Review by David Heslin
Outside the factory’s gate, the street is a dust bowl. People shuffle past with bicycles, right to left, seemingly travelling nowhere in particular.
A voiceover informs us that it is 1919, and the Egyptian revolution against British occupation is underway. The narration stops, but the shot continues – bike after bike going by – and it soon dawns on us that this isn’t 1919 at all, and this isn’t a revolution. The information we see and that which we hear do not match up.
This is a scene in Kommunisten, the first solo film by Jean-Marie Straub since his long-time partner Danièle Huillet passed away in 2006. For over forty years, the couple formed one of the most revered creative partnerships in European cinema, co-directing intellectual, deeply political films that questioned cinematic norms.
Kommunisten is not, in one sense, a new film. Apart from a newly shot opening, it is a collection of sequences from the duo’s earlier work, all linked together by their celebration of the working class, the land and resistance to power.
Before the bicycle scene, culled from Too Early, Too Late (1982), there’s a lengthy sequence – from Workers, Peasants (2001) – about gender relations in a village recently connected to the power grid. Again, however, all is not what it seems: this is merely a story relayed to us by three actors in a forest, each of them standing as if glued to the spot, clutching their scripts. The action is recited, not shown, yet the bird-calls and insect sounds drag us away from the artifice and back to the reality of what we are seeing: the story of three actors who were asked to stand in a line and read.
The difference between what we see and what we understand can apply to the film as a whole, too. This reading of the film depends on knowing that most of these scenes have been lifted from other films, and that the woman sitting silently in the final scene is Huillet – a touching tribute from Straub to his life-long artistic and romantic collaborator.
None of this is signposted. That makes Kommunisten a curious work, capable of being read on two substantially different levels: as a recalibration, or as a singular work. In many senses, that makes it a continuation of the themes present in all of Straub and Huillet’s work – of layers of text, and of the subjectivity of meaning.