This piece was originally published in French at http://revueperiode.net/guide-de-lecture-marxisme-et-cinema/.
“Of all the arts,” Vladimir Lenin reportedly claimed, “the most important for us is the cinema.” An invention of the modern bourgeoisie, cinema is the only art form whose genesis is contemporaneous with that of capitalism, and over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it has been, of all the arts, perhaps the one to have had the most complex, the most stimulating, and ultimately the most conceptually fruitful, relationship with Marxist theory.
Moreover, historical materialism’s assertion of the mutually determined relationship between theory and practice finds a concrete application in Marxist film culture, as the theorisation of the cinema within the broader field of Marxist aesthetics has always been closely tied to filmmaking activity. In many cases, indeed, the same individuals have doubled as both artistic practitioners and theoreticians of their own activity. In both theory and practice, therefore, Marxist cinema has been interventionist in nature. Following the edict of Marx’s eleventh Feuerbach thesis, its adherents have not contented themselves with a mere description of contemporary capitalist society, and the cinema’s role in its ideological reproduction. Rather, they have for the most part sought to use film – and film analysis – to transform the world in the direction of a classless society.
The question as to how to do this, however, has been the central point of debate amongst Marxists and other proponents of a radically anti-capitalist cinema, and this recurring debate has reproduced one of the oldest categories in classical aesthetics: the form/content distinction. Whereas some have placed a premium on communicating a political message to the widest possible audience through the use of conventional film form, others have followed a more experimental approach, emphasising the importance of developing new formal structures as part of a more comprehensive rupture with bourgeois cinema, thus following Brecht’s apophthegm that “Lenin did not just say different things from Bismarck, he also said them differently.” Both perspectives, it must be said, have potential drawbacks: the former may lead to the reconstitution of the politically regressive nature of mainstream cinema, while the latter runs a perennial risk of nullifying the potential for intelligible political discourse and alienating prospective viewers. In the best cases – the work of Eisenstein, Vertov, Godard and Marker, among others – a balance is struck between these two poles. Here form, as Hegel would have it, effectively becomes content.
Creating new cinema forms nonetheless presupposes an ideological analysis of the pre-existing norms of commercial cinema, whose supreme avatar is the globally dominant Hollywood film industry. As Cahiers du cinéma editors Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni argued, the cinema is, in comparison with other art forms, particularly determined by the dominant ideology of a given society, in two ways. Firstly, films were traditionally extremely expensive to produce, which meant that the kind of free artistic experimentation that has marked the history of music, literature and painting has been far more difficult to sustain in the cinema, which has generally required a mass audience to be financially viable. Secondly, as a medium preponderantly based on the photographic image, film has a tendency to reinforce the existing ideology by creating an unrivalled sensation in the viewer that the on-screen images reflect the reality they purport to represent. For many Marxists, this realism is one of the most powerful tools for creating revolutionary cinema, but another strand of Marxist film theory sees cinema as resting on a fundamental illusion, based more on the visual codes developed by the modern bourgeoisie (stemming from Renaissance painting) than on an innate relationship with perceptual reality.
The history of historical materialism’s decades-long encounter with cinema has been marked by numerous debates of this kind. Indeed, it is perhaps appropriate, in the year 2017, to speak of a century of Marxist cinema. Already in 1896, the Russian novelist and socialist Maxim Gorky attended his first film screening, and famously likened his experience to entering the “kingdom of shadows.” For the first twenty years of the cinema’s history, however, its relationship with Marxism was tenuous and ill-defined. It was only in the late 1910s that the links between the two became concretised, for two main reasons: the cinema itself was maturing as an art form, with the advent of the feature-length format and the advances made in film style by figures such as D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance. At the same time, the October revolution in Russia saw the rise of the world’s first proletarian state. Under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, a nation’s film industry was placed in the hands of an avowedly Marxist political movement, and the decade after the conclusion of the Russian Civil War in 1921 saw an unprecedented flowering in both artistic experimentation and attempts at theoretically grappling with the medium of cinema in the USSR, with figures such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin playing a fundamental role in this endeavour.
The hundred years since the Russian revolution have seen an uninterrupted intertwining of Marxist praxis and cinema, one that continues to the present day, even if the intensity of this relationship has ebbed and flowed, with periods of revolutionary optimism (the 1920s, the 1960s) often followed by waves of political repression and reaction. From our present standpoint, nine distinct configurations of Marxist cinema, delineated both chronologically and geographically, can be traced out.
1. Soviet Cinema
As the Lenin quote that opens this reading guide suggests, the Bolsheviks immediately gave prominence to the cinema, initially as a tool for education and propaganda, and later as a means of artistic expression. During the Civil War, however, efforts to create a Soviet film industry were hampered by the severe shortage of materials, including film stock. Filmmakers during this period such as Lev Kuleshov even resorted to making “films” without celluloid, blocking out scenes with actors and cameras despite being incapable of recording their efforts. Once film stock became available, Kuleshov’s famous experiments with the actor Ivan Mozhukin pioneered a film aesthetic based on montage, emphasising the connections between shots more than the content of the shots themselves. At the same time, Vertov and his fellow “kinoks” were developing a radical approach to newsreel documentary (dubbed “Kino-Pravda”), which culminated in experimental masterpieces later in the 1920s such as A Sixth Part of the World (1926) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929). But the real breakthrough moment for Soviet cinema came when Eisenstein turned from theatre to filmmaking, debuting with Strike (1924), and finding global success with Battleship Potemkin (1925). For the tenth anniversary of the revolution, Eisenstein was even hired to film the events of 1917, but despite the massive resources ploughed into the project, October (1927) was marred by the political turmoil of the period. In an omen of the political repression of the 1930s, initial footage from the film showing Trotsky’s role in the seizure of power had to be removed after he was sidelined by the pro-Stalin wing of the party.
More than any other figure in the history of the cinema, Eisenstein combined the roles of filmmaker and film theorist. In articles which have been collected in English in the anthologies Film Form and The Film Sense, he developed a concept of cinema that highlighted the analogies between montage and a dialectical conception of the universe, and relating the medium to other art forms such as polyphonic music, Renaissance painting and even Japanese calligraphy. Eisenstein promoted a form of “intellectual montage” capable of producing abstract reasoning on a par with written language, as sequences in October and The General Line (1929) attested, but his ambitions often outstripped practical reality, and his attempts to systematically apply his ideas on montage in a planned adaptation of Marx’s Capital ended in dispiriting failure.
