Milos Stehlik, Facets Founder and Artistic Director, talks about our new era of propaganda and class issues in film.
“Disinformation,” “fake news,” and “alternative facts” have gained astonishing currency in today’s age, but there is perhaps no better starting point for understanding how propaganda (and images) can be used to effectively manipulate a population and steer it toward fascism than Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece (and it is a masterpiece), Triumph of the Will.
Please join us this Sunday, April 2, for a Facets Teach-In with Judy Hoffman, filmmaker and professor of practice at the University of Chicago, as we look at Triumph of the Will, and how prescient it remains some 70 years after it was made. According to the Los Angeles Times, presidential advisor Stephen Bannon was quoted saying he wanted to be “the Leni Riefenstahl of the GOP.”
Class and the American delusion
One of the strange things about America is the common perception that the U.S. is a classless society. As we all know, where one is born, how one grows up, the schools she attends and the opportunities that come her way all have a huge part in determining the direction of one’s life.
But America is also an aspirational society, and so in films it is rare to find characters that constitute the so-called “working class” – often re-named as “middle class” whereas, in fact, this “middle class” has little to do with the bourgeoisie of European society.
A film like Erin Brockovich, a feel-good movie because the unemployed single mom triumphs at the end, is rare, just like the depiction of the crack-addicted mother of Chiron in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight.
Too often, the working class character is not shown actually working, instead the film focuses on the character’s personal life. Sally Field, shown working on the assembly line in the North Carolina mill in Norma Rae or Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto as auto workers in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar are also rare. An exception is the great feature Killer of Sheep, set in the Chicago stockyards, and directed by the unsung genius of American cinema, Charles Burnett.
Many films about the working class are made by Europeans
It fell to Sweden’s Bo Widerberg, best known for his now-forgotten, but-in-its-time arthouse sensation, Elvira Madigan (which, despite being a romantic love story, has its class perspective as well), to make a film about the labor organizer Joe Hill. Widerberg also directed a brilliant film about working class life in rural Sweden in the 1930s and the dockyard strike and massacre that brought the Socialists into power in Sweden, Adalen 31.
Salt of the Earth, directed by the shortly-to-be-blacklisted Herbert Biberman, is the recreation of the Chicano zinc miners’ strike, and Martin Ritt, a socially-minded Hollywood filmmaker, directed The Molly Maguires, set in the coal mining community of Pennsylvania in the 1870s.
But take a look at the great film by Mario Monicelli, The Organizer, which was one of Studs Terkel’s favorite films and which he presented at Facets, in which Marcello Mastroianni is the labor organizer in the first unionizing efforts in Italy.
One of the greatest film titles of all time
Has to be Elio Petri’s wonderful film, The Working Class Goes To Heaven, with the great actor Gian Maria Volonte (the star of so many spaghetti westerns) as the dedicated factory worker who becomes an organizer when he is fired after a work accident.
Perhaps no filmmaker is more devoted to the working class than Ken Loach
Here is a British filmmaker who didn’t make one “upstairs-downstairs” costume drama. From his early, brilliant feature Kes, to his yet-to-be-released 2016 Cannes award-winner I, Daniel Blake, the characters in Ken Loach’s films are mostly ordinary people, struggling to make ends meet, and often encountering an unfeeling and unresponsive bureaucracy or management.
Just search “Ken Loach” at facetsmovies.com for a list of all of his films – he hasn’t made a single bad one. I personally like his films from the early 90s like Riff Raff, Ladybird, Ladybird, or My Name Is Joe – films that are eloquent in their simplicity, sense of humor, and acute depiction of ordinary workers.
The Ken Loach masterpiece, along with Kes, has to be his 1995 Land and Freedom, about an unemployed worker and member of the Communist party of Great Britain, who goes to fight for the republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
The American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War were in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. There were four or five of them still living in Chicago back in the 1980s, led by movie theatre owner John Rossen (who owned the Three Penny Theatre when it was an arthouse). We did a number of screenings with them (for example, of Andre Malraux’s only film, L’Espoir).
It was easy to see that the Spanish Civil War had been the defining moment of their lives and there was always the thought – if the Spanish Civil War had turned out differently – if France, Great Britain, the U.S. had not insisted on neutrality, perhaps it could have affected the march of history toward World War II.
Author: Facets Founder and Artistic Director and Worldview film critic, Milos Stehlik takes us on a tour of film history each week with our Member newsletter. Get advanced access by becoming a Facets Member today.