Montag, 23.04.2007

Why I Don’t Make Political Films

by Ulrich Köhler
[in German]

Ken Loach’s Family Life (1971) is not only about a schizophrenic young woman, the film itself is schizophrenic: torn between the naturalistic genius of the director and the dictates of the politically motivated screenplay. Some scenes of unsurpassed psychological depth and complexity emerge out of the freedom Loach gives to his actors, especially in the counselling interviews between the therapist and the family. But, unfortunately, the screenplay destroys all inner-scenic beauty by political exploitaiton. It doesn’t leave room for openness, ambivalence, and complexity; in the end, good and evil have to be clearly delineated. As a whole, the film is not interested in the individual fate of its protagonist. She is a typical case, a placeholder in a dramaturgical construction. By the end of the film, the competent speech therapist loses his job, while the subtle successes of a progressive therapy looking into the social causes of the medical condition are ruined by conventional therapists’ electroshock treatments. After her escape attempt, the girl is recaptured and committed to an institution. The last shot shows us a broken and will-less person who will no longer be a problem for her parents, but who has irretrievably lost her dignity.

The problem of the film is not the credibility of the story—something like that could very well have happened—but the moldy feeling of being sent on this emotional journey to buy a message: Psychoses are the products of repressive family structures and a technocratic psychiatry. The film tries to hide its didactic intentions underneath its naturalistic surface. As a spectator, I feel cheated. If the film would have been openly didactic, like a drama by Brecht, or chose to reveal its causal dramatic chain, like Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), I would have felt differently. L’Argent is not Bresson’s best film. His illustration of the social mechanisms through which capitalism drives mankind first into poverty, and then gradually from petty crime to murder, is too simplistic. But the film doesn’t hide its monocausal line of argument behind a quasi-documentary façade, and never deceives me about its intentions. The form itself is political: it reveals much about the attitude of the filmmaker to characters and audience.

With Loach, I am much more concerned with the issue of “probability” or the degree of reality present in the image than with the question of how mental illness relates to social conditions and what we can do to change it. Thus, the film is not only an artistic but also a political failure. It is sad to see how a terrific dramatic director like Loach constantly sacrifices the complexity of the world on behalf of a political program. He is caught in a trap by his own moral claims. The final image of Family Life is supposed to denounce the state of the system, but it actually turns the denunciation inwards: The main character is not the victim of psychiatry, but of the film itself.

In my view, the film is damaged by a mixture of political and artistic motives. It is damaged both politically and artistically. It’s perhaps true that everything is political, but the distinction between artistic and political practice is useful. Politics form social life. Political action is meant to change society or to prevent society from change. Art does not have a defined social function. Each artist must answer the question for himself.

Political action is functional. I distribute flyers in order to convince people of the benefits of waste separation or I throw bombs in order to overturn a power structure. The instruments of political action have no value in themselves; they have their value in relation to their goal. I can convince people to throw a yogurt cup in a green plastic garbage can for recycling with either arguments or punches. Both are political instruments.

The crucial difference between political and artistic practice lies in this functionality. Art works are not a means to an end. Art is not suitable to salve one’s political conscience.

A counterexample to Family Life comes from an American documentary about a forensic institution, Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967). Looking closely at his subject, Wiseman waives off-screen commentaries and a dramaturgy that is suspended on the fate of a character. His portrait of an institution doesn’t need an identifying narrative with good guys and bad guys. Psychiatrists and caretakers in his film often behave more brutally and inhumanely than the staff of the institution in Loach’s film, and yet each of these protagonists remains a complex human. The director didn’t start working with a predetermined narrative goal, even if he probably knew what to expect from the institution. He studied his subject. Watching the film, I have the feeling of getting to know the place together with the director; I don’t feel like I’m getting a predigested lesson. Wiseman trusts my ability to judge. Of course, this film is a subjective work in which the author chooses what he shows and what he doesn’t. But he has been guided by what he found, and not by what he first wanted to prove. This is the artistic logic and the political ethic of Wiseman’s film.