At the same time, Eisenstein embarked on vociferous polemics with colleagues such as Pudovkin – who, in films such as Mother (1926) and Storm Over Asia (1928), espoused a more traditional approach to film editing – and Vertov. Although he shared many of Eisenstein’s ideas on montage, Vertov argued for a more sweeping break with fictional cinema, and advocated a “Leninist film ratio” that foregrounded documentary and “scientific” works. Other filmmakers who both charted the USSR’s revolutionary history and made pioneering advances in the visual language of the cinema included Aleksandr Dovzhenko (Arsenal , Earth ), Grigori Kozintsev and Ilya Trauberg (The New Babylon, 1927), Boris Barnet (Outskirts, 1933) and Aleksandr Medvekin (Happiness, 1934). By the mid-1930s, however, the avant-garde strain of Soviet cinema was coming under attack on two fronts. On the industrial level, the advent of sound film USSR, hindered a more experimental, montage-based aesthetic, and instead fostered more conventionally dramatic works. Politically, Stalin’s consolidation of power saw “socialist realism” become the official artistic doctrine, with heroic films such as Chapaev (1934) finding favour, and the silent-era pioneers were roundly denounced for “formalism”. Scrutiny of their newer works was strict – Stalin himself was known to “suggest” changes to scripts. Although none of the major filmmakers of the early Soviet era perished during the purges, the threat of reprisals was an ever-present one, and figures such as Eisenstein, Vertov and Dovzhenko struggled to pursue their careers. After Stalin’s death, the Soviet film industry went through waves of liberalisation and renewed repression, but for the most part the directors who came to prominence in the post-war era – including Andrei Tarkovsky, Aleksei German and Sergei Parajanov – did not adhere to the revolutionary political outlook of their predecessors.
Jacques Aumont, Montage Eisenstein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense, ed. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1947).
–––, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, ed. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1949).
Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960).
Vsevolod Pudovkin, Film Technique, ed. Ivor Montagu (London: George Newnes, 1929).
Yuri Tsivian, Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (Pordenone: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2004).
Dziga Vertov, Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
Outskirts, dir. Boris Barnet, 1933.
Arsenal, dir. Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1929.
Earth, dir. Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930.
Strike, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1924.
Battleship Potemkin, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925.
October, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1927.
The General Line, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1929.
Alexander Nevsky, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1940.
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II, dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1944-1958.
The New Babylon, dir. Grigori Kozintsev and Ilya Trauberg, 1929.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, dir. Lev Kuleshov, 1924.
Happiness, dir. Aleksandr Medvedkin, 1934.
Mother, dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1925.
Storm Over Asia, dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1929.
Chapaev, dir. Georgi Vasilyev and Sergei Vasilyev, 1934.
A Sixth Part of the World, dir. Dziga Vertov, 1926.
Man with a Movie Camera, dir. Dziga Vertov, 1929.
Enthusiasm, dir. Dziga Vertov, 1931.
2. Weimar Cinema and German Critical Theory
Prior to World War II, the Soviet Union was the only nation ruled by a Marxist political party, but Germany had a strong workers’ movement until Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 put an end to all open political opposition. This movement was not only numerically strong – both the Social-Democratic Party and the Comintern-aligned Communist Party had hundreds of thousands of members, and revolutionary upsurges repeatedly threatened to overthrow the state apparatus between 1919 and 1923 – it was also culturally hegemonic within the German proletariat, and built a highly-developed counter-society with its own newspapers, sports clubs, educational activities and theatrical societies. In part due to the resources required for film production, cinema was a relatively under-developed aspect of this cultural tendency. It was only in the late 1920s, with the advent of Prometheus Film under the auspices of KPD member Willi Münzenberg, that Marxist-oriented films intending to highlight the social reality of the working poor were produced in Germany, with notable works in this vein including Piel Jutzi’s Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness (1929), Leo Mittler’s Beyond the Street (1929) and Slatan Dudow and Bertolt Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World?. Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1931) owed a major formal debt to Vertov, but lacked the political analysis of its Soviet counterpart, while G.W. Pabst adapted Brecht’s landmark play The Three-Penny Opera to the screen (1931), but the resulting film so displeased the dramatist he took the production company to court.
Beyond these films, the work of Fritz Lang was notable for its broadly anti-fascist perspective, even if the filmmaker shied away from more overt forms of political engagement. While his adaptation of Die Nibelungen (1924) became an integral part of Nazi mythology, and Metropolis (1927) was overtly opposed to a revolutionary solution to oppressive political circumstances, M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) attest to the paranoiac mindset and manipulative demagoguery evident in Germany as it slid into Nazism. Exiled in Hollywood after rebuffing an offer from Goebbels to oversee the Nazi-controlled German film industry, Lang continued to pursue an anti-fascist political agenda with works such as Man Hunt (1941) and Ministry of Fear (1944). In 1943, he even collaborated with Brecht for the World War II propaganda film Hangmen Also Die! (1943), which focused on the Czech resistance movement.
It is on the level of theory, however, that the links were strongest between Marxism and cinema in Germany, both before and after World War II. In particular, figures associated with the Frankfurt School, with their blend of Marx and Weber, were tangled in intense debates about the ideological role of the cinema in modern-day capitalism. On a sociological level, Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler analysed films of the Weimar era such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1921) and The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg 1930, adapted from Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat) as symptomatic of a nation that was psychologically prone to Nazi domination. More theoretical terrain was covered by Walter Benjamin, who was enamoured with Chaplin films such as Modern Times (1935), and pointed, in texts such as “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction”, to an innately modernising, emancipatory aspect to the medium of film. Theodor Adorno, by contrast, was far more dubious about the revolutionary merits of the cinema, part of his more general scepticism towards “low” culture, and likened the laughter of the audience at Chaplin films to “bourgeois sadism”. Dialectics of Enlightenment (co-written with Max Horkheimer) savaged the “culture industry” that was epitomised by the Hollywood “dream factory”, while in Minima Moralia Adorno bluntly stated: “Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.” Under the influence of his student Alexander Kluge – who would forge a distinguished œuvre of essayistic films and television programmes – Adorno notably became more appreciative of the cinema in the 1960s, and spoke fondly of Antonioni and the New German Cinema in “Transparencies on Film”, but even his last, unfinished magnum opus Aesthetic Theory studiously avoids any detailed discussion of film as an art form.
The only figure to seriously rival Adorno as the foremost theorist of Marxist aesthetics in the twentieth century, the Hungarian György Lukács, is not widely known for his views on cinema, but this belies his prolonged interest in the medium, from the early text “Thoughts Towards an Aesthetic for the Cinema” to the discussion of film in his Specificity of the Aesthetic. While Lukács was known for his aversion to naturalism in literature, a recent study by Ian Aitken argues that his film theory nuances this position by offering a theory and practice of film that can best be described as naturalist. Lukács’ Budapest friend Belà Balazs – a film critic and screenwriter in his own right – developed a similar outlook in The Visible Man and the posthumously published Theory of Film, although Balazs’ relationship with Marxism was always far looser than that of Lukács.
Theodor Adorno, “Transparencies on Film”, in New German Critique no. 24-25 (1981), pp. 199-205.
Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 2000).
Theodor Adorno et al., Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Fredric Jameson (London: New Left Books, 1977).
Ian Aitken, Lukácsian Film Theory and Cinema: A Study of Georg Lukács’ Writing on Film 1913-1971 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
Belà Balazs, Visible Man and The Spirit of Film (New York: Beghahn, 2010).
–––, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art (London: Dobson, 1952).
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction”
Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Film and Radio, ed. Marc Silberman (London: Methuen, 2000).
Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
–––, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960).
György Lukács, “Thoughts On an Aesthetic for the Cinema”, in Richard W. McCormick and Alison Guenther-Pal, eds., German Essays on Film (London: Continuum, 2004).
–––, Die Eigenart des Ästhetischen (Neuwied an Rhein: Luchterhand, 1962) [untranslated].
Modern Times, dir. Charles Chaplin, 1935.
Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World?, dir. Slatan Dudow, 1932.
Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness, dir. Piel Jutzi, 1929.
Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang, 1927.
