Faith of the Century: A History of Communism (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Louis Menashe

Faith of the Century: A History of Communism 
Directed by Patrick Rotman and Patrick Barberis; produced by Michel Rotman for La Sept ARTE, KUIV Productions, and ARKEION Films, with the participation of CNC; written by Patrice Chereau; music by Marc Perrone. DVD, two discs, B&W and color, 218 mins., 1999. Distributed by Facets Video.

I remember a poster after the collapse of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that had a caricature of a puzzled Marx with a caption that read in German something like, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” A good idea with unintended consequences – that is the general theme that runs on and off through this big, ambitious assembly of historical images on film spanning the period 1917-1993. No objectivity is intended; the film is clearly an anti-communist document, but here and there a nod is made to the benign side of communism, or to movements associated with it.

The story is familiar enough. Instead of inaugurating liberty, equality for all, the dignity of labor, the rule of the working class, the end of bourgeois exploitation, from each according to his/her work, to each according to… etc., the promise of the Great October Socialist Revolution morphed into Stalinism, the Gulag, Show Trials, the privilegednomenklatura, memory holes, unpersoning, and the KGB. (Old Soviet joke: What is capitalism? The exploitation of man by man. What is communism? The opposite.) What sustained those movements and regimes across five continents and seven decades was, as the film’s title suggests, a kind of religious faith that fixed on the hoped for good ends and ignored the evils in practice. The myths were, for a time, more powerful than the reality. Beliefs were not, in the dictionary meaning of faith, based on proof. (Another relevant citation from the annals of Soviet political humor: Yes, eggs have to be broken to make an omelet, but where’s the omelet?)

The whole, vast subject can’t be properly covered in a single documentary, not even in 3 hours plus, but this assembly manages to cram quite a bit of history and historical personages into its two discs, divided into four parts: “Utopia in Power” (1917-1928); “Communism: The Two Faces” (1929-1939); “The Peak Years” (1940-1953); “End Without End” (1954-1993).

Some topics and national developments are only skimmed, others get extended treatment, the French scene, for example. This is a French production, after all, and there is more of CP boss Maurice Thorez than I wanted to see or hear. Talking heads and commentary from specialists are mercifully absent; the often sophisticated narration provides the continuity, but the narrator’s accent-free English is beset by odd pronunciation problems. (Those who can handle it might prefer listening to the discs’ French track.) The filmmakers have not done a particularly artful job of putting all the material together; the cascade of images is choppy and often hard to follow. Yet, the great virtue of the production is in having retrieved little known material from old documentaries, newsreels, and even fiction films to supplement the conventional imagery. Such material is offered in generous doses. The Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath features the usual suspects, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, et al., and includes the usual frames from Eisenstein’s (fictional) storming of the Winter Palace from October (Ten Days that Shook the World). But there are also shots of both Lenin and Trotsky I have never seen; of the Comintern figures Karl Radek and Grigory Zinoviev (both later executed by Stalin); of the radicals John Reed, George Bernard Shaw, and Edouard Herriot, all three offering positive glosses on the U.S.S.R. for Western consumption. In later episodes we catch sight of Picasso, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret in similar roles. The evolution of the Italian Communist Party from compliance with hegemonic Moscow to the “polycentrism” announced by Palmiro Togliatti (who makes several appearances in the film), and later to outright dissent, is highlighted by an amusing take of the ever exuberantly physical Roberto Benigni introducing the “Eurocommunist” Enrico Berlinguer at a Party rally.

The French and Spanish cases are vivid examples of the good/bad faces of communism the filmmakers aim to portray. They capture well the emotional meaning of French communism for ordinary citizens, who benefited from the Party’s veritable “counter culture,” with its festivals, kids’ summer camps, a sense of refuge, community and shared identity (if sometimes an overcharged French national identity against what leaders called corrupting Americanization), and also a possible model of the future society. Never mind that the French Party regularly identified that model with the totalitarian U.S.S.R., and lock-stepped in line with Moscow’s directives. When the filmmakers turn to Spain and the Civil War, the actions and ostensible idealism of the Comintern-organized International Brigades are described as having written “one of the noblest pages of history.” Still, the narrator also points out the main purpose of Soviet intervention in the Civil War on the side of the Republic had less to do with idealism than with advancing Soviet interests through payments in Spanish gold for weaponry, quashing any attempts for social transformation from below, and purging the Spanish Left of any Trotskyist and Anarchist contamination.

One of the pleasures of the film comes from its augmenting the political stuff with the music and songs of all nations that went with the movements, from the stately working-class hymn, the Internationale, to the sprightly Avanti Popolo! of the Italian Communists. Another treat, some of it surprising: There are short clips from films by Dziga Vertov, Jean Renoir, Luchino Visconti, and Chris Marker, all save the last, in service to the faith of the century.

To buy Faith of the Century click here.

Louis Menashe teaches Russian history and film at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3