It could be suggested that, in Wiseman’s work, the distinction between political and artistic practice no longer makes sense. Indisputably Wiseman’s rigour and intransigence in documenting social conditions makes this film a work of art. But the motive for making the film seems to me clearly political. This film allows society insights into the institutions it created and thus gives the opportunity for self-reflection and, potentially, change. If there is a political cinema, then for me it has to be like this. Wiseman’s film had an effect. The court-imposed note in the credits proves that this film must have created some kind of awareness and public pressure on the forensic institution it portrayed.

In comparing both films, I am asking myself whether certain issues are compatible with the dramaturgical logic of a fiction film. The abundance of wretched films about German history in recent years reinforces these doubts. (1) The governmental funding agency likes movies that “wrap up” political education in narratives—citizens should not strain themselves too hard. And on the wrapping you find, for example, a touching love story between a Turkish girl and a skinhead. Filmmaking as wrapping paper: This is the aesthetic program of social democratized cultural policy.

Producers know that they get money thrown at them as soon as they make projects against racism, Nazism, oppression of minorities, or poverty in distant lands: political education and culture stewing in the same pot. You just have to look at the list of funded German films or count the number of swastikas in contemporary cinema or TV. This “two for one” policy asks too much of the arts and underestimates the intelligence of its citizens. It restricts the artist and deprives the viewer. It produces a massive pile of films loaded with clichés, that are politically as ineffective as they are artistically worthless. And even worse, apart from the fact that some of these films are revanchist, they support societal standstill by giving citizens the feeling of doing something good by consuming “political” films or plays. As Marlen Haushofer writes about De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves: “The tear in Mrs. Mueller’s eye brings no poor devil his bicycle back and only [endows] Mrs. Mueller with the illusion [of being] a good person. This illusion has to be rejected.”

The social resources that are sunk into so-called political films can be used more efficiently. Most of the time, the trailers are more political than the actual films. Why then do we still make these kinds of movies? A targeted paint bomb or a Bild headline certainly brings much more into line. A film generally isn’t measured by its political impact, but a so-called “political film” should be. The ostensible thematic concern soothes one’s conscience, perhaps, but it’s far from political action. What is political about a film that cannot change the world and doesn’t want to? What is the political in “political” art?

Besides these doubts as to its effectiveness, in many cases one might doubt the integrity of its concern as well. “Political” works have often been relegated to a niche existence, and reach so few people that they must remain ineffective. Only the art institutions keep them alive. The political goals of the artist quickly come into conflict with the mechanisms of the market. Works that reach wider audiences carry another dilemma: They market themselves as political and subversive, but their success and reception rather demonstrate the opposite, serving as a pretty good indication of their affirmative character. If there is such a high degree of acceptance, one has to be skeptical about its subversive potential. Art that only wants to be art is often far more subversive.

Which collections are decorated with the works of political artists such as Hans Haacke? How provocative is a self-proclaimed “provocation artist” [Christoph Schlingensief] if he is allowed to stage Wagner in Bayreuth? How sharp can the critique of capitalism by a “political feel-good movie” (to quote from the screen advertising of Hans Weingartner’s The Educators) be if it wins the Bavarian State Prize and the good will of the entire political spectrum?

The logic of the political is different from the logic of the artistic. Politics require compromise, whereas art must be uncompromising and fundamentally amoral. Whoever cannot see this typically creates something that is neither politically nor artistically interesting. Art is not a means to an end. It is not result-oriented. This is an important difference.

The art that has played an important role in my life is characterized by its openness, its ambiguity, its amorality, and its refusal to be exploited and functionalized. If art is political, it is political exactly in this: It refuses to be exploited by the daily round of political and social concerns. Its strength lies in its autonomy. Even though this may be an illusion—each artwork is also a market product—it is a necessary utopia for the artist.

I don’t want to draw ideological dividing lines: high vs. low culture, commerce vs. art, political enlightenment vs. cinema, reportage vs. literature. There are many examples in pop, design, architecture, film, and so on that are not geared to the ideal of an autonomous artwork, but are still important cultural assets. Political awareness is important, but the distinction between different forms of cultural practice is as well. An artistic filmmaker is not a social pedagogue, nor a historian (and neither is a commercial director). The political activist must ask himself whether movies, novels, and plays are really the appropriate tools for his work. If he chooses these tools, then the politics of form will be crucial.