M, dir. Fritz Lang, 1931.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, dir. Fritz Lang, 1933.
Man Hunt, dir. Fritz Lang, 1941.
Hangmen Also Die!, dir. Fritz Lang, 1943.
Ministry of Fear, dir. Fritz Lang, 1944.
Beyond the Street, dir. Leo Mittler, 1929.
Nosferatu, dir. F.W. Murnau, 1921.
Berlin: Symphony of a City, dir. Walter Ruttman, 1931.
The Blue Angel, dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1930.
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene, 1920.
- Italian Neo-Realism
Prior to the liberation of 1944, Italy’s cinema was entirely controlled by the fascist state, with Mussolini’s son Vittorio placed in charge of the Cinécitta studios. The younger Mussolini, who prided himself on his knowledge of cinema, oversaw a relatively tolerant regime, and even allowed the production of Luchino Visconti’s James M. Cain adaptation Ossessione in 1943. This film is now seen as the first work of the neorealist movement, which dominated Italian cinema in the post-war period, and contrasted itself with the prevailing Hollywood aesthetic through its use of on-location shooting, non-professional actors, a focus on social issues and a visual style based on long-takes and deep-focus cinematography. Visconti himself, a Marxist aristocrat influenced by the French filmmaker Jean Renoir (who had made pro-Popular Front films in the 1930s such as La Marseillaise  and La Vie est à nous ) returned with The Earth Trembles (1949), an epic work focusing on the life of Sicilian fishermen contending with crippling economic hardship. At the same time, Visconti’s screenwriter and Italian Communist Party member Giuseppe De Santis released Bitter Rice (1949), with its focus on the back-breaking labour of rice farmers in the Po Valley. These films were overshadowed by more high-profile works of national rebirth, the ideological composition of whose production teams mirrored the brief period of national unity between communists, socialists and Christian-democrats in the immediate post-war period. Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945), with its depiction of a communist partisan and Catholic priest joining forces to fight Nazi occupation, was followed by the more narratively radical Paisà (1945), an episodic portrait of the national resistance movement. Marxist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini was the most articulate spokesman for the aesthetic and political goals of neorealism, declaring that “there must be no gap between life and what is on the screen” and that the ideal neorealist work would film a man on a street corner for 90 minutes, to whom nothing happens. He collaborated with director Vittorio de Sica on Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952), films which focused on the poverty and economic precarity of the Italian population in the aftermath of the war. Writing for the magazine Cinema, one of the staunchest theoretical advocates neorealism was the Lukàcs-inspired critic Guido Aristarco, whose ideas would have a lasting influence on Italian film culture.
The effects of the 1950s boom, however, blunted the cultural impact of the neorealist movement, and as the decade wore on Italian cinema shifted its focus to address the alienated existence of the booming middle classes, as seen in films such as La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) and L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960). Visconti, for his part, adopted a more historical approach, depicting the obsolescence of the old ruling aristocracy in lavish works such as Senso (1954), The Leopard (1963) and Death in Venice (1971). Meanwhile, the country’s foremost Marxist intellectual, Pier Paolo Pasolini, turned to filmmaking, and made a dozen feature films and numerous shorts and documentaries before his murder in 1975. After the portrayals of the Roman lumpenproletariat in Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), and the political farce of Uccellacci e uccellini (1966), Pasolini turned to more folkloric subject matter later in life, re-working ancient narratives such as Oedipus Rex (1967), Medea (1969) and The Decameron (1971), before his final film Salò (1975) transposed the brutality of Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom to the dying days of fascist rule in Italy. In addition to poetry and essayistic writings, Pasolini also developed a theory of the cinema under the influence of semiology, contrasting the “cinema of prose” of the classical era with the “cinema of poetry” of post-war modernism in texts that were collected in the book Heretical Empiricism (1972). Inspired by Antonio Gramsci, to whom he dedicated the poem “The Ashes of Gramsci”, Pasolini’s interventions in the political arena were notably provocative: excluded from the PCI in the late 1940s due to his open homosexuality, he also antagonised the student movement in 1968, when he publicly sided with the “proletarian” police against the protesting bourgeois youth. Distancing himself from the historical teleology of orthodox Marxism, Pasolini’s opposition to capitalist modernity led to a fascination for pre-industrial cultures, such as those of the Middle East and Africa, a pre-occupation that became increasingly visible in his later films.
Generationally and politically closer to the new left, and taking their inspiration more from Godard than their elders in the Italian cinema, younger filmmakers such as Bernardo Bertolucci (Before the Revolution, 1964), Marco Bellocchio (China is Near, 1967), Carmelo Bene (Capricci, 1969) and the Taviani brothers (Under the Sign of the Scorpion, 1970) tapped into the political frustrations of 1960s Italian youth, and continued to work in this vein throughout the 1970s. By the 1980s, however, the collapse of the Italian film industry, rise of Berlusconi’s private television networks, and the dissolution of the PCI dealt a blow to left-wing cinema in Italy, leaving behind only the retro comedy of films such as April (Nanni Moretti, 1998).
Guido Aristarco, Miti et realtà nel cinema italiano (Milan: Saggiatore, 1961) [untranslated].
–––, Marx, le cinéma et la critique de film (Paris: Minard, 1972) [untranslated].
Peter Brunette, Roberto Rossellini (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Luchino Visconti (London: BFI, 2008).
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).
–––, The Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini: A Bilingual Edition, ed. Stephen Sartarelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
Roberto Rossellini, My Method, ed. Adrian Apra (New York: Marsilio, 1992).
Cesare Zavattini, “Some Ideas on the Cinema”, in Movies, ed. Gilbert Adair (London: Penguin, 1999), pp. 235-245.
–––, Sequences from a Cinematic Life (New York: Prentice Hall, 1970).
L’Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960.
China is Near, dir. Marco Bellocchio, 1967.
Capricci, dir. Carmelo Bene, 1969.
Before the Revolution, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1964.
Bitter Rice, dir. Giuseppe de Santis, 1949.
Bicycle Thieves, dir. Vittorio de Sica, 1948.
Umberto D, dir. Vittorio de Sica, 1952.
La Dolce Vita, dir. Federico Fellini, 1960.
April, dir. Nanni Moretti, 1998.
Accattone, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961.
Mamma Roma, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962.
Uccellacci e uccellini, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1966.
Oedipus Rex, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967.
Medea, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969.
The Decameron, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1971.
Salò, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975.
La Marseillaise, dir. Jean Renoir, 1938.
La Vie est à nous, dir. Jean Renoir, 1936.
Rome, Open City, dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1944.
Paisà, dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1945.
Under the Sign of Scorpion, dir. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 1970.
Ossessione, dir. Luchino Visconti, 1943.
The Earth Trembles, dir. Luchino Visconti, 1948.
Senso, dir. Luchino Visconti, 1954.
The Leopard, dir. Luchino Visconti, 1963.
Death in Venice, dir. Luchino Visconti, 1971.
