An obvious oversight on my 2011 year-end list of best films is marxism today (prologue) directed by Phil Collins. I saw the film, along with its companion piece use! exchange! value! at the British Film Institute Gallery in March. Sadly, this installation was the final one at the gallery, which has been closed due to lack of funding. This seems a real shame not least because gallery film in recent years has been as vibrant a field, if not more, than feature film-making. And, frankly, gallery film demands a space alongside the other screens at the BFI so that people can see and understand the continuities and correlations between gallery work and more traditional narrative cinema as well as the differences and divergences.
marxism today is, to a certain degree, a conventional documentary, just over a half-hour in length, that features interviews with four East German women who lived through the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the disappearance of East Germany itself. The film complements these interviews with archival footage from East Germany in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, with a particular focus on pedagogy and ideology.
The footage from a 60s East German classroom, capturing a day’s lesson that posed the question whether West German workers suffer exploitation, is especially striking. It is both compelling and excruciating, strained and staged. The answer to the question about the West, of course, is yes, but more interesting is the way in which the clip must show the students reaching this conclusion independently, in good Marxist form. The purpose of the footage in the film, however, is definitely not to condescend or condemn, but rather to place it in relation to what the interviewees say, all of whom retain an affective connection to the socialist past that cannot be easily jettisoned and should not be the subject of either laughter or derision.
I hope to work this out in a longer piece at some point, which will have me reaching for Charity Scribner’s excellent Requiem for Communism in order to sort through the questions of östalgie and memory. For now, however, I’ll just point to the concluding sequence of the film since it condenses and exemplifies the connections the film invites between archival footage, texture and grain, music, and memory. The soundtrack to the film is by Laetitia Sadier (formerly of Stereolab) and Nick Powell. The repetitions are exuberant, but there is an undertow of melancholy that counteracts their uplifting rhythmic and melodic force. As such, it functions as a kind of musical analogue to the dialectical dynamic of the film itself, its effort to approach both Marxism and the Marxist past with fresh eyes and without the celebratory rhetoric that followed the fall of the Wall and has clouded things ever since.