So, yes, everything can be art: political enlightenment can be art, the functional can be art, pop can be art and can be political, and art can be political—but art that intends to be political is often neither one nor the other. Whoever follows a particular political practice should remain faithful to the goals of his action. If he is consistent and inventive in that, if he creates something new, perhaps then it makes sense to talk about art again. But one who sets out to design a chair must first create the seat, and one who wants to change society must first act politically. (2)

Another example from the history of film: With Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann wanted to preserve a chapter of history from oblivion. His motive was political, working with journalistic and historical research. The consequence of this work, his confidence in the strength of evidence, and his renunciation of pedagogy, made this political documentary about the greatest crime in human history a work of art that will shape the image of the human being forever. In Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg, however, had too many conflicting intentions: artistic, didactic, and commercial. The result is historical pornography that provokes the opposite of what he wants to achieve. Instead of awaking it puts to sleep, instead of combating racism it solidifies prejudices (the casting!). Spielberg trivialized history and created probably one of the most repugnant scenes in film history: a scene in a gas chamber that is both porn and a document of historical anxiety at the same time.

Artists are part of the society in which they live. Art is not politically innocent. Artists who ignore this are either naïve or reactionary. But it is one thing to expect political awareness of artists and something else to insist that they should make “political” art. Whoever euphemizes his artistic work as something political faces insoluble contradictions and deceives both himself and others.

Contemporary cinema exploits German history and is, in doing this, at best apolitical, but most often reactionary. Export champions thanks to Hitler and the Stasi! And the East German masses are rehabilitated by the Oscar. The little man is cleared of all guilt. Now, united Germany can bawl: It wasn’t us, Hitler and Mielke did it.

A cinema that doesn’t want to participate in the exploitation of history is not politically ignorant. I wonder why a film criticism that asks for a more political cinema doesn’t just produce political texts. If critics would look more carefully they would perhaps understand that even movies that don’t conceive of themselves as a tool of political education can be political. Are the supposedly funny petty bourgeois of Andreas Dresen more political than Angela Schanelec’s insecure and lost middle-class intellectuals? Or does the middle-class intellectual prefer to deal with “the others” instead of asking himself what he is doing in this world? Before film criticism gives awards for political awareness, they should check their aesthetic criteria. It’s difficult enough to examine the internal coherence of films, but I suspect that this leads to a better understanding of the politics of a film than superficially scanning it for “political” content.

Maybe behind the criticism of us “apolitical” filmmakers is the accusation that we don’t develop ourselves artistically because we don’t question ourselves enough. I would have more understanding for that. It is a critique that requires an actual confrontation with each film. This is certainly more interesting than delivering the standard speeches on certain “schools” that don’t even exist.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is subversive, Guernica is a bad painting.

Starship Troopers (1998) is an antiwar movie, Saving Private Ryan (1995) reactionary filth.

Madonna is a feminist while Alice Schwarzer is the Mother of the Nation.

A soccer stadium full of skinheads singing “Go West” is gayer than Rosa von Praunheim.

A green plastic garbage can can be art.


(1) Wasn’t the real Hitler bad enough already? Why do we need his fictive doubles? His regime cost millions of victims and still scriptwriters think about new ones. Each author is a dramaturgical torturer, correct. But given the real magnitude of this horror, it seems strange to me to sit at my desk and to think about new agony for fictive or (worse) semi-historical figures. To argue along with Godard, can we allow that Spielberg builds Auschwitz anew? A documentary approach is far more convincing. Exceptions, like always: Sokurov, Pasolini, Lubitsch…

(2) To ask a very personal filmmaker like Angela Schanelec why she doesn’t make a film about the fall of the Berlin Wall is as ignorant as to ask Frieda Grafe why she doesn’t write court reports instead of film criticism.

Translation by Bettina Steinbruegge (the translation was first published in Cinema Scope 38)

Ein Kommentar zu “Why I Don’t Make Political Films”

  1. Ulrich Köhler, Neden Politik Filmler Yapmıyorum (Çeviri) | yigitalp ertem schreibt:

    […] Köhler’in 2007’de yazdığı Neden Politik Filmler Yapmıyorum yazısını çevirdim. İngilizce çevirisinden çevirdiğim […]

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