3. Post-War French Cinema
French cinema did not quite go through the same monumental process of renewal as its Italian counterpart after World War II – the country’s much briefer period of fascist ascendancy had left much of its pre-existing film culture intact. After the war, the main battle in the film world revolved around the existence of quotas on the importation of American films, with communists and Gaullists united in their desire to prevent the “burgundy wine” of French cinema from being supplanted by the “Coca-Cola” of Hollywood film. Old-guard PCF-aligned figures such as Louis Daquin and Léon Moussinac focused on these industrial battles, and thus had a blind spot towards the politically multifaceted nature of Hollywood filmmaking at a time when the “Hollywood Ten” trials led to the blacklisting of Edward Dmytryk, Dalton Trumbo and many others. On a theoretical level, the major Marxist figure during this period was Georges Sadoul, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the cinema allowed him to undertake a comprehensive historical overview of film (which ended up stretching to six volumes), and who engaged in numerous polemics with his contemporary André Bazin, a left-liberal Christian whose notion of the cinema’s “ontological realism” was criticised for its philosophical idealism, but was later given a productive materialist application by his followers.
Despite its cultural hegemony among French intellectual milieux during the post-war period, the pro-Communist left was mostly prevented from exercising any influence on French commercial cinema. Left-wing filmmakers did find a way to intervene in more marginal genres such as short films and documentaries. Chris Marker and Alain Resnais worked together on the essayistic short films Statues Also Die (1953) and Night and Fog (1955), and Marker in particular would go on to produce a highly politicised body of work that included Letter from Siberia (1957), La Jetée (1962) and Le Joli Mai (1963). Despite strict censorship by the French state on films that dealt with the subject of France’s colonial possessions, the anti-colonialist tendency of Statues Also Die was also present in the work of René Vautier (Afrique 50  and Le Glas ) and, in a more ethnographic vein, Jean Rouch (Les Maîtres fous  and Me, a Black ).
These filmmakers were all, to varying degrees, influenced by the notion of “engaged art” promulgated by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in texts such as What is Literature?, a model of political aesthetics that was dominant in the 1950s, and which prioritised active interventions into the political issues of the day. Although he named his journal Les Temps modernes after the Chaplin film, Sartre shared the PCF’s antipathy towards American cinema, and notoriously rejected Citizen Kane as being “based on a misconception on what cinema is all about.” The philosopher’s dealings with the cinema were not restricted to criticism. He furnished the screenplays for two films (in addition to the numerous film and TV adaptations of his literary works undertaken by others): Les jeux sont faits (Jean Delannoy, 1947) and Im Räderwerk (Erwin Piscator, 1956).
By the 1960s, however, Sartre’s influence had waned, with the Marxist-inflected semiology of Roland Barthes assuming greater importance. In Mythologies (1957), Barthes analysed commercial cinema as one of many consumer products designed to inculcate covert ideological messages in an unsuspecting population. His detailed scrutiny of a cover of the magazine Paris-Match, depicting a young African soldier saluting the French flag, demonstrated the manner in which the communicative function of images can take place just as much on the level of the signifier (how a given content is shown) as on the level of the signified (what is shown). Later, Barthes became more receptive to the radical formal possibilities of the cinema (as the pieces collected in Image-Music-Text attest), and he had an abiding appreciation for the work of Eisenstein, but by the end of his life he had reverted to a more suspicious stance, stating in his touching final work Camera Lucida, “I love photography in opposition to the cinema.”
The dawn of the 1960s also saw the rise of the nouvelle vague, a generation of young filmmakers who overturned the pre-existing structures of the French film industry with debut films, such as The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1958), Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) and Paris Belongs to Us (Jacques Rivette, 1962), that were both socially daring in their content and irrepressibly inventive in their form, symptomatically pointing the way forward for the political explosion to come. The core of the nouvelle vague, associated with Cahiers du cinéma (which was far more receptive to American cinema than its communist counterparts), originally ranged from apolitical dandyism to right-wing conservatism. But as French society radicalised over the course of the 1960s, the likes of Rivette and Godard gravitated towards the far left.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hi & Wang, 1972).
–––, Image-Music-Text, ed. Stephen Heath (New York: Hi & Wang, 1977).
–––, Camera Lucida (New York: Hi & Wang, 1981).
André Bazin, What is Cinema?, ed. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose, 2009).
Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, ed. Jean Narboni (New York: Da Capo, 1972).
Michel Marie, The French New Wave (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003).
Jacques Rivette, “On Abjection,” http://www.dvdbeaver.com/rivette/ok/abjection.html
Georges Sadoul, Histoire du cinéma mondial (Paris: Flammarion, 1990) [untranslated].
Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).
Les jeux sont faits, dir. Jean Delannory, 1947.
Breathless, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1960.
Les Carabiniers, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1963.
Letter from Siberia, dir. Chris Marker, 1957.
La Jetée, dir. Chris Marker, 1962.
Le Joli Mai, dir. Chris Marker, 1963.
Statues Also Die!, dir. Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, 1953.
Im Räderwerk, dir. Erwin Piscator, 1956.
Night and Fog, dir. Alain Resnais, 1954.
The War is Over, dir. Alain Resnais, 1965.
Paris Belongs to Us, dir. Jacques Rivette, 1962.
Les Maîtres fous, dir. Jean Rouch, 1954.
Me, a Black, dir. Jean Rouch, 1960.
The 400 Blows, dir. François Truffaut
Afrique 50, dir. René Vautier, 1950
Le Glas, René Vautier, 1964
Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1940.
4. The Cinema of May ‘68
The revolt of May 1968, when a student occupation of Parisian campuses snowballed into a general strike that briefly threatened to topple de Gaulle’s rule, is typically represented as a sudden, unforeseen uprising. For those involved in the cinema, however, the warning signs for the événements were abundantly evident. As early as 1958, the recalcitrant children in Truffaut’s 400 Blows were upbraided by their schoolteacher: “Our poor France will be in a sorry state in ten years!” By 1967, Godard’s work was showing tangible signs of the political radicalisation that would sweep the country the following year, with La Chinoise focusing on a cell of Maoist students in Paris, and Weekend declaring “the end of cinema” – a promised abandonment of commercial filmmaking that Godard would uphold over the ensuing decade.
Battles around censorship, such as the banning of Rivette’s adaptation of Diderot’s The Nun (1965), alienated the film world from the Gaullist state, despite the fact that André Malraux, once a hero of the left for works such as L’Espoir (1938), had taken up a position as minister of culture. When Malraux assented to the sacking of Cinémathèque head Henri Langlois in February 1968, the injustice of the decision brought the film industry onto the streets to demand his return, in violent protests that were a significant precursor to the unrest later in the year. In May itself the industry went on strike, and gathered together for the “États généraux du cinéma” in order to plan a radical overhaul of the nation’s film culture. Despite utopian proposals to do away with admission fees for screenings and have full state funding of film production, the assembly had little lasting effect on industrial practices, as order was re-established in June.
The five years after 1968, however, saw a flowering of militant filmmaking and Marxist film theory whose only historical rival for its breadth and radicalism was the Soviet cinema of the 1920s (which was also a direct inspiration for the cinematic soixante-huitards). Attempts at Marxist filmmaking took a variety of forms, which both mirrored and incited the critical debates taking place at the time. Derided in some corners as “fictions of the left” (fictions de gauche), Costa-Gavras (Z  and The Confession ) and Marin Karmitz (Camarades  Coup pour coup ) sought to bring political material to the widest possible audience, but their work suffered from a recourse to politically dubious narrative and genre techniques (the thriller elements of Z, for instance). Others rejected the use of fiction entirely, preferring to dedicate themselves to militant documentary work in the direct service of far-left movements. Although mostly the preserve of anonymous collectives rather than recognised auteurs, some groups had involvement from established filmmakers. Marker and Godard both contributed to the Ciné-tracts during May (three-minute silent shorts that were distributed by the Maspero bookshop), while Marker also participated in the SLON collective and the Groupe Medvedkine, leading to films such as À bientôt, j’espère (1968) and Classe de lutte (1969).
