadow of what it was once. This probe into smaller details as a mirror of the bigger schema has always been von Bagh's forte, as shown in his documentaries on what society is like through ordinary lives at a certain time (The Year 1952), special personalities (the athlete Paavo Nurmi; the disgraced politician Otto Kuusinen) or cities (Helsinki, Forever; last year's Remembrance on his - and Nokia's - home city of Oulu).

Socialism is then von Bagh's most ambitious project, and fiery it is too in its personal recollections about the rise and fall of an utopia he holds dear to heart. But coping with the scope is another; while his recollections about socialism's birth and its first decades of success and trouble are detailed and illustrated well with films, its development in the latter half of the 20th century is not sufficiently played out.

The voiceover does mention the rise of Mao Zedong in China and anti-imperialist movements in Africa and Latin America; but apart from a few seconds' snippet of a Chinese propaganda film (which is not named) there are no examples from this, such as Tomas Gutierrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment, or Xie Jin's The Red Detachment of Women, or Ousmane Sembene's short Borro Sarret, or docu-chronicles of crushed revolutions from Chile (Patricio Guzman), complicated ones in Portugal (Antonio Campos) and distorted ones in Cambodia (Rithy Panh).

Maybe socialism or history still needs to be revisited, if not repeated, so as to reveal the complete picture; in current times when leftist politics is again proving themselves useful in societies confronting meltdown, maybe von Bagh's time to look at socialism - not as sadly passé or sad pastiche - will come very soon.

Venue: Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, Bologna

Production companies: Aamunkoi Productions

Director: Peter von Bagh

Screenwriter: Peter von Bagh

Director of photography: Arto Kaivando

Editor: Petteri Evitampi

Sales: Aamunkoi Productions

In Finnish

No rating; 68 minutes