In cinematic terms, the output of the militant filmmaking groups, which proliferated in the years after 1968, varied greatly. At their worst they married political tendentiousness with low technical quality, but in some cases the use of cinéma-vérité approaches yielded extraordinary works, as was the case with Oser lutter, oser vaincre (a film-pamphlet on the strike at the Renault factory in Flins) and La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (a 10-minute, single-take film showing an emotional factory worker refusing to return to the Wonder battery manufacturing plant). Taken together, such films afford unparalleled insight into the heightened political situation of France in the wake of the May uprising.
The third, and perhaps most interesting, strain of Marxist cinema sought to use the medium’s formal mechanisms to interrogate the ideological functioning of the cinema itself. Here the work of Godard was paramount: after rejecting commercial cinema, he formed the Groupe Dziga Vertov with the young Maoist activist Jean-Pierre Gorin, and in a frenetic bout of activity made films such as British Sounds, Wind from the East, Pravda and Luttes en Italie (all 1969). After an attempt to dedicate a propaganda film to the Palestinian independence movement foundered, Godard and Gorin returned to cinema screens with Tout va bien (1972), which centred on a Maoist-led sequestration of a factory boss. Although it is one of the best applications of Brechtian techniques in the cinema, the film was a commercial failure, and for Godard it was the end of the road for his engagement in Marxism-Leninism. For a more affective response to the May ’68 movement, meanwhile, we can turn to Rivette (L’Amour fou, 1968), or Philippe Garrel. Only twenty at the time of the événements, films by Garrel such as Le Révélateur (1968) and the recently resurfaced Actua 1 (1968) ably capture the spirit of youth in revolt – in all its dizzying optimism and debilitating paranoia – and the filmmaker returned to the same historical juncture in his more recent Regular Lovers (2005).
As in the 1920s, Marxist film practice was accompanied by attempts to theorise the cinema from a historical materialist standpoint, and the debates that arose in the years after 1968 were similarly contentious. After a dalliance with right-wing politics in the early 1960s, Cahiers du cinéma declared itself to be a Marxist-Leninist journal in 1969, with Comolli and Narboni’s editorial “Cinema/ideology/criticism” heralding the transformation by trumpeting that “every film is political”. Taking inspiration from Althusser, Lacan and Derrida, the Cahiers editors developed an elaborate system of classification for films, categorising them on the basis of how successfully they “deconstructed” the dominant “systems of representation”. Alongside defending the work of Godard, Garrel and Marguerite Duras, Cahiers analysed classical films (such as Morocco  by von Sternberg and Young Mr. Lincoln  by John Ford), gave a Marxist overview of the history of film technology (“Technique and Ideology” by Comolli) and pioneered a psychoanalytic reading of the film apparatus (“La suture” by Jean-Pierre Oudart, “La réalité de la dénotation” by Pascal Bonitzer). In this broad project, Cahiers was joined by the newer journal Cinéthique, whose editors Gérard Leblanc and Jean-Paul Fargier more forcefully distanced themselves from classical cinema, and came close to arguing that the cinema itself was innately “idealist” in nature. The two film journals were heavily influenced by Tel Quel, a Marxist literary review led by Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva and Jean-Louis Baudry, and they both engaged in polemics with Positif, a long-time rival of Cahiers which identified with the surrealist left, and La Nouvelle Critique, a cultural journal published by the PCF. At the centre of many of these debates was the polarising work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, who made an austere use of Brechtian aesthetics in films such as Othon (1969) and History Lessons (1972).
Finally, the work of Guy Debord and his fellow Situationists represented an offshoot of Marxism that was both theoretically advanced (as can be seen in Debord’s landmark text Society of the Spectacle), and radically opposed to virtually all existing cinema, save for the work of the Situationists themselves, including the filmed version of Society of the Spectacle (which made ample use of found footage), and films that used strategies of détournement such as the re-dubbed martial arts film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1973).
Louis Althusser, For Marx (London: Verso, 1979).
–––, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), pp. 85-132.
Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus”, in Philip Rosen, ed., Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 286-298.
Nick Browne (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma vol. III: 1969-1972 The Politics of Representation (London: BFI, 1990).
Cahiers du cinéma, “John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln”, in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 493-528.
Jean-Louis Comolli, “Technique and Ideology,” in Comolli, Cinema Against Spectacle, ed. Daniel Fairfax (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015).
Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” in Comolli, Cinema Against Spectacle, ed. Daniel Fairfax (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), pp. 251-259.
Daniel Dayan, “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema”, Film Quarterly vol. 28 no. 1 (1974), pp. 22-31.
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994).
Paul Grant, Cinéma Militant: Political Filmmaking and May ‘68 (New York: Wallflower Press, 2016).
Sylvia Harvey, May ’68 and Film Culture (London: BFI, 1980).
Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.)
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).
Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (London: Routledge, 1978).
Marcelin Pleynet and Jean Thibaudeau, “Economic – Ideological – Formal”, in Sylvia Harvey, May ’68 and Film Culture (London: BFI, 1980), pp. 149-164.
David Wilson (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma vol. IV: 1973-1978 History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle (London: BFI, 2000).
Z, dir. Costa-Gavras, 1969.
The Confession, dir. Costa-Gavras, 1970.
The Society of the Spectacle, dir. Guy Debord, 1973.
Le Révélateur, dir. Philippe Garrel, 1968.
Actua 1, dir. Philippe Garrel, 1968.
Regular Lovers, dir. Philippe Garrel, 2005.
La Chinoise, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1967.
Weekend, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1967.
British Sounds, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1969.
Wind from the East, dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1969.
Pravda, dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1969.
Luttes en Italie, dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1969.
Tout va bien, dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972.
Here and Elsewhere, dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, 1975.
Camarades, dir. Marin Karmitz, 1970.
Coup pour coup, dir. Marin Karmitz, 1972.
La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder, dir. Hervé Le Roux and Jaques Willemont, 1968.
L’Espoir, dir. André Malraux, 1938.
À bientot, j’espère, dir. Chris Marker et al., 1968.
Classe de lutte, dir. Chris Marker et al., 1969.
Battle of Algiers, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965.
The Nun, dir. Jacques Rivette, 1965.
L’Amour fou, dir. Jacques Rivette, 1968.
Othon, dir. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1969.
History Lessons, dir. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1972.
Oser lutter oser vaincre, dir. Jean-Pierre Thorn, 1968.
Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, dir. René Viénet, 1973.
Ciné-tracts, anon., 1968.
6. “Third” Cinema
Marxist cinema was by no means a Eurocentric phenomenon. In the 1960s, politically radical filmmaking extended around the world, spreading to Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Eastern bloc. At a time when the wave of anti-colonial independence movements in the Third World appeared to be on the cusp of metamorphosing into a more sweeping anti-imperialist revolution, filmmakers in these countries sought to develop national cinematic cultures free of Western dominance. The most lucid theoretical encapsulation of this stance, and the closest thing to a manifesto for radical Third World cinema, was the Argentine duo Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s “Towards a Third Cinema”, originally published in the anti-imperialist journal Tricontinental in 1969. Distinguishing themselves not only from the commercial cinema of Hollywood (“first” cinema), but also from the auteurist filmmaking of Europe (“second” cinema), Solanas and Getino advocated a politically interventionist cinema using guerrilla techniques and distributed via activist channels, a strategy in line with the political insurgencies they supported (the filmmakers themselves were Left Peronists). In tandem with this text, Solanas and Getino directed Hour of the Furnaces (1968), a four-hour militant documentary on political struggles in Latin America. Solanas went into exile after the 1976 coup, and upon his return to Argentina made the fiction film Sur (1988) on the experience of political prisoners during the military dictatorship.
Elsewhere in Latin America, Jorge Sanjines sought to apply the principles of Third Cinema to the Bolivian situation with films such as Blood of the Condor (1969) and The Principal Enemy (1974). Cuban filmmakers, by contrast, explored ways of contributing to the country’s socialist construction under Fidel Castro. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea offered an Antonioni-style depiction of the alienated bourgeoisie, and along with Julio García Espinosa advocated an “imperfect cinema” suited to Third World economic conditions, while Santiago Álvarez developed an experimental montage aesthetic in found footage works such as Now (1964) and 79 Springs (1969). Chile’s Patricio Guzman, meanwhile, had to absorb the brutal crushing of the Allende government in his monumental three-part documentary The Battle of Chile (1975-1979). The foremost Latin American filmmaker of the 1960s and 1970s, however, was undoubtedly Glauber Rocha, a key figure in Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement. Defining his work as an “aesthetics of hunger”, metaphorically aligned with the poverty of Third World societies, Rocha developed an oneiric, mystic style that infused anti-imperialist politics with elements of Brazilian folklore, a strategy abundantly visible in films such as Black God, White Devil (1964), Entranced Earth (1967) and Antonio das Mortes (1969).
In other parts of the world, national cinematic self-awakening went hand in hand with the cultural influence of the Soviet Union. In Senegal, the Moscow-educated Ousmane Sembène interrogated French colonialism and daily life in his home country in Black Girl (1966) and Ceddo (1977), while in India the Bengali communist director Ritwik Ghatak adapted the aesthetics of neo-realism to local conditions in The Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and A River Called Titas (1973). Japan was by no means a Third World country, and it had maintained a developed film industry since the silent era, but its filmmakers also grappled with the cultural dominance of the West, as well the country’s own fascist legacy. While the older generation of Japanese filmmakers were less overtly political, new wave figures such as Masahiro Shinoda (Double Suicide, 1969) and Yoshishige Yoshida (Eros + Massacre, 1969) joined stylistic audacity with a searing indictment of Japanese society, a combination that was developed to it furthest extent in the films of Nagisa Oshima (among them Night and Fog in Japan , Death by Hanging  and The Ceremony ). Perhaps the most fascinating political cinema in Japan, however, was the work of two cinéastes, Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi, who graduated from directing “pink” pornographic films with titles like Go Go Second Time Virgin (1969) to joining the Japanese Red Army (a left-wing terrorist group) and producing agitprop works such as PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971). Their involvement in politics had a lasting impact on the duo: Adachi was prevented from making films for more than thirty years due to living in exile in Lebanon, while Wakamatsu returned to the subject matter in the harrowing film United Red Army (2008).
As in many other parts of the world, the countries of Eastern Europe experienced a surge of new wave cinema in the 1960s, although the the region was distinguished by the fact that it was ruled by Soviet-aligned communist parties. The popular support for these regimes, which was always tenuous, rapidly eroded after the crushing of the Prague spring in 1968, and many of the filmmakers of the Eastern European new waves were dissident opponents of communism who soon emigrated to the West (Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, Jerzy Skolimowski). Others identified with the radical left, but suffered no less from censorship. After an initial release, Vera Chytilová’s eminently subversive film Daisies (1966) was banned after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and she was prohibited from making films until 1976. Dusan Makavejev found somewhat more lenient conditions in Yugoslavia, but his anarchic W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), which drew on the teachings of Wilhelm Reich, was also banned. Hungary’s Miklos Jancsó was perhaps the most theoretically lucid of this group of filmmakers. His early work in particular was dedicated to a multi-part exploration of Hungarian history presented in a visual style based on extended, circuitous long-takes and highly choreographed on-screen action, as can be seen in The Round-Up (1966), The Red and the White (1967) and The Confrontation (1969).
Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World”, Michael T. Martin, ed. New Latin American Cinema vol. I (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), pp. 33-58.
Julio Garcia Espinosa, “For an Imperfect Cinema”, in New Latin American Cinema vol. I, pp. 71-82.
Glauber Rocha, “An Esthetic of Hunger”, in New Latin American Cinema vol. I, pp. 59-61.
Jorge Sanjines, “Problems of Form and Content in Revolutionary Cinema”, New Latin American Cinema, pp. 62-70.
Nagisa Oshima, Cinema, Censorship and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima 1956-1978, ed. Annette Michelson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).
Now, dir. Santiago Alvarez, 1964
79 Springs, dir. Santiago Alvarez, 1969.
Daisies, dir. Vera Chytilová, 1966.
The Cloud-Capped Star, dir. Ritwik Ghattak, 1960.
A River Called Titas, dir. Ritwik Ghattak, 1973.
The Battle of Chile, dir. Patricio Guzman 1975-1979.
The Round-Up, dir. Miklos Jancsó, 1966.
The Red and the White, dir. Miklos Jancsó, 1967.
The Confrontation, dir. Miklos Jancsó, 1969.
W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, dir. Dusan Makavajev, 1971.
Night and Fog in Japan, dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1960.
Death by Hanging, dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1968.
The Ceremony, dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1971.
Black God, White Devil, dir. Glauber Rocha, 1964.
Entranced Earth, dir. Glauber Rocha, 1967.
Antonio das Mortes, dir. Glauber Rocha, 1969.
Blood of the Condor, dir. Jorge Sanjines, 1969.
The Principal Enemy, dir. Jorge Sanjines, 1974.
Black Girl, dir. Ousmane Sembene, 1966.
Ceddo, dir. Ousmane Sembene, 1977.
Double Suicide, dir. Masahiro Shinoda, 1969.
Sur, dir. Fernando Solanas, 1988.
Hour of the Furnaces, dir. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, 1968.
Go Go Second Time Virgin, dir. Koji Wakamatsu, 1969.
United Red Army, dir. Koji Wakamatsu, 2008.
PFLP: Declaration of World War, dir. Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi, 1971.
Eros + Massacre, dir. Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969.
8. “Screen Theory” in the UK and the USA
In France, the wave of revolutionary cinema incited by May ’68 had mostly dissipated by 1973, with Althusser later pointing to the funeral march for murdered Maoist activist Pierre Overney in March 1972 as the “burial of leftism”. Projects aimed at developing a Marxist theory of cinema also lost steam, with Cahiers returning to mainstream film criticism after their venture of forming a “Revolutionary Cultural Front” in 1973 had ended ignominiously, and Cinéthique appearing more and more sporadically until its demise in the 1980s. If this strand of film theory found a fertile afterlife, then this came in a very different cultural environment: the nascent field of academic film studies in the UK and the US. The ideas of Cahiers and Cinéthique were first transported to the English-speaking world by the film journal Screen, which published translations of key texts from its French counterparts, as well as original articles by its own editors, who were generally more interested in the relationship between film and audience than the journals they were inspired by, and concomitantly placed a major premium on the work of Brecht. Although he would later be critical of this period, Colin MacCabe was a vocal proponent of what would later be called “Screen theory”, while Christopher Williams and Ben Brewster (who was Althusser’s translator into English) also played an important role in the journal. Stephen Heath, who had published in Tel Quel and was noticeably more abreast than his colleagues of the latest developments in French critical theory (especially Lacanian psychoanalysis), provided Screen with some of its most theoretically developed texts, including “Narrative Space” (which included extensive discussions of Suspicion by Hitchock of Death by Hanging), “Anata Mo” and a lengthy formal analysis of Touch of Evil.
Peter Wollen, who was more loosely aligned with Screen, developed his notion of “counter-cinema” in relation to the films of Godard’s Marxist period (“Godard and Counter-Cinema: Vent d’est”) and later posited the existence of two-distinct avant-gardes existing in the 1970s, with the high modernism of Godard and Straub/Huillet counterposed to the avant-garde work of British and American experimental filmmakers such as Steve Dwoskin, Michael Snow or Stan Brakhage, who evinced more interest in the materiality of the film stock itself and insisted on a totalising rejection of narrative transitivity. Wollen also made films together with feminist theorist Laura Mulvey, and works such as Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) and Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) can now be seen as something of a dialectical mediation between the two poles of avant-garde cinema he had outlined. In a UK context, however, the most significant radical film movement during this period was the London Co-op group, which supported the work of “structuralist-materialist” filmmakers such as Peter Gidal, who was also known to vociferously defend his conception of the cinema in “The Anti-Narrative” and other declamatory texts. Beyond these films, the cinematic output of this wave of theoretical activity was perceptibly more threadbare than it was in France, and had even greater difficulties in reaching a wide audience. Socialist cinema in the UK was more predominantly represented by the “kitchen sink” realism of Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960) and Ken Loach (Kes, 1969). Perhaps the most notable exception, coming from an older generation of Marxist cultural activists, was John Berger’s groundbreaking programme Ways of Seeing (1972), which aimed at conveying a Marxist account of historical developments in bourgeois art to the mass public of the BBC public television network.
Mulvey’s work for Screen represented one of the most fruitful theoretical legacies of the journal: her canonical 1975 text “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, which posited the existence of a “male gaze” governing the formal system of classical Hollywood films, is now seen as the founding document of feminist film theory, which flourished in the years after its initial publication. While Mulvey attempted to marry gender theory, psychoanalysis and Marxist aesthetics, her successors (among them Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretiis and Constance Penley) tended to take feminist film theory in the direction of sectional identity politics, following the lead of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig, rather than linking it to broader theories of social oppression and economic exploitation.
By no means did Screen have a monopoly on Anglo-Saxon Marxist film theory. In North America, film criticism coming out of the far-left counter-culture of the late 1960s gave rise to radical film magazines such as Jump Cut, Wide Angle and Ciné-tracts, as well as the more dispersed writings of James Roy Macbean, Brian Henderson and others. Often, these writers lacked the theoretical nuance of Screen or Cahiers du cinéma, but compensated for this with a strident defense of marginalised films and a more directly militant approach to political engagement. By the same token, the institutionalisation of film studies as an independent discipline in American universities saw others who had come out of the same political and intellectual melting pot, such as Philip Rosen and Bill Nichols, opt for an approach to Marxist film theory that displayed far more scholarly rigour than its predecessors, although this often came at the expense of a loss of any grounding in day-to-day political struggles. The dominance of “Screen theory” and its offshoots in academic film studies inevitably gave rise to a backlash that noticeably came in the form of attacks on “Grand Theory” by neo-formalists such as David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, and by 1988, even those sympathetic to the heritage of what was now known as “political modernism”, such as D.N. Rodowick, had to admit that it had entered a period of crisis, and that the work of the 1970s was looked back on with a mixture of “pride and embarrassment”.
David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, eds., Post-Theory (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).
Steve Dwoskin, Film Is... The International Free Cinema (London: Owen, 1975).
Peter Gidal, Materialist Film (London: Routledge, 1988).
Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981).
Brian Henderson, “Towards a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style”, Film Quarterly vol. 24 no. 2 (1970), pp. 2-14.
James Roy Macbean, Film and Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975).
Colin MacCabe, “Realism and Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses”, Screen vol. 15 no. 2 (1974), pp. 7-27.
–––, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics (London: BFI, 1980).
Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen vol. 16 no. 3 (1975), pp. 6-18.
D.N. Rodowick, The Crisis of Political Modernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
Peter Wollen, Godard and Counter-cinema: Vent d’est”, in Philip Rosen, ed., Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 120-129.
–––, “The Two Avant-Gardes”, Studio International no. 978 (1975), pp. 171-175.
Ways of Seeing, dir. John Berger, 1972 (television).
Dog Star Man, dir. Stan Brakhage, 1961-1964.
Condition of Illusion, dir. Peter Gidal, 1975.
Kes, dir. Ken Loach, 1969.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, dir. Karel Reisz, 1960.
Wavelength, dir. Michael Snow, 1967.
Touch of Evil, dir. Orson Welles, 1958.
Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons, dir. Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, 1974.
Riddles of the Sphinx, dir. Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, 1977.
8. Postmodernist Film and Theory
The 1980s and 1990s were not kind to Marxist engagements with the cinema, whether in film theory or filmmaking. In tandem with a broader wave of global political reaction, which crushed working-class movements and instated a neoliberal economic model, large sections of the Western intellectual left abandoned Marxism in favour of postmodernist worldviews of various stripes, a tendency that was further exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc at the end of the 1980s. Many of the theorists who vaunted the coming of the postmodern era had a complex relationship with the legacy of historical materialism, denying its validity while also bearing significant traces of its theoretical influence. Jean-François Lyotard, who had declared the end of “grand narratives” in The Postmodern Condition, also developed an idiosyncratic variant of film aesthetics that he dubbed “Acinema”, while Gilles Deleuze used Bergsonian concepts of duration and motion to redefine our historical understanding of the cinema in his magisterial diptych Cinema 1 and Cinema 2, which recast the transition from classical to modernist film as a passage from the “movement-image” to the “time-image”, historically overdetermined by the catastrophe of World War II and the camps.
Paul Virilio (War and Cinema) and Jean Baudrillard (The Gulf War Did Not Take Place) adopted a quasi-Debordian theoretical stance on the social role of images, in which the traditional relationship between economic base and ideological superstructure was reversed: now it was the economy that served the needs of the spectacle, as the simulation of social relations had usurped their real existence. Film critic Serge Daney, who had been a member of Cahiers du cinéma in its Marxist period, adopted a similar outlook in the vast number of articles he wrote for the leftist newspaper Libération before his death in 1992. Not only had the cinema succumbed to “mannerism”, in which the only reference point for new films was other films, but the contemporary era was marked by the triumph of what Daney called “the visual” – the vast, amorphous media landscape of television, advertising and propaganda that had culturally supplanted the cinema, relegating it to a marginal position within advanced capitalist societies.
For an account of postmodern culture that remained conceptually closer to a traditional Marxist framework, we can turn to the indefatigable work of Fredric Jameson, almost alone in resisting the ebbing of Marxist film theory in the 1980s. Already in the 1970s he had sought to dialectise the rigid distinction between high and low culture in the Frankfurt school tradition of Marxist aesthetics, highlighting, in “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”, the inadvertently utopian potential of otherwise ideologically regressive works of mass culture such as Jaws (1975) and The Godfather (1972-1974). In the 1980s, Jameson adopted the theses of Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, for whom capitalism had entered a new phase in the second half of the twentieth century, marked by the supremacy of geographically deracinated finance capital, and argued against the more grandiose claims for postmodernism, contending instead that it represented the “cultural logic” of “late capitalism”. Films were integral to Jameson’s argument, and in The Geopolitical Aesthetic he developed analyses of works ranging from The Parallax View (Alan Pakula, 1976) to Terrorizer (Edward Yang, 1986) and Perfumed Nightmare (Kidlat Tahimik, 1977) in order to demonstrate their disparate methods for representing the social complexities of contemporary globalisation.
Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).
Serge Daney, Postcards from the Cinema (Oxford: Berg, 2007).
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
–––, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”, Social Text no. 1 (1979), pp. 130-148.
–––, Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).
–––, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).
Jean-Francois Lyotard, Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
Jean-François Lyotard, “Acinema”, in Philip Rosen, ed., Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology (New York: Columbia Univeristy Press, 1986), pp. 349-359.
Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989).
The Godfather I and II, dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972-1974
The Parallax View (Alan Pakula, 1976)
Jaws, Steven Spielberg, 1975
Perfumed Nightmare (Kidlat Tahimik, 1977)
Terrorizer (Edward Yang, 1986)
9. Contemporary Cinema: A Rebirth of Marxism?
Dominant in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Althusserian Marxist framework for theorising cinema had largely waned in the 1980s, partly due to Althusser’s own tragic fate (interned in a mental hospital after strangling his wife). But his philosophical heirs, including Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou, have made a fundamental contribution to re-establishing communism as a viable political category, particularly in the period following the global economic crisis of 2008, as well as developing a theoretical optic that revamped Marxist ideas for understanding contemporary cinema. Zizek’s philosophical works, with their blend of Lacanian and Hegelian influences, are sprinkled with references to blockbuster films, but he has also dedicated studies to Hitchcock (the anthology Everything You Wanted to Know About Hitchcock But Were Too Afraid To Ask Lacan) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Fright of Real Tears). In books such as Film Fables, The Future of the Image and The Intervals of Cinema, Rancière has constructed a post-Deleuzian film aesthetics, and discussed “gestures of resistance” in the films of Pedro Costa, Bela Tarr and others. This position was in line with Rancière’s broader concept of the “distribution of the sensible” (an attempt to move beyond the fixed dichotomy between politics and aesthetics), which was predicated on the existence of an “emancipated spectator” receptive to such works. Alain Badiou had already defended the “autonomy of the aesthetic process” in a 1965 article for Cahiers marxistes-léninistes, where he famously claimed that “art is not the reflection of reality, but the reality of reflection”. By the 1990s, his “Platonic materialism” emphasised the independence of four distinct “truth processes”: political, scientific, romantic and aesthetic. It has been with this perspective that Badiou has discussed the films of Godard, Manoel de Oliveira, P.T. Anderson and Clint Eastwood, but, in “Considerations on the Current State of Cinema” he also aired the dispiriting claim that the modernist era has been “saturated”, and that we have entered a “neoclassical” period in the history of the cinema.
A more militant vision of the contemporary era has been offered by Comolli, who in Cinema against Spectacle retained the radicalism of his Cahiers days. Although he claims that “the holy alliance of the spectacle and the commodity, foreseen and analysed by Guy Debord, has now been realised,” Comolli champions aesthetic resistance to this status quo, which he finds in Jia Zhang-ke, Abbas Kiarostami and Aranud Des Pallières, and has reworked Rancière’s concept in his calls for a critical spectator. It is just such a spectator Comolli hopes to find in his documentary work, a highlight of which is the ten-part series on French electoral politics, Marseille contre Marseille (1989-2014).
While Marxist film theory, in a broadly post-Althusserian guise, has been resuscitated, it is notable that this has largely been the work of a generation who was born in the 1930-1940s and had come of age in the 1968 era. The same generational disparity is also evident in cinematic practice. The old guard – the likes of Marker (The Last Bolshevik , The Case of the Grinning Cat ) Godard (Notre Musique , Film socialisme ) and Straub/Huillet (Workers, Peasants , Kommunisten ) – continued to make formally adventurous, politically radical cinema well into the 2000s. But younger ranks of consciously Marxist filmmakers have been harder to come by. We do not lack for films that adopt a critical standpoint towards global capitalism, but these mostly remain either at the level of content without form (the spate of political documentaries that followed Michael Moore’s popular success in the early 2000s) or form without content (visually experimental work, but which lacks the political analysis that marked the best of twentieth century Marxist cinema, such as the output of Albert Serra or Apichatpong Weerasethakul). The two halves of the medallion, however, do not add up to a whole.
The persistent claims, in the last twenty years, of a purported “death of cinema” were always misguided, but what has become outmoded, perhaps, is a certain model of political filmmaking dominant in the twentieth century, one based on a prestigious auteur using their accumulated cultural capital to make political interventions through their work. Neoliberal capitalism has effectively demolished the public sphere – the interlocking system of festivals, repertory cinemas, film journals and public television stations – upon which such interventions were predicated. But it has also created the technological preconditions for films to be produced and circulated cheaply and easily. It may well be in the arena of grassroots digital cinema, disseminated via online channels, that the Marxist cinema of the future will be made.
Alain Badiou, “The Autonomy of the Aesthetic Process”, Radical Philosophy no. 178 (2013 ), pp. 32-39.
–––, Handbook of Inaesthetics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).
–––, “Considerations on the Current State of Cinema”
Jean-Louis Comolli, Cinema against Spectacle, ed. Daniel Fairfax (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015).
–––, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (London: Continuum, 2004).
–––, Film Fables (Oxford: Berg, 2006).
–––, The Future of the Image (London: Verso, 2007)
–––, The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso, 2010).
–––, The Intervals of Cinema (London: Verso, 2014).
Slavoj Zizek, Everything You Wanted to Know About Hitchcock But Were Too Afraid To Ask Lacan (London: Verso, 1992).
–––, The Fright of Real Tears (London: BFI, 2001).
Marseille contre Marseille , dir. Jean-Louis Comolli, 1989-2014.
In Vanda’s Room, dir. Pedro Costa, 1999.
The Last Bolshevik, dir. Chris Marker, 1995.
The Case of the Grinning Cat, dir. Chris Marker, 2004.
Notre Musique, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 2004.
Film socialisme, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 2010.
The World, dir. Jia Zhang-ke, 2004.
Close-Up, dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1991.
Fahrenheit 9/11, dir. Michael Moore, 2004.
Birdsong, dir. Albert Serra, 2008.
Workers, Peasants, dir. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 2000.
Kommunisten, dir. Jean-Marie Straub, 2015.
The Turin Horse, dir. Bela Tarr, 2011.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, dir. Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, 2010.